Curriculum Change in Technology Education: A Theoretical
Perspective on Personal Relevance Curriculum Designs
Personal relevance curriculum designs are compatible
with most mission and philosophical statements for
technology education; yet, there are few, if any curriculum
plans that emphasize this design. The experience-based nature
of technology education suggests a certain affinity with
personal relevance. Practice and theory within the
profession has influenced and has been influenced by
personal relevance designs and their inherent humanistic
theories. While this interaction is apparent through any
historical survey of the profession and evident in
contemporary literature, the nature of personal relevance
designs have been only partially examined. Within the
profession, there is little information in the way of
adequate description and implementation of personal
relevance or other humanistic curriculum designs
(Herschbach, 1989; Horton, 1985; McCrory, 1987; Moss, 1987;
The purpose of this article is to provide insight into
personal relevance curriculum designs through a discussion
of a theoretical perspective on their nature, underlying
rationale and application to a study of technology, source
of content, organizational structure, and use in technology
education. Most of the discussions are limited to a
micro-curriculum as opposed to a macro level. However,
inferences can be drawn to include both. The focus of the
discussions is on middle, junior, and senior high levels of
schooling. Personal relevance designs are grounded in
humanistic theory; consequently, it was necessary to
summarize and generalize a number of humanistic views,
beliefs and convictions.
Personal Relevance Curriculum Designs
Advocates of personal relevance curriculum designs
maintain that education should and does play an integral
role in a student's life and has a major influence on a
student's self-concept, psyche, outlook on life, and world
view. Emphases of personal relevance curriculum designs are
on personal growth, integrity, autonomy, and unique meaning.
Personal growth is viewed as the process of developing into
a self-actualizing, autonomous, authentic, healthy, happy
human being. The development of body and intellect are of
equal importance. Education within this context means
holistic growth toward personal and humane goals; an
integration of the cognitive, creative, aesthetic, moral,
and vocational dimensions of being human. The development of
people who can transcend contemporary constraints is central
to this design (Eisner, 1979; Klein, 1986; Kolesnik, 1975;
Maslow, 1968; McNeil, 1981).
Students are free to develop, or are active in helping
define their own curricula based on their personal problems,
developmental levels, goals, interests, curiosities,
capabilities, and needs. The following concepts are
considered essential to the composition of a personal
relevance curriculum design (McNeil, 1981):
1. Participation There is consent, power sharing,
negotiation, and joint responsibility by
coparticipants. It is essentially nonauthoritarian and
2. Integration There is interaction,interpenetration, and
integration of thinking, feeling, and action.
3. Relevance The subject matter is related to the basic
needs and lives of the participants and is significant
to them, both emotionally and intellectually.
4. Self The self is a legitimate object of learning.
5. Goal The social goal or purpose is to develop the
whole person within a human society (p. 9).
These curricular concepts guide the development of
learning experiences and their character is dependent on
teacher-student-community interaction, deliberation, and
discourse. Participants have educational autonomy and
democratically bring their curricula into focus.
Curriculum planning then, does not follow traditional
Mager, Skinner or Tyler models. Behavioral objectives do not
enter into the curriculum. Ends and means are not
predetermined, but are bound to resources and context.
Within a personal relevance design, the content and modes of
inquiry, modes of expression, and goals are matters of
personal choice or democratic process. Teaching techniques
that encourage both planning and spontaneity, expression,
insight, and reflective thought are integral to overall
curricular unity, comprehensiveness, diversity, and
consonance. The educational process is defined within
unique contexts. Humanists advocate freedom of curriculum
development through an emphasis on personal relevance as a
challenge to traditional subject-centered models. A
discussion of the rationale for personal relevance designs
to help clarify the basis of the preceding concepts and
Underlying Curriculum Rationale and its Application to a
Study of Technology
Generally speaking, personal relevance curriculum
designs reflect pedagogical ideas of child-centered, and
progressive educators, and have evolved to their current
conceptualization within the humanistic education movement.
