JITE v37n4 - Automation Technology in Elementary Technology Education

Volume 37, Number 4
Summer 2000

Automation Technology in Elementary Technology Education

Esa-Matti Järvinen
University of Oulu
Jukka Hiltunen
University of Oulu

Constructivist theory frames learning as an active and continuous process whereby the learner takes information from the environment and constructs personal interpretations and meaning based on prior knowledge and experience (Glasersfeld, 1995; Kozulin, 1998 ). In a sociocultural interpretation, learning is understood to take part in the social context and is seen to be a process of enculturation, whereby the learner participates increasingly in an authentic and context-dependent activity ( McCormick, Murphy, Hennessy, & Davidson, 1996 ; Koulaidis & Tsatsaroni, 1996 ; Wertsch & Toma, 1995 ). This kind of activity can generate understanding and knowledge at a procedural level, as "device knowledge" which is related to action ( McCormick, 1998 ). In Vygotskian theory, spontaneous or everyday knowledge is explained "in terms of perceptual or functional or contextual properties of its referent" ( Panofsky, John-Steiner, & Blackwell, 1990, p. 251 ).

Research shows that the construction of knowledge occurs predominantly in socially interactive situations, often in apprenticeship-like collaborative settings with the assistance of more capable peers ( Gallimore & Tharp, 1990 ; Honebein, Duffy, & Fishman, 1992 ; Rogoff, 1990 ), and that the members of a learning community share knowledge by means of context-dependent language ( Gergen, 1995 ; Konold, 1995 ; Vygotsky, 1986 ). Ultimately, however, knowledge and skills are constructed at the individual level, from personal starting points and through spontaneous action ( Tudge, 1990 ).

In order to make learning more authentic and meaningful to children, it is essential both to give them a sense of ownership over the learning problem ( Savery & Duffy, 1995 ) and to allow the experience of inter-subjectivity to take place in the learning activity. As epitomized by Biesta, it is important that the "contribution of the child is not pseudo-contribution that is totally dependent upon the intentions and activities of the teacher" ( 1994, p.315 ).

However, in authoritative teaching methods ( Wertsch, 1991 ), whereby the teacher controls the social interaction and other classroom activities, the actions of many children are often in response to what they perceive to be the teacher's expectations and the requirements of traditional school evaluation mechanisms, such as examinations and tests ( Edwards & Mercer, 1987 ; Vygotsky, 1997, p. 126 ). In this kind of school setting, students do not necessarily feel the teaching and its content to be personally important or useful; thus, it is difficult for them to make meaningful connections between what they are taught and their everyday life.

Authoritative teaching methods also militate against children's collaborative construction of understanding, because pupils feel they are outsiders in the learning activity. Nevertheless, personal interests and needs that arise from the learner have great influence on the learning process. According to Opetushallitus ( 1994 ), effective teaching requires the creation of optimal learning opportunities through pedagogical means and also the encouragement and maintenance of students' positive willingness to learn. Thus, a teacher's role changes from that of distributor of knowledge and skills to that of facilitator of learning and coordinator of learning environments where the children can be active agents of their own learning processes.

Since technology can be seen as being a response to "satisfy human needs and wants" with respect to our habitats, food supply, communication, security etc. ( Black & Harrison, 1985 ; Dugger & Yung, 1995 ; Hacker & Barden, 1988 ; Savage & Sterry, 1990 ) and as human innovation and problem solving in action (see http://www.iteawww.org/A1.html ; McCormick et al., 1996 ), teaching methods in technology lessons should be adjusted accordingly. Problem solving should relate to children's real life environment ( Lehto, 1998 ; Schwartz, 1996 ), allowing them to make appropriate and meaningful connections. Moreover, the problems given should enable them to explore and pursue their own needs and wants, at least to some extent. Children should actually be encouraged to notice problems and deficiencies in their everyday environment and given opportunities to apply technological knowledge and skills they have acquired in subsequent problem-solving situations ( Adams, 1991 ; Lindh, 1997 ).

Technology education in Finland has been under development, in part in response to the demands mentioned above ( Kananoja & Tiusanen, 1991 ). These demands are relevant not only in vocational education, but also in general all-round education. Lindh ( 1997 ) has defined the goal of technology education accordingly: "The aim of Technology Education [sic] is that pupils could be more able to understand the logic and functional mechanism of 'everyday' technology and can solve technological problems applying technological knowledge and skills they have got" ( p.133 ).

