Journal of Technology Education

Journal of Technology Education

Current Editor: Chris Merrill,
Previous Editors: Mark Sanders 1989-1997; James LaPorte: 1997-2010

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Volume 2, Number 2
Spring 1991

              Implementing Technology Education Problem-Solving Activities
                                      V. William DeLuca
                             Teaching students how to solve problems
                        is an important goal of education and indus-
                        trial arts/technology education has had a
                        long history of providing an environment for
                        developing these skills.  The congruence of
                        technology education and problem solving is
                        based on the fact that technologies are, in
                        many ways, a product of problem solving.
                        Technological problems require the applica-
                        tion of knowledge from many different disci-
                        plines and the laboratory provides a medium
                        to develop and test solutions.
                             Greenfield (1987, p. 20) suggests that
                        students do not acquire thinking skills sim-
                        ply by practice in problem solving, drill, or
                        osmosis. Problem-solving activities must be
                        implemented with careful planning to insure
                        intended student outcomes. Curriculum plan-
                        ning must involve careful consideration of
                        the goals of problem-solving instruction, how
                        an activity fits in relation to the goals,
                        and the teaching style that would best facil-
                        itate goal attainment. Also, there is a dif-
                        ference between the product and the process
                        when considering the value of problem-solving
                        activities.  Perkins (1986, p. 7) cautions
                        against focusing on the products we produce
                        and only indirectly the process by which we
                        produce them. Specifically, how to proceed in
                        a stepwize fashion to reach a goal.  The es-
                        sence of problem-solving is the application
                        of knowledge and process that leads to a sol-
                        ution. Like any skill, the problem solver
                        must acquire knowledge related to the prob-
                        lem, thinking skills needed to process this
                        knowledge, and the ability to identify and
                        apply appropriate processes to reach a sol-
                                  PROBLEM-SOLVING PROCESSES
                             Problem solving is a process of resolv-
                        ing a known difficulty. Anderson (1980) em-
                        phasizes the processes undertaken during the
                        act of problem solving by defining this be-
                        havior as goal directed sequence of oper-
                        ations-- an organized sequence of mental
                        steps.  Accordingly, several different
                        problem-solving processes have been docu-
                        mented. Brightman (1981) discussed a process
                        model first proposed by John Dewey in 1933.
                        The three step process included the diagnosis
                        phase, analysis phase, and solution phase.
                        Other, more specific, models have been de-
                        scribed by Polya (1971), Soloway (1988),
                        Bransford & Stein (1984), Hatch (1988),
                        Seymour (1987), and Devore (1987). Following
                        are summaries of these problem-solving proc-
                        1.  Troubleshooting/Debugging: Isolate the
                            problem, identify possible cause, test,
                            implement solution, test solution.
                        2.  Scientific Process: Observation, develop
                            hypothesis, experimentation, draw conclu-
                        3.  Design Process: Ideation/brainstorm,
                            identify possible solution, prototype,
                            finalize design.
                        4.  Research and Development: Conceptualize
                            the project, select research procedure,
                            finalize research design, develop pro-
                            posal, conduct research, analyze result,
                            report result, evaluate research project.
                        5.  Project Management: Identify project
                            goal, identify tasks to reach the goal,
                            develop a plan to accomplish the tasks,
                            implement the plan, evaluate the plan.
                             The problem type determines the appro-
                        priate process to select and use. Therefore,
                        the task of the problem solver is to select
                        the best process for a given problem. To se-
                        lect from these processes, the problem solver
                        must understand each process and how and when
                        to use the appropriate one. Advanced problem
                        solvers perceive the process of solving prob-
                        lems as a cycle and selected processes or
                        subprocesses are used when needed.
                                       THINKING SKILLS
                             The mental abilities needed to solve
                        problems are not fully understood because of
                        the many levels and integrations of knowledge
                        sets that are manifested in the act of solv-
                        ing problems. In its simplest form, problem-
                        solving involves the application of recalled
                        knowledge. Woods (1987, p. 55) discusses the
                        importance of a knowledge base pertinent to
                        the content of the problem and further ex-
                        plains the value of the problem solver's
                        ability to identify, locate, and evaluate
                        missing information needed in the problem-
                        solving process. These thinking skills, as
                        they relate to technology education, may be
                        classified as follows:
                        1.  Prior Technological Knowledge: Knowledge
                            and skills gained from previous study in
                            technology education class.