With the humanistic education movement came a
reinterpretation of student-centered education and an
articulation of existential and hermeneutic philosophies,
and third force and gestalt psychologies. Conceptions of the
learner, knowledge, society, and the learning process have
been shaped by these theories, and share a connectedness
with schools of reconceptualized curriculum thought and
experientialist curricular orientations (Klohr, 1980;
The underlying rationale for personal relevance designs
is supported by theories in humanistic psychologies and
philosophies, and interactional sociologies. Considering
humanistic theories and their related educational thought,
humanists ask: "what do subject-centered curricula do for
personal relevance, freedom, individuality, and humane
goals?" They suggest that
1. given the nature of mass culture and modern society,
individuality, personal freedom, and humane goals are
2. the school has a responsibility to emphasize the
development of individuality, personal freedom, and
3. the authoritarian and technocratic control that has
pervaded the educational system constrains
individuality, personal freedom, and humane goals,
4. prevalent, traditional, subject-centered curricula are
inherently authoritarian and fail miserably in promoting
individuality, personal freedom, and humane goals,
5. presuppositions and assumptions underlying traditional
education need to be examined and challenged; and,
individuals within a democratic society deserve better,
6. considering inherent problems of prevalent educational
theory and curricula, humanistic theories are
considerable within the context of a democratic society,
7. a restructuring of the schools is necessary to
encourage individuality, personal freedom, and humane
8. curricula based on personal relevance should be
considered as viable alternatives to traditional
curricula (Holt, 1970; Kolesnik 1975; McNeil, 1981;
Rust, 1975; Sloan, 1984).
This underlying rationale for personal relevance curriculum
designs and its supporting theories are the bases of
justification for curricular decisions concerning the
content and style of the educational process.
Application to a Study of Technology
The preceding rationale can be applied to include a
study of technology. Technology, in all of its
manifestations and consequences, has been and continues to
be a matter of critical concern to humanists (Dewey, 1900;
Mumford, 1934; Rugg, 1958; Wirth, 1989). The humanization of
technology, often reflective of the thought of Mumford, is
intrinsic to the humanistic movement. Humanists advocate
confronting the nature of technology through holistic,
contextual and critical inquiry. Consciousness, insight,
and knowledge related to the interaction of self,
technology, culture, and society is essential to personal
development. Inquiry into technology is integral to personal
relevance curricula for the following, and other reasons:
1. technology is central to human experience and individual
life worlds (Ihde, 1990),
2. the ubiquity and mediacy of technology shape our
perceptions of the world and self (Ormiston, 1990),
3. human values, freedom and choice interact with technology
on a personal level (Ihde, 1983),
4. personal livelihood is dependent on technology (Rapp,
1989; Wirth, 1987),
5. technology is a fundamental area of culture and human
endeavor, and is inextricably interwoven with history,
culture, and society; also, it is integrative in nature
6. technology is necessary for human existence (Huning,
7. technology is problematic and paradoxical for individuals
and society (Rapp, 1989),
8. the artificial world is ambient; increasingly, technology
is habitat (Ormiston, 1990), and
9. technology must be humanized and its direction subjected
to limitations and determined democratically by society.
There is tension between personal and social choice
Humanists would also suggest that traditional,
subject-centered education is permeated with technology; yet
as a topic of educational inquiry, it is traditionally
precluded to anything but passing glances or delivered at an
Source of Content
In personal relevance curriculum designs, content, as a
body of established truths is not a source for the
initiation of learning experiences. Humanists generally
subscribe to a Deweyan instrumental view of disciplinary
content. Disciplinary content has an instrumental function
as a means of illuminating a student's life world. It is an
instrument in the development of selfconcept and incidental
to the learning process.
Because of its inertness, separation from process and
lack of personal meaning, humanists reject disciplinary
content as knowledge on philosophical grounds. They maintain
that knowledge is dynamic and in need of subjective validity
and a personal, practical dimension. Substance of thought,
or the content of knowledge is of major importance to
humanists. A source of content in a personal relevance
curriculum design lies in the immediate concerns of the
student's interaction with his/her environment.
This is not to say that content is ignored in a
personal relevance curriculum design. A major challenge
within any curriculum design is the determination of what is
practical and essential to the welfare of the student,
community, and society. No humanist would deny the
importance of reading, writing, and communication, or other
essential subjects and skills. They suggest that through
deliberation and dialogue, the student, teacher, and the
community interact as a source of essential content.
Humanists also recognize ecological, cultural and
historical perspective as essential to the development of
identity and social purpose. To a humanist, a critical
perspective on the relationships of self to values, the
community, the environment, cultural milleau, and historical
continuum is essential to personal growth. The development
of perception of patterns of human existence within history
and culture is essential. But, humanists also suggest that
equally essential is the realization that these perspectives
and perceptions can be faulty and have the potential to
constrain. Knowledge as personal, practical, and focused on
the human condition is a significant concern. Humanists
respond to the dilemma of knowledge by emphasizing inquiry,
the nurturant potential of learning environments, and
intrinsic motivation factors of relevance and choice. The
problem in curriculum, as humanists view it, is not one of
content, but one of style (Brown, 1978; Clark, 1990; Eash,
1971; Greene, 1971; Junell, 1979; Frymier, 1972; Kolesnik,
1975; McNeil, 1981; Pilder, 1969).