Automation in Technology Education

Automation is based on control and systems theory, which is not limited to technical systems only, but also covers economic, biological, sociological, and other types of systems. When dealing with automation in a technical sense, computers are widely used as an implementation environment for control functions, as well as, a tool for human operations and supervisory control of the system.

Automation technology is an essential part of modern technology. Automated systems are used to control a variety of processes that ease, speed up, and enable many functions that are otherwise impossible, difficult, excessively repetitive, or even dangerous to human beings ( Norman, Cubitt, Urry, & Whittaker, 1995 ; also Suplee, 1997 ). Automation technology, which affects our life directly, or indirectly, can be found in numerous industries and places. However, automated systems do not need to be computer driven, and can be found nearer to us than one might initially expect. There are examples of automated systems galore to which elementary children can be introduced. Thermostats, for instance, are automated systems that are found in most homes and in our bodies as well (see Norman et al., 1995 ). Our life would be very different without automated systems operating on "behalf of us". This profusion of automated systems provides a fruitful background for making automation technology authentic to the real life experiences of children.

Automation technology is not a part of the core curriculum of Finnish compulsory all-round education at elementary and junior high levels. However, it is taught, with various interpretations on methods and contents, in some schools around the country. Usually, these schools have participated in special projects or have been otherwise active in further developing their school syllabus. This has been possible because the shift from a detailed, centralized curriculum has increased the possibilities of local diversification from the broad, compulsory curriculum framework.

Purpose of the Study

The overall purpose of the study was to consider automation technology as a subject-matter area in developing technology education curriculum. However, a more specific goal of the study was to make children familiar with some essential and prevalent features of automation technology. In this regard, the study was designed to emphasize the importance and meaning of technology in students' everyday lives.

Teaching methods in the study were based on the assumption that constructivist-driven, open, and creative problem solving, as well as children-centered approaches, are especially suitable for technology education. This assumption arises from the notions that innovation and problem solving are important in technological processes ( Barnes, 1988 ; Black & Harrison, 1985 ; Harstein & Cohen, 1996 ; http:// www.iteawww.org/A1.html ), and that technological processes have usually emerged as a response to human needs and wants ( Hacker & Barden, 1988 ). Consequently, design briefs were developed to support not only the above-mentioned goals, but also to provide open, children-centered problem solving based upon acute needs found in the children's own living environment (see discussion of time blocks three and four below).

The study was directed by the following questions:

  1. What contents of automation technology spontaneously emerge in the children's work while they work in groups at solving problems from their own living environment?
  2. How successfully do the children solve problems that involve automation technology?


Two classes from Haapavesi Township Central Primary School participated in the study: one from the fifth grade level (12 girls, 8 boys) and the another from the sixth grade (11 girls, 12 boys). The rationale for this procedure was that the methods of qualitative research usually produce an abundance of detailed and in-depth information about a relatively small number of people ( Patton, 1990 ). Both of the classes were treated in the same way. They were given similar instructions and arrangements and they followed a similar class schedule.

Setting and Instructional Context

The Lego/logo-Control Lab system was selected for the study, with the costs underwritten by a national electrical power supply company, Fortum Ltd. The materials and equipment were part of the Technic series of Lego product line, which includes sensors for light, touch, angle, and temperature ( Lego Dacta Control Lab, 9701); a process interface connected to the computer serial port (Lego Dacta Multi-interface 8+8, 9751); and Lego/logo- programming language software that allowed the children to write control programs (Lego Dacta Control Lab Software for PC Version 1.0) ( Lego Dacta, 1993 ).

Children's work was arranged to fit into normal school routines by means of a workshop-like environment. The computer laboratory was reserved for the construction of projects. A work station was provided to each group and consisted of a computer (Intel 486-66 Mhz), the Lego/Logo Control Lab materials, and adequate space to work. The children were given a handout sheet consisting of the main commands and some principles of programming. Importantly, however, the delivered handout sheet did not contain any design challenges, tasks, or problems to solve. Moreover, the Lego Dacta manuals were put aside in order to avoid having the children copy and model ready-made outcomes and solutions.

Another of the authors coordinated in setting up the study and also took part in teaching with the classroom teacher. In the study the authors' role was limited to tutor and the class teacher was mainly responsible for the students.

