JITE v36n4 - At Issue - Looking for the Basics Through Different Lenses

Volume 36, Number 4
Summer 1999

Looking for the Basics Through Different Lenses

Kenneth Welty
Menomonie, Wisconsin

One of the most pressing challenges facing the technology education community is the need to prepare a new generation of technology teachers who can carry on the traditions of the discipline while preparing students for an uncertain future. Conscientious technology teacher educators are striving to design and deliver teacher education programs that address the breadth, depth, and diversity of technological knowledge within a K-12 curriculum. However, given the rapid growth in technological capability, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe preservice education programs can prepare a new generation of technology teachers who have a mastery of a knowledge base that is expanding at an exponential rate. Therefore, technology teacher educators find themselves trying to identify a manageable set of understandings and skills that all technology teachers need in order to help young people make sense out of pervasive and emerging technologies.

More than any other time in our history there is a need to uncover a modest, yet seemingly elusive, collection of basic understandings and skills that capture the essence of prominent technologies (e.g., broadcasting, automation, electrical power generation). Technology teacher educators are being bombarded with input regarding the fundamental concepts and skills that novice technology teachers need to possess prior to commencement. Those willing to share their points of view include experienced technology teachers, building administrators, industry leaders, researchers, and scholars. Unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding our knowledge base has spawned divergent perspectives regarding what is commonly referred to as "the basics."

The following narrative will explore a variety of perspectives being used to operationalize "the basics." It uses the popular notion of looking through lenses as a metaphor to describe how one teacher educator is striving to make sense out of the diverse expectations being imposed on preservice technology teacher education. Therefore, this essay presents the personal reflections of one teacher educator who is trying to confront assumptions about basic knowledge and subsequently make thoughtful decisions about the preparation of a new generation of technology teachers.

Divergent Perspectives

From this author's point of view, there is very little consensus on what constitutes "the basics" among those who are trying to support and influence the preparation of technology teachers. Many veteran teachers look to teacher education programs for graduates who will carry on a tradition of curriculum and instruction that can be traced back to the beginning of their careers. They are extremely critical of applicants for teaching positions in their schools who cannot operate the tools and machines that were purchased 30 or more years ago with confidence, regardless of their abilities to use more contemporary technologies.

In striking contrast to their classroom counterparts, building administrators often look to technology teacher education programs for human resources that will bring new life to a program that they perceive needs to be brought up-to-date. Many administrators are also extremely anxious to execute reforms that the existing faculty are reluctant to implement. Furthermore, there is often a desire to reconfigure an existing program so it has a broader appeal to the students at-large instead of focusing on students interested in a specific occupation. Although they cannot articulate their vision for the study of technology, they seem to believe that hiring young teachers fresh out of college is the key to revitalizing a stagnate program. In contrast to these forward thinking administrators, there are also some requests for teachers who will teach "shop" and engage students, who typically have a history of limited success in academic subjects, in career oriented activities that they believe will ensure high school graduation and lead to entry level employment.

This author also receives mixed messages from industry leaders. A majority of those who speak for modest as well as large industrial organizations are looking to the public school systems to produce a new generation of potential employees who possess a broad and generalizable set of skills and understandings. More specifically, they want the secondary schools to prepare potential humans resources who have a broad understanding of technology, know how organizations operate and make a profit, can solve problems, and work in teams. They often express a need for people who have a solid intellectual foundation that makes them trainable and able to respond to new technologies and economic realities as they emerge on the scene. However, once again, it is important to note that there are also industry representatives who lobby the school to implement a curriculum that will produce a very modest number of graduates who possess very specific trade skills. In contrast to projecting into the future, these industries often stress a need for a semi-skilled laborer who can operate their existing technology.

Looking Through Different Lenses

Those with a stake in technology teacher education appear to be using a variety of lenses to identify and defend what they perceive to be "the basics." One of the lenses encourages teachers to concentrate on concepts and skills that have served them well in their lives and to assume that they will be equally beneficial to a new generation of citizens preparing for life in the 21st century. Another lens compels educators to focus on specific details that they can convey with relative ease to young people and trust that they will formulate broad generalizations as they gain experience and mature. Lastly, some educators use the lens of hindsight to engage students in the study of yesterday's technologies in preparation to understand today's technology. Ironically, all of these lenses have merit in the search for generalizations that can be transferred to a wide range of technological phenomena in everyday life. However, they can also be used to exaggerate the modest value of antiquated and inappropriate curricula.

The 20/20 Hindsight Lens

When new technologies render popular concepts and skills obsolete, there is a natural desire to keep them in the curriculum under the auspices of "the basics." This rationale is often used to defend concepts like balloon framing and cutting common rafters in construction courses; to justify lettering exercises and drawing disfigured blocks in drafting classes; and to sustain traditional woodworking skills in manufacturing courses.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that one viable way to understand and appreciate the sophisticated world in which we live is to study technology from an historical perspective. By virtue of their simplicity, some old technologies illuminate timeless concepts better than their modern equivalents. For example, the first fax machine was basically two pendulums at either end of a telegraph line. A telegraph signal had to be sent to ensure that both pendulums were in the same position before a transmission could be sent. A second telegraph signal was used to put both pendulums in synchronized motion. Together, these signals play the same roles as the sequence of tones that one can hear on some modern fax machines.

