Technology Education from the Academic Rationalist Theoretical Perspective
The purpose for this article is to explore technology
education from the perspective of the academic
rationalist. Such an exploration is intended to provide
information for technology educators who are grappling
with education reform since it appears that the reforms of
the 1980s are based on academic rationalism curriculum
theory. This exploration includes consideration of the
theoretical perspective, rationale, source of content,
organizational structure, perceived advantages, and
Academic rationalism conceptualizes curriculum as
distinct subjects or disciplines. This perspective is the
most widely used curriculum design pattern and it
originates from the seven liberal arts of the classical cur-
riculum (Herschbach, 1989,). Academic rationalism is
described by Hirst and Peters (1974) as follows:
Academic rationalism, among the several curriculum
orientations, is the one with the longest history. This
orientation emphasizes the schools' responsibility to
enable the young to share the intellectual fruits of those
who have gone on before, including not only the concepts,
generalizations, and methods of the academic disciplines but
also those works of art that have withstood the test of
time. For those who embrace this curriculum orientation,
becoming educated means becoming initiated into the modes
of thought these disciplines represent or becoming informed
about the content of those disciplines (pp. 198-199).
Thus, the major purpose undergirding academic
rationalism is to transmit the knowledge and aesthetics of
one generation to the next. This is accomplished through
education which is organized within recognized academic dis-
Theoretical Perspective - Technology as a Discipline
Bruner (1960) proposed that curriculum organization and
design be based on the structure of the academic
disciplines. McNeil (1981) described Bruner's perspective as
He [Bruner] proposed that the curriculum of a subject
should be determined by the most fundamental understanding
that can be achieved of the underlying principles that give
structure to a discipline. The basis for his argument was
economy. Such learning permits generalizations, makes
knowledge usable in contexts other than that in which it is
learned, and facilitates memory by allowing the learner to
relate what would otherwise be easily forgotten, unconnected
facts. (pp. 56-57)
Academic disciplines organize subjects around
conceptions of knowledge. McNeil (1981) suggests that "the
irreducible element of curriculum is knowledge" and that the
"nucleus of knowledge and the chief content or subject
matter of instruction are found in academic subjects that
are primarily intellectual" (p. 53). Schwab (1974)
contends that the "knowledge of any given time rests not on
the facts but on selected facts and the selection of the
conceptual principles of inquiry" (p. 165). McNeil (1981)
also indicates that recognized scholars in a field or
discipline are the ones who select the goals and the content
of the curriculum.
Given the theoretical perspective of organizing
subjects around conceptions of knowledge, the academic
rationalist perspective of technology education will emanate
from a characterization of technology as knowledge, which
provides the boundaries or framework for a discipline. This
perspective is supported by the technology education study
group, a group of twenty-five leaders who developed the
document entitled, A Conceptual Framework for Technology
Education. In the conceptual framework document (Savage and
Sterry, 1990), the following definition of technology is
provided: "Technology is a body of knowledge and the
application of resources to produce outcomes in response to
human needs and wants (p.7)." In effect, this definition
embraces academic rationalism by characterizing technology
as "a body of knowledge." Historically, this body of know-
ledge has been viewed in the profession as the knowledge of
practice, or praxiology if you will. Praxiology was used as
a part of the philosophical foundation in the rationale for
the Industrial Arts Curriculum Project. Lux and Ray (1968)
provided the following description: "This body of knowledge
is termed 'theory of practice,' 'knowledge of practice,' or
'praxiology.' It encompasses man's (sic) ways of doing which
bring about what is valued, or ought to be, through action."