The children worked in groups of three to four and were assigned to the groups by the teacher based on diversity rather than pre-established friendships (the fifth grade formed six [6] groups and the sixth grade: seven [7] groups). Both boys and girls were represented in nearly every group. The practice was to follow the modern teamwork model whereby the members of a team have to cooperate in order to accomplish the given tasks ( Mortimer, 1996 ). While working in a group, however, the children were free to decide the assignment of roles, i.e., programmers and constructors. Moreover, social interaction in the groups was not controlled by the teacher, but was dependent on the children themselves.

The children went through activities that consisted of four six-hour instructional time blocks. The first three of the blocks took place over a one-year time period, i.e., from 1995 to 1996. Then, due to the continuing interest of the class, teachers, and the researchers, it was decided to arrange one more six-hour time block a year afterwards, in the spring term of 1997. This time the sixth grade from the previous year had already gone to the secondary school and did not take part. Thus, in the fourth time block there was only one remaining class, now in the sixth grade.

This study concentrates on time blocks three and four. In order to give the reader a grasp what the children did before the two latter time blocks, the following information is given.

Time Block One. The Lego components of the learning environment were introduced through a competition to construct a Lego "soap-box" car which runs as quickly as possible. Once this was complete, the pupils moved to the computer lab where the Lego/Logo Control Lab was shown as a whole system.

Time Block Two. The children visited a local peat–fired power plant. They investigated the functions of the main gate of the plant and the peat conveyors. The rest of the time was carried out in the computer laboratory. The visit to the peat plant yielded a theme for working. Instead of making just a model, they were encouraged to use their creativity and imagination to improve what they saw.

After participating in the above–mentioned activities, the children were supposed to get rather familiar with the possibilities of the Lego/logo learning environment. In subsequent time blocks, on which this study concentrates, the tasks given to the children allowed them to explore their own needs and wants, for example, to notice problems in their own everyday living environment that need to be solved (see Amram & Brick, 1996 ). They were allowed to work almost entirely on the basis of their own needs without ready–made answers found in the teacher's manuals or answer books.

Time Block Three. The children were given an open–ended design challenge. This time their challenge was to design and build a system that would enable a pet to survive at home while the family was away on vacation. Even the teachers didn't know beforehand what the groups might accomplish. Consequently, there were no predetermined right answers or solutions. Rather, the viability of the solution was relative to what the children knew about the needs of their pets as a priori process knowledge.

Time Block Four. The children were given a short imaginary notice that there are burglars going around in the town. There was some emphasis on the fact that the burglars are also a reality and occasionally encountered. Then, children's personal concerns were raised by asking them to think their own home was to be robbed. The children were expected to know their home conditions and needs best, and by raising their personal concern, they were expected to be emotionally engage in problem solving ( Lave, 1988 ). Like in the previous time block, the children were told that there are no wrong answers to the problem, but, rather, only appropriate solutions ( Lampert, 1990 ). They were encouraged to use their imagination and creativity without concern of being submitted to the traditional school evaluation practices. Again, viability of the solution was relative to what the children knew about the needs of their home as a priori process knowledge.

There were no tests administered before, during, or after the study. It was assumed that multiple kinds of qualitative evidence collection would provide enough information relative to the research problems. Moreover, this procedure was believed to enhance the motivation and relaxation of the pupils and thus supported the "authentic" nature of the work void of expectations connected with the study or traditional school evaluation ( Honebein et al., 1992, p. 89 ; Patton, 1990 ).

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

Theoretical Framework

The socio–cultural constructivist perspective relative to learning enabled a theoretical background that draws on both constructivism and interpretivism. Constructivism and interpretivism aim to understand the meanings constructed by children while taking part in context–specific and socially situated activity through social interaction ( Schwandt, 1994 ). This theoretical background required that the methodology of the study take into account the actions of individual children toward others. The methodology also acknowledges physical objects in the socio–cultural context, the social interactions between and among the children, as well as, the context and substance of the children's actions and social interaction (see also Borg & Gall, 1989 ).

Methodological Perspective

The methodological perspective of the study was qualitative in nature and grounded on inductive, data–based analysis. This means that although the study was guided by a stated research problem, it employed an open search for categories, concepts, and patterns emerging from the data. Thus, there were no ready–made categories before the analysis. Importantly, the authors began analyzing data open–mindedly even without a pre–structured framework for categories ( Erickson, 1986 ; Patton, 1990 ).