                        2.  Related Knowledge: Knowledge gained from
                            classes other than technology education
                            such as math and science.
                        3.  Knowledge Seeking: Ability to identify
                            missing information, and locate and ob-
                            tain relevant information.
                             Higher order thinking skills involve the
                        processing of knowledge in memory. In this
                        respect, thinking is the process of changing
                        knowledge.  Comparing ordinary thinking and
                        good thinking, Lipman (1988, p. 40) uses
                        terms such as estimating, evaluating, classi-
                        fying, assuming, and hypothesizing to define
                        good thinking. Similar thinking processes
                        have been identified by Bloom (1956); Duke
                        (1985); Kurfman & Cassidy (1977); and
                        Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman, & Miller (1980).
                        Presseisen (1985, p.45) classified thinking
                        skills as follows:
                        1.  Qualifications -- finding unique
                            characteristics: units of basic identity,
                            definitions, facts, problem/task recogni-
                        2.  Causations -- establishing cause and ef-
                            fect, assessment: predictions, infer-
                            ences, judgments, evaluations.
                        3.  Transformation -- relating known to un-
                            known characteristics, creating meanings:
                            analogies, metaphors, logical inductions.
                        4.  Relationships -- Detecting regular
                            operations: parts and wholes, patterns,
                            analysis and synthesis, sequence and or-
                            der, logical deduction.
                        5.  Classification -- determining common
                            qualities: similarities and differences,
                            grouping and sorting, comparisons,
                            either/or distinctions.
                             This list encompasses the thinking
                        skills presented in the literature. The five
                        categories describe ways people mentally
                        process knowledge to change its form and
                                 TEACHING METHODS AND STYLES
                             When implementing problem-solving activ-
                        ities, the level of achievement is determined
                        by the teaching methods used to initiate and
                        maintain students' goal directed behaviors.
                        Maley (1978) describes 15 teaching methods
                        appropriate for industrial arts. Nader (1984)
                        and Costa (1984) also referenced similar
                        methods in addition to several other commonly
                        used teaching methods. Refer to Table 2 col-
                        umn 4 for a listing of these methods.
                             Which of these methods are best for de-
                        veloping students' problem-solving skills?
                        Given the diversity of technology education
                        content and the need to teach basic content
                        and skills, this question is not easily an-
                        swered. When students have had no experience
                        with the subject matter, recall is the start-
                        ing point. Basic knowledge and skills may
                        best be taught with a lecture-demonstration
                        teaching approach. To develop problem-solving
                        skills, Sternberg & Martin (1988), and
                        Nickerson, Perkins, & Smith (1985) recommend
                        deemphasizing lecture. These researchers
                        point out the value of encouraging inter-
                        action between student and teacher and main-
                        taining a balance between structure and
                        unstructured learning environments.
                             The teaching style defines the inter-
                        action of student and teacher. The steps in-
                        volved in developing problem-solving skills
                        move the student from teacher dependence to
                        independence. Sternberg & Martin (1988, p.
                        569) describe a four step process beginning
                        with direct instruction followed by intra-
                        group problem solving, intergroup problem-
                        solving, and individual problem solving.  The
                        process begins by fostering teacher-to-
                        student interaction then encouraging student-
                        to-student interaction. When students
                        internalize the problem-solving skills, indi-
                        vidual problem-solving skills can be devel-
                             Problem-solving activities implemented
                        in technology education are characterized by
                        the problem-solving processes and thinking
                        skills that are taught. The teaching method
                        and teaching style determine the environment
                        in which learning occurs. The interactions of
                        these variables define the level of student
                        development on the continuum of problem-
                        solving performance.
                             Problem solving, whether direct or indi-
                        rect, has long been a part of technology edu-
                        cation because of the nature of technological
                        content. To continue to develop and improve
                        technology education problem-solving activ-
                        ities, it is worthwhile to establish a
                        baseline that quantifies the best in current
                        practices. The purpose of this study was to
                        identify and describe problem-solving proc-
                        esses, thinking skills, teaching methods, and
                        teaching styles typically used by technology
                        education teachers that were recognized for
                        their teaching excellence.