Skolimowski (1972), citing work by the Polish
philosopher Kotarbinski, described praxiology as the theory
of efficient action. He contends that "it is through
constructing praxiological models that we accomplish
progress in technology" (p. 46). Of course, praxiology
analyzes action from the perspective of efficiency and
Skolimowski refers to praxiology as a "normative
Several technology educators have endorsed the
academic rationalist perspective of technology and view
technology as a discipline. While this perspective has
created some controversy, the most notable justification
for this perspective was made in DeVore's 1964 monograph
"Technology: An Intellectual Discipline." DeVore makes the
case for viewing technology as a discipline based on the
five criteria put forth by Shermis (1962) in an article
published in the Phi Delta Kappan. These five points were
presented by DeVore as follows:
An intellectual discipline:
1. has a recognizable and significant tradition, an
2. has an organized body of knowledge which has
structure with unity among the parts. The knowledge has:
a. been objectively determined by verifiable and
agreed upon methods,
b. stood the test of time thereby evidencing
c. been found to be cumulative in nature, and
d. deals in concepts and ideas from a theoretical base.
3. is related to man's (sic) activities and aspirations
and becomes essential to man by addressing itself to the
solution of problems of paramount significance to man and
his (sic) society,
4. identifies as a part of its tradition and history a
considerable achievement in both eminent men (sic) and their
5. relates to the future man (sic) by providing the
stimulation and inspiration for man (sic) to further his
(sic) ideas and to reach his (sic) goals. (p. 10)
In the monograph, DeVore describes how technology meets
these criteria and, therefore, is an intellectual discipline.
From a theoretical perspective, academic rationalists
believe that the curriculum should develop the mind with
objective knowledge that can be tested through empirical
evidence and reasoning (McNeil, 1981). Hirst (1974) purports
that the development of the mind, from a rational
perspective, is achieved by mastering the fundamental struc-
ture of knowledge, logical relations, meaning, and
criteria for assessing and evaluating truth.
However, academic rationalists do not limit their
perspective only to the transmission of existing knowledge
to future generations. Academic rationalism includes the
perspective that knowledge can be created and the systems
for disciplined inquiry are an integral part of the
theoretical rationale. This is described by McNeil (1981) as
. . . most curriculum theorists today reject this fixed
view of knowledge and instead hold that knowledge can be
constructed. The creation of knowledge -- valid
statements, conclusions, or truths -- occurs by following
the inquiry systems of particular disciplines or cognitive
forms. The acquiring of disciplinary forms for creating
knowledge constitutes the most valid aspect of the modern
academic curriculum; the recitation of given conclusions
apart from the methods and theories by which they are
established is less defensible in a period characterized by
both expansion and revision of knowledge -- new truths
departing from older principles. (p. 55)
Thus, the curriculum rationale from the academic
rationalist perspective is to develop a structured
organizing pattern which transmits knowledge and involves
students in the creation of new knowledge. This rationale
is embraced by technology educators who organize curriculum
such that students are immersed in doing technology, or in
learning through performing like technologists. This
perspective is supported by Bruner who suggested active
involvement as though a specialist in the discipline as a
vehicle for learning the discipline. According to Bruner
(1960) "the school boy (sic) learning physics is a
physicist, and it is easier for him (sic) to learn physics
behaving like a physicist than doing something else" (p.
31). Likewise, those who would advocate that technology is
a discipline would suggest that the student learn the
discipline by behaving like a technologist. This approach is
intended to facilitate the acquisition of technological
knowledge and knowledge of practice, or "to gain knowledge
in 'doing' technology not just 'knowing' about technology"
(Todd, 1990). After all, technological knowledge is being
created and changing at an ever accelerating pace.
This curriculum rationale, based on a perspective of
technology as a discipline, is further supported by the
identification of a method of inquiry, the "technological
method," in the Conceptual Framework document (Savage &
Sterry, 1990). The identification of the method of
disciplined inquiry whereby technology is created is
critical to the academic rationalist perspective of
technology education. The technological method, analogous
to the scientific method, is an approach to problem-solving
and is described by Todd (1990) as follows:
By attending to human needs and wants 1) problems and
opportunities 2) can be addressed by applying resources 3)
and technological knowledge 4) through technological
processes 5). The result of this effort can be evaluated 6)
to assess the solutions and impacts 7) resulting from
these general technological activities (p. 3).