Methods of Inquiry

Data Collection

While acting with the class teacher as a tutor, another of the authors assumed the role of participant observer ( Borg & Gall, 1989 ; Erickson, 1986 ). This role enabled him to be in the midst of school activity and carry out data collection from "naturally occurring, ordinary events in natural settings" ( Miles & Huberman, 1994, p.10 ). In this way the authors aimed to get a grasp on what was happening in "real–life" settings.

Data collection procedures were aimed at capturing children's social interaction and actions in small–group settings. The data were collected in accordance with the idea of "local groundedness"; that is, the collection was carried out in the very place the activity took place (not through mail or phone, for instance) ( Miles & Huberman, 1994 ). Importantly, the data does not contain any exams or reports written by the children, but, rather, reveals spontaneous activity itself, from, the viewpoint of various data gathering methods.

Data were collected by means of group observations documented in videotaped recordings, written field notes, and also as students' saved project files. Video recordings can be regarded as a primary data sources and were aimed at a single group in each class throughout the time block. In this way, at least one group's process was recorded as a whole, continuous process. The video–recorded group was separated from the rest of the class in order to ensure the maximum capture of the group's activities. The other groups were not video recorded during the process, but, when at the end of the experiment all the groups had to present their outcomes to whole class, all the outcomes together with presentations were documented on video recordings.

Field notes were written on all of the groups. The purpose of writing field notes was to document what was going on among the all of the groups. Another of the authors visited every group several times during the lessons. Equipped with paper, pen, and dictating machine he looked, listened, interviewed, and occasionally even participated in the group's process, true to his role as a participant observer and tutor in need. These experiences were documented in a field diary. Dictating machine recordings were transcribed in order to support the writing process. Moreover, the groups project files (including the written programs) were saved and copied to a floppy disc to be used in the analysis.

Observational field notes together with recordings of dictating machine and group project files formed secondary data sources. Secondary data sources were used to give supplementary information in the search for emergent patterns on the data. They also enabled the authors to have a profile of activities, within all the groups, not just within the video recorded group. Thus, to enhance validity and credibility of the research, multiple data collecting sources and strategies were employed, according the concept of triangulation ( Miles & Huberman, 1994 ; Wiersma, 1986 ).

Data Analysis

All the collected data, both primary and secondary data sources, formulated a data corpus, which was submitted to analysis. Video recordings were transcribed from the viewpoint of automation technology, for example, situations where the students seemed to be spontaneously generating problems to solve consisting of the contents of automation technology were included in the transcription. During the transcription process, irrelevant data, such as discussions about ‘boy and girl friends', were excluded ( Miles & Huberman, 1994 ). All names in transcriptions were treated as pseudonyms.

Verbatim transcriptions derived from the video recordings were combined with the secondary data sources. The researchers focused the analysis process on socially interactive settings where the pupils spontaneously worked with some essential principles of automation technology. Moreover, the theoretical issues about learning and teaching presented in this study were also in the research interest.

During the first round of analysis, the researchers began to form an idea of the emergent phenomena relative to the theme of this study. In subsequent analysis rounds the data revealed more organized, pervasive patterns from the viewpoint of automation technology. These emergent phenomena indicated that the children were spontaneously dealing with some essential features of automation technology. This prompted the researchers to carry out further viewing of the data in order to specify those emerging features. In the final stage of analysis emergent findings were specified into detailed classifications of the content of automation technology, supported by the illustrative data examples with interpretations ( Järvinen, 1998 ).

During the analysis process, the researchers were continually open to re–explore relationships between data and emergent findings and to make revisions correspondingly. They discussed and shared thoughts on several occasions. Data examples presented in this article were analyzed by both of us individually and also in the collaborative discussion in which the final interpretations were developed. (see Ritchie & Hampson, 1996 ) Finally, the researchers reached the stage where they considered to have investigated the whole data corpus sufficiently from the viewpoint of the research problems. From this point of saturation the researchers forwarded to present results with interpretations.

Results with Interpretations

The inductive interpretative analysis process used in this study enabled the results to be framed as an empirical assertion, with data as evidentiary warrants ( Erickson, 1986 ) including detailed content categories of automation technology (as shown below as empirical assertion) supported by evidentiary examples taken from primary and secondary data sources ( Miles & Huberman, 1994 ). Examples presented to support assertion and categories were also "microanalyzed" (interpretation) in order to clarify the interpretative analysis process the authors went through ( Erickson, 1986 ).