Advocates claim that a great strength of personal
relevance designs is their emphasis on unity and
integration. Within curricula based on these designs, the
integration of emotions, thoughts, actions, and goals with
the social setting and environment are emphasized. Methods
such as nondirective teaching, synectics, seminars,
awareness training, social inquiry, cooperative and
individual projects, and discovery encourage self-expression
and personal meaning. Gestalt techniques facilitate
interaction and insight. Phenomenological and hermeneutic
techniques help to bring experiences and personal narrative
to levels of understanding. Organization is established
through personal problems and interests. Units are used to
encourage the development of unified and comprehensive
experiences (Joyce & Weil, 1980; Kolesnik, 1975; McNeil,
Because of their holistic and integrating nature, and
potential for unifying students with the learning
environment, units are often used to provide organizational
structure. Units within personal relevance designs are more
attuned to the progressive interpretation than their more
popular subject-centered readings. They are experience-based
or based on the development of learning experiences that
focus on significant themes in the students' relationship
with their environment. Experience-based units help students
recognize the relationships between their own experiences
and broader problems and patterns in life. They integrate
the knowing, feeling, and doing aspects of experience and
learning. They integrate a student's thought, emotions and
actions, with purpose, the means-ends continuum, and the
environment. Units often present themselves as both project
and problem, and students draw on diverse types of inquiry,
knowledge and other resources to assist in their resolution.
The organization provided is on the learner's psychological
level as opposed to an expert's logical level (Burton, 1952;
Ogletree, Gebauer & Ujlaki, 1980).
The determination of the nature and types of units used
is bound to student and teacher negotiation. Cooperative
units are developed to reach students on personal levels and
broadly conceived to accommodate individuality. Curricula
for a high school group could be organized within units such
as: self-expression and modern culture; personal values and
science, technology, and the military in the 20th century;
work and economic amenity; social reform and personal
agenda; technological change and humanistic imperatives;
personal freedom and emancipation; energy, environment, and
personal consumption; old materials, censorship, and new
art; communicable disease, research and modern medicine;
choice of apparel, fashion and style; or political efficacy
and personal destiny. Junior high units are also focused on
significant aspects of students' lives, and made accessible
to their maturity level.
The organization of elements within units is a matter
of individual and group interest, motivation, and resources.
Emphasis is on connecting abstract concepts to real and
personal themes inherent in the students' lives. Outcomes
are dependent on the degree to which relevance, unity,
integration, and personal insight are developed. The
challenge is to unify variety and diversity toward common
Application to Technology Education
A review of literature leaves one to conclude that
applications of personal relevance curriculum designs are
nonexistent within technology education (or their existence
has not been communicated through literature). Nonetheless,
there are descriptions of programs, units, and other
endeavors that are integrated in their curricular designs
and suggestive of holistic and integrative approaches to
studying technology. An example of the shape that personal
relevance curricula might take has been provided.
The following examples of units are suggestive of
holistic inquiry into technology. Maley (1973) presented
units to support a study of technology, and structured them
within an integrated curriculum design. His proposed units
are experienced-based, and provide for student choice within
a framework of societal needs. Other units within technology
education that provide for student choice within structured
frameworks include Maley (1989) and Pytlik (1981). In social
studies, American history, the history of technology, and
Science, Technology & Society (STS), there are examples of
subject-centered units that are thematically based on
technology, and suggest varying degrees of flexibility for
student choice and freedom within a traditional setting
(Barnes, 1982; Bensen & Eaves, 1985; Sinclair & Smulyan,
1990; Wagner, 1990).
There exists a wealth of exhibits, books, and articles
that provide insight into the nature of technology. Museum
exhibits and accompanying texts provide evidence of
technology as both a social force and social product (Hindle
& Lubar, 1988; Stratton, 1990). Introductions to technology,
contextual readings of the history of technology, and
thematic studies provide evidence of the interrelationships
of technology to other endeavors in life (DeVore, 1980;
Hughes, 1983; Volk, 1990). Surveys such as these begin to
suggest the shape and avenues of inquiry that students might
pursue within arrangements of units. There are a variety of
resources within technology education, STS, the philosophy
and history of technology, and other areas of inquiry from
which teachers can draw. Insight into the holistic,
contextual and integrative nature of technology, and ac-
companying modes of inquiry is necessary for teachers, but a
solid grounding in humanistic theories and techniques is
The shape that a personal relevance curriculum might
take can be illustrated through a summary of a unit titled
"Prescription for conservation, health, and personal
transportation: the bicycle!" This example would be
appropriate for a junior high technology education class.