Todd's description of the technological method is
consistent with the description provided in A Conceptual
Framework for Technology Education (Savage & Sterry, 1990).
Source of Content
From the academic rationalist perspective the content
reservoir for technology education should be based on a
taxonomy of technology. While there is no uniform agree-
ment on a taxonomy, the most widely agreed upon taxonomy
emanates from the Jackson's Mill project (Hales & Snyder,
1982). This approach identifies the domains of knowledge and
the interaction with the human adaptive systems. The
curriculum taxonomy that has evolved from Jackson's Mill
focuses content on four adaptive systems; manufacturing,
communication, construction, and transportation. Each of
these adaptive systems has been categorized in their
unique curriculum taxonomies in various state and local
The discipline of technology should not be limited to
only these industrial-related technologies as the source of
content. There are several other areas of technological
knowledge that are equally important for study. For example,
the bio-related technologies provide an array of
possibilities for inclusion and study in Technology. To this
end, the Conceptual Framework document identified four
sources of content for Technology Education; communication,
transportation, production, and bio-related technology (Sav-
age & Sterry, 1990). These sources of content were not
identified to become the end all, rather they were
identified to be representative of technologies that could
be included in the curriculum. It was further realized
that new technological areas would likely emerge in future
years and decades which would be appropriate for study.
An academic rationalist could also derive a curriculum
taxonomy based on an analysis of the technological method.
In effect, this approach would be to structure curriculum
content to develop knowledge of the technological method and
its components. Under this arrangement students would learn
how specialists in technology discover knowledge (McNeil,
1981). Thus, the content becomes the taxonomy of the
According to Schwab (1974) the structures of modern
disciplines are very diverse and complex. This complexity
suggests that there is no one best organizational structure
for all disciplines. Rather, there are diverse structures
depending on the discipline as described by Schwab (1974):
The diversity of modern structures means that we must
look, not for a simple theory of learning leading to a one
best learning-teaching structure for our schools, but for a
complex theory leading to a number of different struc-
tures, each appropriate or "best" for a given discipline or
group of disciplines (p. 163).
There is no doubt that technology is a complex, diverse
discipline, and there has been no "one best" structure
identified. Examples of diverse organizational structures
are provided in state curriculum guides for technology
education. State guides include structures such as
Bio-related Technology, Physical Technology, and
Communication Technology (State of Ohio; Savage, 1990);
Production Technology, Communication Technology,
Transportation Technology, and Energy Utilization
Technology (State of Illinois; Illinois State Board of
Education, 1989); Invention and Innovation, Enterprise,
Control Technology, Information Processing, Energy,
Materials and Processes, Technical Design and Presentation,
and so forth (State of New Jersey; Commission, 1987);
Technological Systems, Communication Technology,
Power/Transportation Technology, Manufacturing/Construction
Technology (State of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania, 1988).
McNeil (1981) discusses the concept of "structure in
the disciplines" which has been utilized as a basis for an
organizing pattern and identifying curriculum content. He
identified three kinds of structure:
1. Organizational structure -- definitions of how one
discipline differs in a fundamental way from another. A
discipline's organizational structure also indicates the
borders of inquiry for that discipline.
2. Substantive structure -- the kinds of questions to
ask in inquiry, the data needed, and ideas (concepts,
principles, theories) to use in interpreting data.
3. Syntactical structure -- the manner in which those
in the respective disciplines gather data, test assertions,
and generalize findings. The particular method used in
performing such tasks makes up the syntax of a discipline.
(McNeil, 1981, p. 57).
The structure of technology education, given McNeil's
perspectives of structure, would follow the proposals in the
Conceptual Framework document (Savage & Sterry, 1990; Todd,
1990). The conceptual framework provides the following:
1. Organizational structure -- content organizers of
production, communication, transportation, and bio-related
technologies with an emphasis on "doing" technology.
2. Substantive structure -- problems and op-
portunities that come in response to human needs and
wants, and the social and environmental impacts often
provide the basis for inquiry.