Information in the examples overlaps considerably throughout classifications. In spite of this they have been chosen to present the classification and microanalysis. Moreover, examples illustrate information contained in the whole data the authors went through during the analysis.

Although pursuing relatively less structured design challenges, the children spontaneously dealt with essential contents of automation technology. The children also have been observed to have at least procedural, socially shared understanding of the substance in the focus.

During analysis process, the following contents of automation technology were classified to emerge from the data corpus: using sensors and switches in the context of automation technology, open loop control systems, closed loop control systems and the concept of feedback, block–based programming and system configuration especially in the context of automation technology, and logic(al) operations. Hereafter, every classification is supported by examples taken from primary and secondary data sources.

Using Sensors and Switches in the Context of Automation Technology

In spite of the fact that sensors were not applied in the final solutions by all of the groups (Time block three: 11 groups out of 13; Time block four: 7 groups out of 7), most of the children appeared to have an understanding of the meaning of them in order to realize different automated actions and functions. The programming of the sensors caused many difficulties and frustrations. However, despite these difficulties, or rather just because of them, the sensors came out meaningfully. Actually, the sensors usually played a crucial role from the beginning of the work and the children were accustomed to take sensors into account in the planning of control systems.

The following two examples illustrates situations in which the children showed understanding concerning the meaning of the sensors in order to achieve desired functions:

Example 1

A girl member of the group had an idea to use a touch sensor in order to start the motor.

01 Anna: Asked how to switch on the motor by using touch sensor.

02 Researcher: I told her to have a look at the paper [basic commands and the principle of programming] delivered for them.

03 Anna: [Anna began to read the paper and then commented] Oh yes…that's how it goes!

04 Researcher: [to the field diary] Without any further help she was able to do simple procedure for the touch sensors and motor. Moreover, she managed to program other sensors also.


In this example Anna had an idea to start a motor by using a touch sensor. She uses correct terminology from the viewpoint of conceptual knowledge (line 01), but more importantly, she understands the purpose of the touch sensor in this particular context and is able to use it. In this case, the paper delivered for all pupils provided sufficient information for Anna to continue her work. The researcher's role in this situation was reduced only to guide the student to the source of the information (line 02). Anna was capable enough to transfer knowledge from this particular situation to other contexts, for example, utilizing other sensors in order to trigger different functions (line 04). Referring to the Vygotskian idea of "zone of proximal development", Anna can be interpreted to achieve the zone of internalization where the need for outside help diminishes (see Gallimore & Tharp, 1990, p. 186 ).

Example 2

In the beginning of the time block, there was a discussion about the use of sensors in the seventh group.

01 Reetta: Reetta said that the sensors are used in the barns and piggeries in order to give food for the animals.


In this short example Reetta obviously has a previous experience with sensors. She has seen and heard of using them in real life in an authentic context. Now Reetta carries her previous knowledge to be used in this particular situation and, importantly, it is she who makes an important connection to the application of automation technology outside the experiment. Reetta's comment reveals her understanding about the meaning of the sensors, although it does not appear what kind of sensors are used in the places to which Reetta refers. Interestingly, this is a learning situation also for the researcher, himself, to get to know something about automation technology applied in agriculture. Moreover, the example shows, at least to some extent, that enculturation with authenticity has taken place in the learning situation ( McCormick et al., 1996 ).

Open Loop Control Systems

Open loop control systems appeared to be the most common form of control systems observed in the works of the children (Time block three: 12 groups out of 13; Time block four: 7 groups out of 7). The idea of open loop control systems were attained and accomplished in relatively simple works. They did not need complicated programming either, adequate programming was done even by using only two or three basic commands.

The following example illustrates one such situation in which students were involved in making open loop control systems:

Example 3

The group had build an automatic door for the dog. Lotta presents the system to the whole class.

01 Lotta: ("Leads" the dog [made out of Legos] by her hand.) This dog is alone in the home while rest of the family has gone for a holiday and now it wants to go out and it passes a light sensor on the way, which opens the door…the door is open for five seconds and then it closes…and when this dog wants to go in the house it has to push this touch sensor and the door opens again and the dog can go in.


