the moral dimensions of making things
John Olson is an emeritus professor of education in the Faculty of Education, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6, Canada. He is currently interested in the role of technology education in the curriculum and is one of the contributors to a recent OECD publication, Changing the Subject: Innovation in Science, Mathematics and Technology. He was the chair of the International Study Association on Teacher Thinking.
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The joy and the curse of technology education is that it is both a new and an old subject. This makes considering its role in the curriculum a difficult task, and here I will be venturing into this difficult terrain. Given the tension between the general and vocational roles technology education is expected to play, I want to raise the question of the relationship of technology in schools to science and vocational education. It seems to me that dialogues among these subjects will be very important in determining what happens in the future. These subjects will, in turn, be subject to critical scrutiny from outside the school systems. Critics of schooling ask how subjects can help make a better world. These subjects will not escape the critical gaze of those interested in the evolution of school and society for social justice.
More specifically, the future of technology education will be shaped by how schools cope with new subjects and new ways of teaching. Often, for example, technology is defined as a focus for developing problem-solving skills as in, say, an emphasis on design or technological capability. How do schools interpret these kinds of educational goals? What is the spread between vision and school reality? Who in schools knows how to achieve these goals? The future of technology education will depend on policies that are sharpened by the hard edge of
school reality, and thus there is a vast challenge given to curriculum research by many emerging visions of technology in schools. Let me begin with the question of the role of technology education in the curriculum.
One of the consequences of the artificial division of education into general and vocational education is that there exists a hierarchy of prestige. 'General' is more valuable than vocational, because general is suffused with symbols, and is thinking rather than making. Abstract, propositional knowledge is valued over knowing-how. Physics is 'Queen of the Sciences' and so on down to 'Shop'. This much-regretted, invidious hierarchy in schooling is universal and the prestige in society of science in particular and abstract thinking in general helps maintain this hierarchy. Vocational educators aspire quite naturally to enhance the prestige of the subject through stressing the cognitive elements in making -- a distinction as old as Aristotle. The emphasis comes at a time when educational systems are influenced by pressures to account for practice. The problem is how to define outcomes in terms acceptable to influential stakeholders?
My view is that 'learning outcomes' defined as 'psychological capabilities' is a response to these pressures. Thus the definition of the subject becomes assessment-driven. These outcomes are influenced by cognitive theories such as information processing. Capabilities, which are said to be enhanced by symbol-rich subjects like science and mathematics, are seen to have correlates in mental activities. Science is said to strengthen those general mental capabilities. And, so it is said, do certain aspects of vocational education -- especially design and planning. Gathering evidence of development of these mental capabilities becomes the point of assessment and ultimately of the curriculum itself (Waerjen 1991).
The danger is recognized: 'There has to be an interactive relationship between our understanding of whole capability and our understanding of its constituents' (Kimbell 1994: 80). The problem with this view of capability is that it begs us to ask 'Well, what is whole capability?' As I see it, what is currently taken to be capability is overly influenced by how scientific capability is defined, and each in turn is overly influenced by theories of mental functioning. These theories are part of the search for 'curriculum correctness': searching for scientific accountability through tying learning to such mentalistic outcomes. Technology education strives for curricular status through convergence with science.
I set these trends coming to ahead in the overemphasis on the design component in technology. As deVries (1994:41) points out:
it must be said that many design problems tackled by pupils seem to be in a vacuum and lack a relationship with the broader aspects of technology in society. There are exceptions to this, but the overall pattern certainly warrants this critical remark.
Doing design activities for the sake of these activities -- in a vacuum, as deVries puts it -- so that certain generic 'capabilities' can be measured seems a pale reflection of the full potential implicit in earlier conceptions of technology in the curriculum. The emphasis on design, because of its high cognitive content, may provide a science-like subject, but my view is that neither subject, technology, nor science, is well served by over-emphasizing those aspects at the expense of many others which have greater curricular richness. What is this greater richness? To answer this we have to return to an earlier conception of making things.
'Sloyd', for example, in the Scandinavian tradition, unifies learning about: form and matter in the same making process. The point is that things are made for a purpose, and, when well made, are beautiful. The question of fitness for purpose, and the fitness of the purpose, arises as part of making. Making things -- Sloyd -- did not stand outside of general education; it was part of the goal of education for work -- but also for life -- a unified idea. As Kananoja (1994: 47), speaking from a Scandinavian perspective, points out:
Cygnaeus clarified the concept 'education' or 'upbringing' in his many writings. He did not want to limit general education to the mere acquisition of knowledge and skills for the work force and to make the pupils unthinking imitators of technologies and artifacts. Rather, he wanted to educate them for carefulness, accuracy, creativity and dexterity.
