Journal of Industrial Teacher Education logo

Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell
Volume 37, Number 1
Fall 1999

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What We Teach and Why We Teach It

Andrew E. Schultz
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Technology education (TE) claims technological literacy as a goal of its discipline (International Technology Education Association, 1996). This is a noble, but darn-near-impossible-to-achieve goal. As Gertrude Stein once quipped, "A good syrup, but it doesn't pour." The goal of technological literacy is akin to the ideal of developing a Renaissance person, an individual who is a master of all disciplines. Frankly, the Renaissance person didn't happen, even in Galileo's time. The goal of industrial technology education (ITE) has been and is to develop expertise in materials, processes, and tool use. This is an equally noble goal, plus ITE is an inherently practical idea that is ripe with real career and vocational opportunity. TE and ITE share technology-transportation, manufacturing, construction, and the scope of communications-as their content domain, but differ in how they teach it. TE teaches technology as an academic discipline while ITE teaches technology as an applied art by instructing students in tool use, materials, and processes through the project method. As Lutz (1998) described the difference, TE has sought to replace the ITE "work environment with [its] hand and electric tools, traditional machines and work benches with library-type cubicles, computer terminals, software modules, Lego® blocks, prefabricated kits, vender-developed gadgets, etc." (p. 1)

What is the justification for this change? Well, largely it is politics. For the last 20 years, the increasing politicization of education at large has made educational criticism a national past time. As the numerous pontificators weighed in with their opinion, we in industrial education (whether characterized as TE, ITE, or by the older name, industrial arts) felt the sting of their venom. One of a long line of critics, Postman (1995), has criticized the curriculum of schools of education with the oft-repeated mantra: Schools of education focus on how to teach, but not what is taught or why we teach it.

We in industrial teacher education answered this criticism early on with the Jackson's Mill Industrial Arts Curriculum Theory (Snyder & Hales, 1981). In that document, which anticipated Postman's (1995) questions, industrial educators responded to the question, "What do we teach?" with the term "technology." The acknowledgement that technology was having an increasingly profound effect on late 20th century life stimulated the debate that led to the adoption of the moniker, technology education, for what formerly had been industrial arts. I have no argument with the definition of technology as our content domain; rather, I laud and celebrate this attempt to answer the questions that Postman (1995) still poses. In the 1960s and 1970s industrial education had lost its focus and clearly needed redirection.

However, when we redefined our domain as technology, we unknowingly tossed a pair of babies out with the bath water, because this redefinition led many to abandon the two most important elements of the industrial education tradition: skill development and the project method. This essay is an attempt to rescue those babies and to answer Postman's (1995) charges on behalf of ITE.

In answer to the question, "Why do we teach what we teach?" I respond that, in ITE we teach tool and material use and in doing so, we teach people how to think. In German there is a phrase, "Der Mann macht das Arbeit; das Arbeit macht den Mann" (man makes the work, the work makes the man). This phrase captures the essentially reciprocal nature of tool use and human cognitive capabilities. As we create technology through tool use, technology shapes our thinking. There is a beautiful and symbiotic relationship between technology and our ability to think. This relationship has been there for longer than you might imagine, as advances in both archaeology and cognition have shown. Implicit in the notions introduced by evolutionary biologists, psycholinguists, sociobiologists and other specializations in cognitive science is the idea that evolution is a key consideration to use in studying how the mind works (Gazzaniga, 1998). At the center of this body of research is the idea that progress in how we think persists only if it advances the likelihood of our survival as a species. It is clear that what has steadily and cumulatively improved our likelihood of survival as a species has been tool use (Cosmides & Tooby, 1986).

For virtually all of the years of life on earth, the inevitable cycle of natural controls affected both the eaters and the eaten. However, 3.5 million years ago, an unusual hominid picked up a stick or a bone and instituted a new sort of change. Our ancestors were no longer governed by the cyclic, seasonal change, and inevitable cycle of feast and famine that had always prevailed, but rather by sequential and cumulative change that enabled protohumans to ensure an adequate, reliable food supply despite these cycles.