In this example Lotta explains her a priori process knowledge: the dog wants to go out and come back again and the functions of the door are built for the dog. In addition to her understanding of the application process and the meaning of sensors when automating this application process, Lotta's explanations reveals the idea of an open loop control system. As a matter of fact, the idea is prevalent in both directions: when the dog goes out and when it comes back into the house. Although, in both cases the programmed system meets the requirements of an open loop control system, the solution presented by the group can not be found in teaching materials or curriculum guides. It is a unique piece of successful work based on the children's own ideas, their own contribution to the learning activity ( Biesta, 1994 ) and moreover, contextually connected to the (pet care) culture prevalent among the children ( McCormick et al., 1996 ).

Closed Loop Control Systems and the Principle of Feedback

Closed loop control systems were not commonly understood at a conceptual level. In spite of this some of the children had a procedural (‘device') knowledge of the idea of closed loop control system and they also applied it in their work ( McCormick, 1998 ) (Time block three: 3 groups out of 13; Time block four: 0 groups out of 7). In spite of the ideas coming from the children themselves, the teacher's or researcher's contribution was usually needed in order to achieve a fully functioning system. Interestingly, all closed loop control systems done by the children were achieved only in the third time block, but not in the fourth time block. This phenomena can be interpreted to be due, at least to some extent, to the design challenge in the fourth time block; doing home security systems simply did not prompt the children to tackle closed loop control systems and the idea of feedback ( J7auml;rvinen & Hiltunen, 1999 ).

The following example illustrates a situation in which students worked with the ideas of closed loop control systems and feedback.

Example 4

The group presents to the whole class their system built for the dog staying alone at home while the rest of the family is having a vacation.

01 Lauri: [Explains the system while Jennistiina operates the functions of it from the command center.] This is a doghouse and if temperature in there rises over 27 degrees [Celsius] this fan starts to rotate. [Takes a temperature sensor to his hand and begins to heat it up. Soon the fan turns on] So this fan turns on and it keeps rotating until the temperature is lower than 25 degrees. [Now he places the sensor into the doghouse just in front of the rotating fan.]

02 Researcher: Yes, leave it [fan system] to wait until it cools up…and what is this, another automation system there?"

The student's program was written as follows: to tuuletin ("fan") waituntil [temp1 › 27] talkto "motorb on waituntil [temp1 < 25] talkto "motorb off repeat 1 [tuuletin] end


This example illustrates those rare situations in which the children managed to do closed loop control systems in their work. The group had accomplished a system which controlled doghouse temperature to be in between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius. Output (a rotating fan) gives feedback to the input (a temperature sensor) in order to keep the system in the desired, appropriate condition. In explaining the principle of the system Lauri can be interpreted also to understand it (line 01). Actually, they have found out the very basic idea of the system known as a rule–based closed loop control. Importantly, procedural knowledge during the process and the final accomplishment is achieved through spontaneous action connected to the culture close to the children themselves ( McCormick, 1998 ; Suomala, 1993 ).

Block–based Programming and System Configuration Especially in the Context of Automation Technology

When the constructed devices had to be programmed or they did not function in the desired way, the students' attention was immediately directed to programming. In this way, the children quite commonly encountered the importance of programming in very concrete and realistic ways (Time block three: 12 groups out of 13; Time block four: 7 groups out of 7). Independent programming skills were quite difficult to acquire, however, but in some cases children progressed amazingly well and sometimes even managed to independently make loops (programming the system to function recurrently so the system does not need to be manually re–started, but it goes automatically to the beginning of the procedure) to their procedures.

The following two examples illustrate situations where the programming served as a tool to implement the automation technology. The aim of the work was to make planned systems and accomplished devices function in a desired way:

Example 5

Rosemari is programming a temperature sensor.

01 Researcher: Did You write that command by yourself?

02 Rosemari: Yes, I did.

03 Researcher: Very good…[continues to the dictating machine] and here in second group Rosemari made a fully functional command line for the temperature sensor.


Rosemari appears to be capable of programming at least one sensor (lines 02—>03). She can also understand the meaning of the programming in the context of automation technology; in order to be useful, a temperature sensor needs to be addressed with an appropriate program. Thus, block–based programming emerges in a meaningful, authentic context ( Honebein et al., 1992 ).

Example 6

Here a group of children is presenting their system to the whole class. The pupil responsible for programming is asked to explain the program written in the procedures–page.