Unity, integration, consonance, and relevance are addressed
through thematic use of a common product in which most
students within the junior high grades are sincerely
interested. The technology of bicycles is advantageous in
its historical significance, social effects, and
multi-cultural utility; and, its relationships to physics,
engineering, physiology, economics, geography, safety and
health, sport and leisure, urban design, industry, and
environmental policy. Through their simplicity and
performance, bicycles challenge students to apply techniques
related to design, invention, experimentation, maintenance,
and repair. Bicycles can inspire the formation of clubs,
affiliation with cycling organizations, and planned bike
tours. Most importantly, the centrality of bicycles to youth
can be used to develop self-concept through insight into
personal relationships with technology.
Following initial planning and coordination of problem
and project areas, students begin to develop experiences
that take advantage of the relationships of the bicycle to
aspects of everyday life. Experiences develop through the
use of a variety of resources found in laboratory, library,
classroom, and community facilities. For instance, a group
of students might: design and conduct a survey to determine
the extent of bicycle use in their community, and report the
results as compared to national and international trends;
determine the needs of a cycling society and initiate a
local or national letter-writing program to shape
transportation policy; design cities of the future which
accommodate a variety of modes of transportation; design and
construct bicycle trailers with concern for specific speed
and payload factors; survey and map geographic regions for
potential bikeways; investigate the bicycle use of
teenagers in developing countries; design and conduct
experiments that focus on physiological demands of cycling;
print posters to promote bicycle use; or design a sculpture,
and write songs or plays that express feelings toward
human-powered transportation. Individual expression of
emotion and ideas through artistic, technical, and practical
capabilities in the form of paintings, sculptures, poems,
songs, stories, engineering drawings, reports, models,
objects of utility, and discussions is encouraged.
Involvement in these modes of expression, and the use of
personal and social families of teaching models, including
gestalt and phenomenological techniques, encourage students
to develop and own concepts of themselves and their
relationship to their environment.
Current educational thought and evolving world views
can be recognized as support for humanistic goals.
Perspectives on learning suggest the importance of context,
environment, and other life-shaping forces, and tend to
strengthen other major tenets of humanistic theories. There
is renewed interest in process, integration, and experience.
Learning how to learn has become synonymous with education.
Self-directed, original, creative, and critical-thinking
people seem to be the new societal need. Ecology,
conservation, balance, and the humanization of technology
are of considerable global concern. Evidence of failed
spending and programmatic educational efforts of the 1980s
provide grounds for innovation. It has been suggested the
paradigm shaping authoritarian, technocratic curricula has
become dysfunctional (Eisner, 1979; Wirth, 1989). Within
this context, an education that humanists envision may be a
suitable alternative to predominant subject-centered
However, without complete restructuring of the schools,
the demands of personal relevance curricula may prohibit
them from being anything more than alternatives. Likewise,
without total commitment from teachers, administrators, and
the community, meaning readjustment of an entrenched
educational paradigm, it is unlikely that personal relevance
designs will be accepted as anything more than aberrant.
Nonetheless, the rationale underlying these curriculum
designs is considerable.
Given their historical roots, personal relevance
curriculum designs should not seem aberrant to technology
educators. Still, technology educators have not embraced
personal relevance designs and curricular proposals have
been characteristically based on subject-centered, hybrid
and often incompatible designs. At least some humanistic
techniques have been assimilated into technology education
classrooms; but, within technical or subject-centered
designs, their nature and vitality may be distorted.
The subject-centered orientation of technology
education curricula is comprehensible within its context.
Technology education was conceptualized during an era of
national emphases on academic standards and testing, and
shaped by a dominant educational paradigm. Articulation of a
humanistic mission and philosophy for technology education,
and the design of curricula that are consistent with this
mission would mean transcendence of the prevailing
sociopolitical climate. Technology educators will have to
position themselves within schools of reconceptualized
curriculum thought and critical praxis. Dialogue and inquiry
within the profession will have to be extended to include a
concern for phenomenological, hermeneutical and other
nonpositivistic ways of interpreting the human experience of
creating, using, and in general, living with technology.
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Steve Petrina is a doctoral student in the Department of
Industrial, Technological, and Occupational Education,
University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Journal of Technology Education Volume 3, Number 2 Spring 1992