An electrical wire at the end of the pendulum on the transmitting end of the system would sweep across the top of metal type. When the wire touched the raised portions of the metal type the electrical circuit would close and an electrical charge was sent down the telegraph line. The pendulum at the other end of the circuit also featured an electrical wire. However, the wire on the receiving end would sweep across a sheet of paper treated with a special chemical. When an electrical charge flowed through the wire and into the paper it would leave a tiny burn mark that was consistent with a tiny portion of the raised metal type at the transmission end of the system. To transmit the length of the message, one pendulum had to be advanced down the metal type while the other moved down the chemically treated paper in tiny increments with each swing.

The technological essence of a fax machine, whether it is the very first machine or the most modern machine, is scanning an image in rows, converting graphic information into pulses of electricity, and using these pulses to reconstruct the original image. Unfortunately, scenarios about how to use old technologies to teach timeless concepts like synchronization, digitization, and scanning are very rare. More often than not, technologies that have reached historical status are being taught in schools based on tradition more than their utility as pedagogy tools.

The Monocle Lens

When asked to define the basics, some teachers include the ability to change electrical receptacles, patch holes in drywall, plane a door, change oil in an automobile, and many other handy skills that are useful around the house. Many of these dedicated technology teachers have invested years of time and energy developing skills and assimilating understandings. Over the years many of these teachers have experienced a lot of personal satisfaction from their ability to put their knowledge to work in their professional and personal lives. It is only natural for technology teachers to want to pass on the knowledge that has served them well to a new generation, with the hope that it provides their students as much satisfaction as it has given them.

As technology becomes more sophisticated and integrated into our lives the relative importance of these specific technical skills is often called into question. It is extremely difficult to acknowledge that a given skill or body of knowledge that one has mastered has depreciated in value in light of new and more pressing technologies. Resolving the disparity between the importance one attaches to a skill or bit of knowledge and its relative value in the lives of a larger population can be a very painful process. After all, one's sense of value in the world is affected by the relative importance of what one knows and is able to do in the eyes of others. Therefore, one's self-concept is threatened when the technology education community suggests a chunk of content is relatively unimportant in comparison to other emerging concepts and skills. One way to restore one's sense of personal importance is to classify the content in question as a "basic."

The Micro Lens

Under this lens, "the basics" are the technical details that one would find at the most specific level of a content outline. More specially, under this perspective, the basics are things like the types and sizes of screws and nails, the ability to draw the arrow heads and the number 4 correctly, and the anatomy of a drill press or table saw. The assumption here is that mastery of specific details is the most logical place to begin building an understanding of technology as well as a capability to use technology to solve problems.

Critics of this perspective are quick to point out that this kind of knowledge borders on technical trivia and a reasonably intelligent person can look these details up in the event there is a genuine need for this kind of information. On the other hand, supporters of this perspective have argued that attention to this kind of detail provides the student a basic foundation on which other understandings and skills can be developed.

Compared to abstract generalizations about technology, the concrete nature of technical details makes them relatively easy to teach and assess. For example, teaching students how to identify specific types and sizes of wood screws and nails is intrinsically easier than helping students recognize that the holding power of a given mechanical fastener is dependent on the amount of surface area that comes in contact with the material being joined. In defense of those who support teaching specific details, it would be difficult for students to formulate generalizations about technology without some attention being given to details. However, it is equally difficult to imagine students formulating these generalizations if the curriculum is saturated with details like the anatomy of and applications for spade bits, auger bits, twist drills, and Foerstner bits. From this author's perspective, the role of technical details is to help students construct profound understandings about technology in contrast to being the primary knowledge base of the curriculum.

The Macro Lens

Using a macro lens to identify "the basics" requires one to be attentive to the big picture and to search out profound generalizations that enable students to make sense out of a wide range of technologies, many of which the teacher did not anticipate at the time of instruction. More simply, from this perspective "the basics" are concepts and skills that are common to a wide range of technologies.

Using a monocle or micro lens might inspire a teacher to teach their students about the anatomy of a table saw (e.g., rip fence, miter gauge, kerf splitter, kick-back paws, guard). In contrast, under the macro lens, the teacher would be compelled to emphasize the essential elements required to separate materials. More specifically, separating requires one or more inclined planes made of a material harder than the materials being cut, energy needs to be applied to either the material or the cutting tool, and either the material must be fed into a moving tool or the tool must be fed into a material that is in motion. If the emphasis is on the parts of a table saw and the function they serve, there is a good chance all the students will really know about separating materials is the anatomy of a table saw. However, if the teacher stresses more generalizable concepts, the students will possess a conceptual base for understanding milling steel, shearing paper, turning wood, or fracturing glass.