                             The sample consisted of 44 technology
                        education teachers from the population of
                        teachers recognized for their teaching excel-
                        lence. Two groups of teachers were identified
                        to participate in this study. One group con-
                        sisted of the International Technology Educa-
                        tion Association's 1989 Teacher of the Year
                        award winners and members of the other group
                        were nominated by state directors for
                        technology/vocational education. State direc-
                        tors were asked to nominate teachers from
                        their state who were noted for providing in-
                        struction of high quality and developing
                        and/or implementing innovative learning expe-
                        riences related to problem solving. Since the
                        intent of this study was to describe the best
                        in current practices, teachers of each group
                        were asked to participate if they had suc-
                        cessfully implemented innovative problem-
                        solving activities.
                             Twenty-two of the 44 ITEA Teachers of
                        the Year award winners participated in the
                        study. Twenty-two teachers nominated by state
                        supervisors participated.  Twenty teachers
                        taught high school students, 15 taught middle
                        school students and 5 taught students at both
                        the middle and high school level. Four teach-
                        ers did not respond to the question regarding
                        grade level.
                             A survey instrument was designed to
                        identify problem-solving activities that
                        teachers had successfully implemented and
                        variables associated with the implementation
                        process. The survey consisted of two parts.
                        In the first part, participants were asked to
                        list and briefly describe one or more innova-
                        tive problem-solving activities that they
                        found to be positive student learning experi-
                        ences. The second part of the survey con-
                        tained 33 items. These items, included the
                        variables that affect implementation of
                        problem-solving activities as identified in
                        the review of literature. A verbal frequency
                        scale was used to measure the frequency of
                        use of the five problem-solving processes de-
                        scribed by Polya (1971), Soloway (1988),
                        Bransford & Stein (1984), Hatch (1988),
                        Seymour (1987), and Devore (1987); the eight
                        thinking skills described by Woods (1987, p.
                        55) and Presseisen (1985, p.45); and the 17
                        teaching methods described by Maley  (1978),
                        Nader (1984) and Costa (1984). Four questions
                        were used to measure the continuum of
                        teacher-to-student interaction as described
                        by Sternberg & Martin (1988), and  Nickerson,
                        Perkins, & Smith (1985).  Participants re-
                        corded their responses to the second part of
                        the survey on a CompuTest form using the fol-
                        lowing verbal frequency scale: A = always, B
                        = usually, C = occasionally, D = seldom and E
                        = never. For data analysis, these response
                        categories were coded on a one (i.e always)
                        to five (i.e never) point ordinal scale.
                             The participants identified and briefly
                        described 109 activities, an average of 2.5
                        activities per participant. Sixty-nine of
                        these activities were different in title and
                        description. The activities listed were used
                        in a variety of grade levels ranging from 8th
                        grade to post secondary. The subject area
                        also varied. Teachers of CAD, construction,
                        drafting, electronic communication, engineer-
                        ing, exploring technology, general technology
                        education, graphics communication, industrial
                        technology, introduction to industry, intro-
                        duction to technology, manufacturing, power
                        and energy, product design, transportation,
                        and woodworking reported the activities.
                             Survey items were categorized according
                        to problem-solving processes, thinking
                        skills, teaching methods, and teaching
                        styles. These items were used to determine
                        typical techniques used by the teachers sur-
                        veyed when they implemented problem-solving
                             A cluster analysis, the Ward's Method,
                        was used to classify the set of variables
                        into homogeneous groups based on similarity
                        of response. With this analysis, the mean
                        verbal frequency scores of each item were
                        grouped to minimize the overall sum of
                        squared within-cluster distances. Therefore,
                        the clusters represent questionnaire items
                        that shared similar frequency of use when
                        teachers implemented problem-solving activ-
                        ities. To understand the similarity of the
                        items in each cluster and the differences be-
                        tween the five clusters, Table 1 shows the
                        characteristic response that items in each
                        cluster share. For clarity the clusters were
                        labeled according to mean rank of cluster
                        characteristics, therefore cluster one re-
                        presents items most frequently used and clus-
                        ter five represents items least frequently
                        TABLE 1
                        CLUSTER CHARACTERISTICS
                        Cluster      Mean      MDN        SD
                        1            2.30      2.0       .966
                        2            2.68      3.0       1.11
                        3            3.07      3.0       1.20
                        4            3.18      3.0       1.12
                        5            3.96      4.0       1.08
                             The five clusters are summarized in Ta-
                        ble 2.  Cluster one contained eight items.