01 Rosa: These [commands] are written in such an order, in which this [alarm system] has to function…in what power this conveyor is about to run and so forth.

02 Researcher: Could you tell us line by line what do all those commands mean…what are they for…beginning from the first line like for 'whom' is the first command line addressed?

03 Tatu: [whispers while Rosa hesitates to answer] For the light sensor.

04 Researcher: Yes, that's right…and then…what does that "talkto 'soundb' mean"?

05 Rosa: It is for this sound in here [in the interface output–port b].

06 Researcher: And then there is "talkto 'lampa'".

07 Rosa: That lamp is here in the a [in the interface output–port a].

08 Researcher: And then you have got both "sound b" and "lamp a" in the brackets…what does it mean?

09 Rosa: That's because they (sound b and lamp a) are to function simultaneously.

10 Researcher: What does that "onfor 15" mean, then?

11 Rosa: Because they (sound b and lamp a) are meant to be on for one and a half seconds.

12 Researcher: And then there is that "talkto 'motorc setpower 8 onfor 20'"…is this now for this conveyor which throws all those "tires" in order to 'knock out' the thief?

13 Rosa: Yes…in here that 8 stands for the power conveyor rotates and 20 means for two seconds…and then lamp and siren are again on, now for ten seconds.

The student's programme was written as follows: To vahti [to 'guard'] waituntil [light 5 > 45] talkto "soundb talkto "lampa talkto [soundb lampa] onfor 15 talkto "motorc setpower 8 onfor 20 talkto [soundb lampa] onfor 100 end


In this quite lengthy example Rosa appears to understand most of the programming and system configuration she has been doing with her group. Importantly, she says (line 01) that these command lines are written in the same order in which the alarm system is supposed to function, thus showing the idea of a logical relationship between the programming and the home security system. In spite of this, the first line written to the light sensor seems to be the quite difficult and, because of her hesitation, Tatu outside of the group gets an opportunity to help/answer in a right way (line 03). However, after the first line of commands she is more fluent in explaining the purposes of different commands. Actually, she seems to be completely aware of the relationship of written commands and different functions; when explaining the commands she refers to the corresponding output ports in the interface (lines 05 and 07). The rest of the conversation is done without direct reference to the interface, but rather is about achieving simultaneous functions from the output (lines 08 and 09) and further relates to the particular device, conveyor, in a constructed home security system (lines 12 and 13). All this indicates Rosa's understanding about the programming in the context of automation technology.

Logic(al) Operations

Logic(al) operations, especially in the output side of the system, appeared to be a very common feature in children's outcomes (Time block three: 12 groups out of 13; Time block four: 7 groups out of 7). When the children designed different functions for the output, they managed to do conjunctions of different operations.

He following example is about the process where the children dealt with logic(al) operations.

Example 7

In this example the group has developed the home security system to the phase where they want to test it. The test goes accordingly:

01 Sara: [Activates the system from the control panel] The thief thinks that it is just a piece of cake to go in to this house…and presses this [touch sensor] and then the thief is captured. [The door closes behind the thief.]

02 Lydia: [playing the role of thief] Cripes!...I got caught...and now the siren began to blare.


When the thief presses the touch sensor input is given to the system, resulting as a desired output and the thief is captured by the closing door (line 01). Moreover, the output consists of a blaring siren, as indicated in the Lydia's comment (line 02), indicating a logic(al) operation; IF(touch sensor)–THEN(door)AND(siren). There were no requirements posed by the teacher or textbook to use logic(al) operations in the work, and importantly, they were achieved in the spontaneous process ( Suomala, 1993 ) where the pupils' pursue their own problem. Interestingly, in this case Lydia is prompted to play the role of the thief and thus she can be interpreted to be emotionally engaged in the situation ( Lave 1988 ). This, although short, piece of process indicates context–dependent authenticity and enculturation which took place in the process ( McCormick et al., 1996 ).


This discussion aims to make some general statements and suggestions about teaching technology. Thus, some of the discussion is not directly connected to the purpose and results of this study. However, the discussion stems from the overall theme and results of the study and is intended to be useful within other activities in technology education, i.e., not only concerning teaching automation technology with Lego/logo.

The results of this study show that the children became familiar with some aspects of automation technology. This observation was especially true considering the need to understand the meaning of sensors, the importance of programming in order to make useful systems, and the idea of open loop control systems. However, children's skills were not always at the level of their ideas. They got an idea based on their own needs and were able to make use of automation technology. Quite often the teacher/researcher was needed to achieve final accomplishment.