Sloyd originally was part of a general education which included work as an educational concern. Work education, being then within general education, is the germ from which a more comprehensive view of education grew; at least in the conception of Uno Cygnaeus and those he influenced. Work education was not to one side, but central to general education. If we retain the original spirit of Sloyd, or making things, then we have an idea that does not separate work from life through separate vocational training, but continues to ground education in the idea of work and life as being integrated.
Readiness for work and for coping with other aspects of living in a technological society can be served by a common education which does not separate working from other activities which go on after school; that is to say, life after school isn't just work and other things, but a unified life which is made better because of education. As Kerre (1994:104) points out:
In traditional African education no discernible dichotomy between general (liberal) and vocational (practical) education existed . . . Vocational education and training were considered critical in preparation for adult life. From cradle to grave, the knowledge, skills and attitudes of a community were handed down through customs, songs, poems, taboos, riddles, proverbs and apprenticeships in various occupational areas including ironmongery, blacksmithing, construction, making utensils, food preservation and medical practices.
A good example of how this approach to making things works can be seen in an account of salt extraction in Sierra Leone (Appleton and Ilkkaraean, 1994:150). Women have developed a very sophisticated means for extracting salt from silt at the base of the tree Avicennia africana:
The salt-laden silts are collected, mixed with sea water and left to filter through the mud-lined baskets, the shape of which has evolved in order to achieve more efficient filtration. The filtrate is boiled in evaporating dishes until the salt crystallizes. The salt is then dried either in the sun or by heat from the fire.
The women to do this very carefully:
The skill level of the operators is the most crucial element in determining the final quality of the salt, as the operation involves careful control of the boiling in order to obtain the crystallization of pure salt (sodium chloride) and prevent the crystallization of bitter magnesium salts and the burning of the final product ... The fire has also been adapted. The women have developed a protected wall fire which uses less firewood and can accommodate any size or shape of evaporating dish.
Now, likely, these women cannot give a propositional account of the science involved in distillation, but they know how to use distillation to achieve the desired effect; along with their knowledge of the apparatus they use. Not only that, but a social structure exists which enables them to monitor and refine this process: they have the time to do this and share knowledge. Are we to view this as anything other than an advanced technological system? What would be gained by isolating the cognitive elements and stressing those? Where these women live and work, being able to extract salt is what they need to know how to do.
This example helps us appreciate that the general education of these women easily involves the capacity to use natural means to garner salt. Who would want to set that capacity aside and assign it to vocational education? This technology is partially constitutive of their culture and their general education prepares them for this life. Having appreciated this we can see that the task of technology education takes us deeply into our culture and its technological constituents: there is more than technique in this process.
Making, as we see in the salt example, is not a design process -- it is socially embedded in a way of life. It would be absurd to give students an applied distillation problem to design, and think that that captured the essence of the process as it occurs; that somehow students were learning technological capability. Such a 'design brief' for salt arises in an isolated context, as do 'egg drops' in science' Olympics'. The need for salt in Africa isn't an isolated problem. It is part of a way of life. Education is for that way of life.
One effect of the recognition of the centrality of technology to culture is that in education we would reflect on its role in everyday life; now and before. Rather than be guided by stereotypical images of male-dominated and science-based technologies as the form of technological capability we seek, we would see that technology everywhere now, and before, has had a broader base in culture. One way of seeing through the current stereotype (which has overtones of power and control) is to look, as we have, at how women have sustained culture through their contribution to technology (Franklin 1991).
As many authors point out, technologies as systems are ancient, have their own cultural form and logic, and are only recently influenced (but not defined by) the appropriation of science knowledge for the purpose of making. The technologies now evident in our modern culture are more constitutive of it than were earlier ones, but not fundamentally so. Failure to see technology historically and culturally leads us to the false distinction between craft and technology, and blinds us to the pervasive influence of technologies as such in human society from earliest times. The advent of science gives certain additional and potentially destructive power to technology; it does not materially alter its nature.
Technology needs nothing more from science in schools than what it gets outside of schools: knowledge which may or may not be useful in the complex world of culture. Clearly many technologies depend on science for initiating and improving machines and systems, but the part of technology to which science contributes is far from the whole. Again it simply reduces the potential of technology as a central part of education to emphasize only those aspects which align with science, or with information-processing protocols Yet the concept of technological capability is being taken over by a reductive view of making which takes making out of its cultural and moral context.
As Kimbell (1994: 72)says:
Capability is, in principle, the same at any age. It involves understanding the task and responding to it by making proposals; it involves understanding materials, tools and processes; it involves making products and evaluating them critically against the needs of the user.
This common view of capability is influenced by the design process: an aspect of the whole most easily assessed; a view which speaks only to a limited educational goal. However, if we take the idea of capability as a goal of general education then a much broader conception is needed which takes into account the cultural centrality of technology and what students need to know about that.