The footsteps imbedded in stone in the Rift Valley in the Olduvai Gorge have led inevitably to the conclusion that, 3.5 million years ago, a protohuman was walking on two feet, (White, Woldegabiel, Svwa, Renne, Heinzelin, Hart, & Helkin, 1994). Walking on two feet had a profound physiological effect. Walking on two feet meant that over thousands of generations, arms could become fully differentiated from feet, and hands could become more sensitive and skilled. Eventually, the asymmetric use of limbs stimulated sidedness, and subsequently, a larger, asymmetric brain. Tool use-external evolution, if you will-thus greatly increased the odds that protohumans would survive.

With tools, the forager apes became hunters. They hunted in groups that required the ability to plan, communicate and cooperate. Tool use, therefore, changed the group into a society with social roles. Then, 2.5 million years ago, Homo erectus appeared, refining tool making further. By 700,000 years ago, these protohumans had developed the skills to mass-produce stone axes (DeLumley, 1969).

A short 100,000 years later, another profound advance occurred: an advance as profound as the ability to walk upright or to pick up of the first club. That advance was fire. Our ancestors had already begun becoming more human; the pounding and grinding of food with their crude stone tools during the previous 100 millennia had enabled their teeth and jaw muscles to shrink in size. But the discovery of fire accelerated this change because it enabled them to cook food. Six hundred thousand years ago, because of the facial changes associated with eating prepared and cooked food, these protohumans probably began to articulate, to make sounds. As their sounds increasingly carried meaning, their features continued to become less ape-like and more human. Because of this, their brains were able to expand further, and modern capacities for thought and sound began to develop.

Some 125,000 years ago, the brain had expanded to its present day size. Homo sapiens moved out of Africa. Archaeological finds from about 90,000 years ago show that these now nomadic people carried saws, planes, adzes, awls and drills. Toolmaking was by now a complex, refined art. It almost certainly required a complex grammar of instruction, a lexicon of movement, gesture and word.

Over the course of 3.5 million years, both evolutionary and extra-evolutionary forces have shaped the brain, so that it now has the potential for language, mathematics, and scientific reasoning. The primary extra-evolutionary force that has shaped the human brain has been tool use.

To return to my initial thesis, we in ITE teach tool use and material processing. We do this in order to teach people how to think. While Postman's (1995) criticism of schools of education may have merit generally, clearly it does not for ITE. We know how to teach--by the project method, we know why we teach--so that people learn to think, and we know what we teach--tool use, in all of its forms and implications.

Humans have been blessed with at least four cognitive gifts that merit training (Burke & Orsten, 1995). Only three of these gifts are now addressed by the core curriculum: the ability to make sounds and symbols that convey meaning or communications, the penchant for quantification or mathematics, and the ability to observe objectively and make rational decisions about these observations or science. It seems ironic that TE has embraced these three gifts and shunned the fourth gift, tool use, which is the progenitor of the other three gifts. Further, it seems shortsighted that ITE is not recognized within the core curriculum as addressing the fourth gift. But most importantly, it seems imperative, if we are to continue our success as a species, that we continue to teach how to make, modify and wield tools in a productive fashion for the improvement of society.


Schultz is an Assistant Professor in the Industrial Education Program, Department of Vocational and Adult Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Burke, J., & Orsten, J. (1995). The axemaker's gift: A double-edged history of human culture. New York: Grosset/Putnam.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1986). From evolution to behavior: Evolutionary psychology as the missing link. In J. Dupre (Ed.), The latest and the best: Essays on evolution and optimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

DeLumley, H. (1969). A paleolithic camp at Nice. Scientific American, 220 (5), 42-50.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1998). The mind's past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

International Technology Education Association. (1996). Technology for all Americans: A rationale and structure for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.

Lutz, R. (1998). Revising, replacing and respecting industrial arts. MITES Journal, Pre-convention issue, 1-2.

Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school (1st Ed). New York: Knopf.

Snyder, J. F., & Hales, J. A. (1981). Jackson's mill industrial arts curriculum theory. Fairmont, WV: American Industrial Arts Association.

White, T. D., Woldegabiel, G., Svwa, G., Renne, P., Heinzelin, J., Hart, W., & Helkin, G. (1994). Australopithecus ramidus, a new species of early hominid from Aramis, Ethiopia. Nature, 371 (4), 330-333.

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