When teachers adopt this vision of "the basics," the goal of instruction is to help students develop a conceptual knowledge base and the thinking skills necessary for a lifetime of building new understandings without concentrating on unnecessary details. Once again, it is important to note that it is very difficult for students to formulate generalizations about technology without teaching specific details. More simply, it is difficult to formulate the concept of forest without attending to the trees, bushes, shrubs, and ground cover. Yet, one could study these discrete elements of the landscape without ever recognizing the synergy they possess as a forest.

A Question of Mission

One of the classic complaints from classroom teachers and preservice students is "you are not teaching anyone how to sharpen a lathe bit." Many people in the profession have vivid memories of learning how to grind and sharpen a lathe bit. The process included laying out angles on a piece of high speed steel, dressing a grinding wheel, practicing how to hold the material properly, introducing the material to the lower half of the grinding wheel, discovering how to put delicate amounts of pressure on the materials to achieve desired angles and finishes, checking the bit for unwanted facets, holding the bit and a gauge up to the light to inspect the angles, and lastly, taking the finished product to the teacher for inspection and approval. To many members of the technology education community, teaching the basics means teaching technical skills that have stood the test of time in the public education system.

The introduction of automated machines and inserts has dramatically reduced the importance of this skill in the work place. However, with school laboratories littered with old engine lathes, the need to be able to grind lathe bits remains a reality in public school life. The pressing question facing technology teacher educators is "do we teach future technology teachers how to grind lathe bits" or "do we adopt the more contemporary technology?" Ironically, the issue at hand is not this simple. However, in the final analysis, technology teacher education programs have to teach the old along side the new despite dwindling resources and the explosion of technological knowledge.

A lot of schools still have to rely on relatively antiquated machines to facilitate the study of technology. Furthermore, there is still a need for someone to know how to grind and sharpen lathe bits given the average age of equipment in schools. However, should the study of how to grind and sharpen lathe bits remain in the teacher education curriculum because it is a popular part of the secondary education curriculum or should it be addressed because it needs to be part of the teacher's skill set so he or she can maintain a working facility?

The answer to the first question is not as clear as one might suspect. The need for high school students to learn how to grind and sharpen lathe bits under the auspices of general education is dubious at best. If the purpose of engaging high school students in grinding lathe bits is to enable them to develop skills in grinding lathe bits, this author would vote no without any reservations. However, if the purpose of having students grind lathe bits is to experience the need for cutting tools to have specific geometric features that facilitate the making of a chip, then the answer might be yes. The validity of this teaching methodology would depend on whether or not it was being used to construct a generalizable concept in the mind of the learner. It would also be easier to endorse this type of instruction if the learner was engaged in activities that inspired students to transfer their new knowledge to other cutting tools that ranged from paper punches to ceramic inserts on computer numerical control lathes. However, the need for students to invest the time needed to grind a lathe bit in order to construct a fundamental understanding of tool geometry is questionable.

The answer to the second question is not as difficult as the first. The technology teacher needs to be able to grind lathe bits if this kind of technology is going to be a salient part of his or her laboratory for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the technology teacher also needs to know how to grind a lathe bit if he or she is going to exploit the experiential nature of this task to teach fundamental concepts about tool geometry. However, from this author's perspective, the next generation of teachers should not be taught this skill based solely on tradition or some antiquated notions about the world of work.


There are dozens of examples that are analogous to lathe bits. The real problem facing technology teacher educators is to make complex and value-laden decisions about what to keep in the curriculum and what to throw out. To complicate matters further, advancements in technology are increasing the knowledge base that technology teachers need to possess to be effective. It is also important to note that it is very difficult to purge antiquated content in the teacher education curriculum in light of the current learning facilities in many schools. Therefore, technology teacher educators find themselves between a proverbial rock and a hard place. Many traditional skills need to be taught because they have legitimate applications in the teaching and learning process. However, there is also a need to address contemporary technologies that have rendered many traditional concepts and skills obsolete.

From this author's point of view, "the basics" do not change over time (e.g., tool geometry) and the only thing that really changes is the packaging (e.g., lathe bits versus inserts). In light of finite resources, the most important of which is time, technology teacher educators need to develop strategies to empower future technology teachers with generalizable skills and profound understandings in technology without giving undue attention to specific technical details that play a marginal role in preparing young people for life in a technologically sophisticated society. Of course, the ultimate challenge is to help aspiring technology teachers to develop an intellectual foundation on which they can continue to learn about technology, the courage needed to embrace challenging content, and the wisdom needed to make thoughtful decisions about the concepts and skills that they target in their curricula.


Welty is Professor in the Communications, Education, and Training Department, and the Program Director for Technology Education Program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Menomonie.