The urgent challenge for technology education is to broaden the subject to comprise the dimensions we have discussed above. The moral dimension is particularly problematic and important. Barnett (1994: 57) draws our attention, for example, to the limits in the concept of 'fitness for purpose' as a governing idea in technology education:
The values embodied in the notion of 'fitness for purpose' are purely technical values. The fitness of the purpose is not an issue. This stance reflects the traditional pragmatic self-image of the professional engineer; engineers solve problems that have been defined as problems by other people. Engineers, absorbed in meeting 'technical challenges', espouse technical values and leave broader value judgements to others.
But how can technology teachers be expected to take on critical analysis tasks that few other teachers seem able to deal with? This is a major challenge for change. Policy debate in technology education abounds, but research on how teachers cope is not so common. Even when research is officially encouraged (Waetjen 1991), emphasis is on efficiency: how teachers should behave in order to bring about certain outcomes -- effectiveness research, in other words. Indeed this research agenda parallels that of the design brief: make something that works. But this sets aside the question: What ought to be done? What is being done? What can be done? This kind of research requires that the viewpoint of the technology teacher be heard and, through that, the tradition of technological practice be appreciated (Olson 1992, Sockett 1992).
It is clear from classroom research that technology teachers intend to do more than teach problem-solving capabilities. Teachers have an image of work-life in mind when they are working with their students (Barrett 1994,Kozolanka and Olson, 1994, McCormick et al. 1994). Teachers establish work microcosms which are suffused with values, and the values, like them or not, are connected to virtues that teachers think these students ought to have both as civilians and as workers. This is no narrow vocational socialization. Teachers have images of civility in mind which cut across specialized roles to encompass the whole person; all school subjects are taught with these images in mind.
The teachers were concerned about the student's own unformed social and intellectual habits. They wanted to develop these habits in productive ways. They talked about the virtues of patience, taking pains, not stopping until it's done, producing quality work, being civil, organized, systematic and methodical. They were concerned that their students become good people (Kozolanka and Olson, 1994: 224).
Although there is skepticism that teachers can tackle value questions, from talking to teachers and from what we know about education as a process, we can see that they teach a particular value context in any event -- more or less explicitly. It isn't a question of any value context, but which ones. Only research can reveal what values are actually taught. And there are dangers for the way technology education is perceived if it eschews responsibility for making value contexts explicit: as Barnett(1994: 62) puts it,
an arrangement by which responsibility for practical capability rested with Technology, and for critical awareness with subjects such as Social Studies, History or Religious Education i.e. where values had been driven into exile from out of Technology, would be undesirable. This would tend to confirm Technology as a ghetto for ingenious, specialist tinkerers, and the Humanities as the natural home for anti-technologists.
Technology has other, humbler work to do besides emulating what we take as visions of modernity. It has to lead us back into where we live and how to live better. People live differently in different places. We need to be reminded of appropriate technologies and appropriate technological education that surely will be culture-specific and what we will see is diversity in approach and method. The diversity will be a way of affirming what Franklin (1990) called technology as 'coping' which she contrasts with technology as planning.
The challenges to technology in our lives are challenges to education as well. Educators, I think, cannot escape the turmoil which surrounds technological society. These critiques of society have implications for technology education in the central role it plays in schooling. As Taylor (1991: 40, 104)says:
The agent, seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully has to exist in a horizon of important questions ... What is self-defeating in contemporary culture ... [is] self-fulfillment in opposition to, the demands of society, or nature, [and shutting out] history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centred 'narcissistic' forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are 'flattened and narrowed' ... But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization To the extent that people are seeking a moral ideal here, this self-immuring is self-stultifying; it destroys the condition in which the ideal can be realized.
Taylor (1991: 104) gives us firm ground for advancing technological education. Instrumental reason, the fruit of which is technological systems and artifacts, is valuable when seen in the context of the relief of human suffering and the supporting of the welfare of people. Technology is valuable for doing good things: the ameliorative view of science and technology has a long history:
He [Francis Bacon] proposed instead [of the sciences as they existed] a model of science whose criterion of truth would be instrumental efficacy. You have discovered something when you can intervene to change things. Modern science is in essential continuity in this respect with Bacon. But what is important about Bacon is that he reminds us that the thrust behind this new science was not epistemological but also moral.
We have to understand what human welfare is. This is the moral horizon for technology which cannot be set aside, neither in the world, nor in education. We have to think about what is good for us as people living in this or that society and how technological capability serves that, and how technology education can re-create that capability: both to make good things and to know what the good things are that technology can enhance.
To do otherwise is to court disaster. We have the means to destroy the planet. This is what I think of when I contemplate what is happening in my own country where machines are used to harvest nature. It is an uneven fight. Trees in the west and fish in the east are sucked up by machines as if there were no tomorrow. Somehow technology education has to help students see the dangers of such machines and systems out of control and imagine what might be the alternative. That is the challenge we face as educators.
1. Uno Cygnaeus (1810-88) was a reformer of the Finnish school system whose curriculum was centred on handwork, i.e., Sloyd.
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