3. Syntactical structure -- the identification of the
technological method, and its use, provide a syntax for the
discipline of technology.
In making the case for identifying technology as a
discipline, DeVore (1964) states the major advantage as
There is only one suitable reason [for identifying
technology as an intellectual discipline]. A subject area
so identified meets certain stringent criteria established
by others and takes its place as an area of study essential
to an understanding of man (sic) and his (sic) world. By
becoming an intellectual discipline an area becomes ac-
cepted as a necessary and contributing study in the
education of all youth (p. 5).
By embracing academic rationalism, technology
educators have the opportunity to become an equal area in
the curriculum with the associated respect. In addition,
much of the educational reform movement is founded in ac-
ademic rationalism. For example, the Holmes Group
recommendations for the reform of teacher preparation is
discipline-based (Erekson, 1988). Those technology teacher
education programs that have perceived technology as a
discipline have, in effect, endorsed academic rationalism,
and have found it much easier to develop redesign proposals
in concert with the tenets of the Holmes Group.
Where technology education is perceived as a discipline
it has gained respect and an equal place in the academic
curriculum. This is exemplified in the proposed revised re-
quirements for high school graduation in the State of
Maryland (Maryland State Department of Education, 1991). The
previous standards required a one semester course in the
"practical arts" which could be met through a course in
technology education or a course in areas such as home
economics, vocational education, or computer education.
The proposed new standards eliminate the practical arts
requirement, however, the Maryland State Department of
Education has added a new requirement in technology
education. In effect, students may be required to take a one
year course in technology education to graduate from high
school. Thus, technology education has moved from one of the
practical arts to a subject equivalent to science, social
studies, math, and language arts. By advocating, academic
rationalism, that technology education is a new
discipline, perception and policy have changed.
There are two major issues that need to be resolved in
order for technology education to be congruent with the
tenets of academic rationalism. First, the academic
rationalist conceptualization of technology education re-
quires that the curriculum be organized into distinct,
separate subjects. Technology is dynamic, diverse, and
inherently interdisciplinary. As such, it is difficult to
identify the unique boundaries of the discipline.
The second issue to resolve concerns the identification of
the scholars of technology. Academic rationalism is founded
on the premise of recognized disciplines which organize
curriculum around conceptions of knowledge. These
disciplines and conceptions of knowledge are identified
and developed over time by a body of scholars. Who are the
scholars for the discipline of technology? Are they
engineering faculty? anthropologists? historians?
technology teacher educators? Furthermore, if the
profession can identify a group of technology scholars, do
these scholars identify themselves with the discipline of
According to McNeil (1981) the separate subject,
academic rationalist, perspective will remain the prevailing
conception of curriculum in the future. If technology
education desires equal status in the curriculum with the
classical subjects, technology educators will need to
embrace academic rationalism and advocate the perspective of
technology as a new intellectual discipline. Some might
suggest that it will be almost an impossible task to
establish technology as a new intellectual discipline.
However, there are newer disciplines which are gaining ac-
ceptance in the academic arena. Examples are described by
McNeil (1981) as follows:
Newer disciplines claim to be more relevant than the older
ones. Psychology, for instance, is challenging literature
for the honor of interpreting human nature. Anthropology
begs admission on the grounds that it can do a better job of
helping pupils gain a valid world view than can history, a
field known for reflecting parochial interests. (p. 69)
It is possible to establish a new intellectual
discipline. Technology has the potential to become an
intellectual discipline and, like psychology and
anthropology as cited above, technology can claim to be more
relevant than many of the older disciplines. However, to
establish technology as an intellectual discipline, it
will require the identification of a body of scholars of
technology -- individuals who view themselves as scholars of
technology. It will also require time, perhaps decades,
for technology to gain acceptance as an intellectual disci-
pline among the academicians. However, as is the case in
Maryland, technology education can gain equal status with
the academic subjects.
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Tom Erekson is Dean, College of Technology, Bowling Green
State University, Bowling Green, OH.
Journal of Technology Education Volume 3, Number 2 Spring 1992