One of the most remarkable results of this study was the motivation and task orientation of the children. When the work was based on the problems found in their own life, they seemed to have an ownership and emotional engagement over the task at hand ( Lave, 1988 ; Savery & Duffy, 1995 ). However, at the same time their work consisted of the classified contents of automation technology and interestingly, without any use of textbooks, worksheets, manuals or the like. Although the children mainly worked on the basis of procedural knowledge or device knowledge, their knowledge reflected "as much of the context of the device (e.g., its operation) as any abstract knowledge taught in science" ( McCormick, 1998, p.7 ). Moreover and importantly, they participated in the process of technological development in order to meet one's needs and wants ( Hacker & Barden, 1998 ). Although children's knowledge and skills were far from complete, in this regard the children seemed to be successful. They can be interpreted to spontaneously acquire procedural "device" knowledge and learn to act like a technologist in many ways. They created something which has not existed before, their knowledge and skills developed in the course of the experiment and were applied in forthcoming problem solving situations. They transferred knowledge and skills among themselves in expert–apprenticeship–like situations and they acted on the basis of social or individual needs, thus, carrying out the true nature of technology.

One of the most important things in education is for the teacher to adjust teaching methods according to the nature of the subject in question. When the subject is technology, it is quite natural that the children solve open–ended problems on the basis of the their own needs. In this way teaching technology would be more in character with the true nature of substance itself.

According to the most radical idea of constructivism (Glasersfeld, 1993; Schwandt, 1994 ) there is no reality that exists outside people; they have to perceive and experience the outside world personally in order to formulate it as their individual reality. This notion leads to the essence of technology. There would not be a technological reality around us if we have not, literally, constructed it. Technological development has usually been driven by individual or social needs to sustain living and to make it easier or safer or for other purposes that seem to be important. According to the results of this study, the sociocultural constructivist approach appears to be natural and effective in organizing learning, especially in technology education.

The tasks presented to the children were designed by adults. In this regard the starting point was not entirely child–centered. Actually, an overly child–centered approach is one of the pitfalls for constructivism (see Ernest, 1995, p. 464 ) and the researchers of this study did not want to fall in to that pit. Importantly, there has to be a certain direction in the learning activity. That direction could be set by curriculum, for example. However, the task allocation should be open enough for children to formulate their specific problems to work with and to accomplish solutions unknown in advance ( Järvinen & Twyford, 2000 ). And, this does not mean that the requirements of curriculum are not intended to be attainable.

Regardless of the media used in technology education, it is essential that children are encouraged to work and learn in a way that fosters innovation with creativity and discovery ( Futschek, 1995 ). This is closely connected with the thoughts of Ausubel and Robinson ( 1973 ) regarding the creation of an appropriate atmosphere for solving problems that is low in stress and allows concentration on the task at hand. To promote effective learning, the emphasis has to be on appropriate teaching methods and in relating the problems to the children themselves.

In technology lessons, the action itself and its understanding are most important. Teaching technology should not begin with the introduction of conceptual jargon, but with design challenges which enable children to come across the underlying technological principles spontaneously while engaged in the learning activity (see Papert, 1980 ; Suomala, 1993 ). Technological principles encountered by the children at a procedural level can be conceptualized later on.

As a result of technology education, children may be better at defining appropriate learning outcomes than are textbooks or teaching manuals. Actually, in technology lessons there should not be right answers to the posed questions, but rather appropriate solutions to emerging problems. In this way the children can be real contributors in the learning activity ( Biesta, 1994 ) and the learning structure can be efficient in terms of procedural knowledge acquisition, but also meaningful.

As a closing remark, the authors would like to encourage technology teachers to try open–ended, constructivist ideas of teaching in their classroom practice. This kind of teaching might require a little bit more work and preparation time, but certainly it is rewarding in many ways. When the final outcome of children's problem solving processes is unknown in the design brief, it is not boredom, but rather a thrilling anticipation which lingers over the technology lessons.


Järvinen is a Researcher/Technology Education, Faculty of Education, Department of Teacher Education at the University of Oulu (Finland).

Hiltunen is a Lecturer/Automation Technology, Faculty of Technology, Department of Process Engineering at the University of Oulu (Finland).


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