                        One problem-solving process, the design proc-
                        ess, was a member of this cluster. The think-
                        ing skills in this cluster included
                        application of related knowledge gained from
                        classes other than technology education and
                        prior technological knowledge gained from
                        technology education class. The teaching
                        style clustered in this group was described
                        as the teacher shared goals and objectives
                        with the student and decisions
                        TABLE 2
              Cluster  PS Process       Thinking Skills   Teaching Methods  Teaching Style
              1        Design Process   Related Knowledge Discussion        Goals are shared 
                                                                            by teacher.  
                                        Prior             Demonstration     reached through
                                        Technological                       agreement.
                                        Knowledge         Experimentation
              2                                           Individual        Goals are set by
                                                          Instruction       teacher.  Teacher
                                                                            facilitates goal
                                                          Media             attainment.
              3       Troubleshooting                     Discovery         Teacher directs 
                                                                            all learning     
                      Scientific                          Simulation
                      Project Management                  Readings
                      Research & Develop                  Game-Structured
              4                         Classification    Competency-based
                                        Knowledge Seeking
              5                                           Seminar           Student develops
                                                                            goals and means
                                                          Scenario          to reach them.
                                                          Case Study
                                                          Panel Discussion
                                                          Role Play
                        were reached through agreement.  The charac-
                        teristics of this cluster, listed in Table 1,
                        indicate that these methods were the most
                        frequently used by technology teachers with a
                        mean of 2.30.  Sixty-one percent of the
                        surveyed used the items listed in this clus-
                        ter usually or always and 98.3% used them at
                        least sometimes.
                             Cluster two was characterized by mean of
                        2.68.  Four items were always or usually used
                        by 43.9% of the teachers. Individualized in-
                        struction and media were teaching methods
                        grouped in this cluster. The teaching style,
                        like the teaching method, was teacher di-
                        rected with goals and objectives set by the
                        teacher and the teacher guided goal attain-
                        ment. These methods and this style are condu-
                        cive to attainment of basic level knowledge
                        that is a prerequisite to successful problem
                             Cluster three contained items typically
                        used often by the teachers surveyed. The mean
                        response for items in this cluster was 3.07
                        with 34.8% of the teachers using them always
                        or usually. Four of the five problem-solving
                        processes were part of this cluster.  They
                        included troubleshooting/debugging, scien-
                        tific process, research and development and
                        project management. Teaching methods included
                        in this cluster were discovery, simulation,
                        and reading. The teaching style that was
                        close to the mean of this cluster was one
                        where the teacher directed all learning expe-
                        rience.  Six of the eight thinking skills
                        were grouped in cluster four. Competency
                        based instruction was also grouped in this
                        cluster. The characteristics of cluster four
                        were similar to cluster three with 33.8% of
                        the teachers using the members of this clus-
                        ter usually or always.
                             The items with the lowest frequency,
                        typically seldom used, were grouped in clus-
                        ter five. This cluster was characterized by a
                        mean of 3.96 with 9.7% of the teachers sur-
                        veyed indicating that they used the teaching
                        methods and style usually or always. Seminar,
                        scenario, contract, case study, panel dis-
                        cussion and role play were members of this
                        cluster. Also, the teaching style that was
                        defined as students develop goals and objec-
                        tives and the means to reach them was seldom
                        used by the teachers surveyed.
                             Problem-solving activities develop im-
                        portant skills. They teach students how to
                        think and provide them with opportunities to
                        experience knowledge seeking, selection, ap-
                        plication, and evaluation.  Implementing
                        problem-solving activities means more than
                        just giving students assignments. The out-
                        comes of activities are dependent on the
                        problem-solving processes and thinking skills
                        that are taught and applied. The environment
                        that fosters problem solving is created by
                        the teaching methods and styles that define
                        the teacher-to-student and student-to-student
                             This study identified elements of
                        problem-solving activities that were fre-
                        quently used by a sample of technology educa-
                        tion teachers recognized for their teaching
                        excellence. The inferential qualities of the
                        data are limited due to the sample size, but
                        the cluster analysis does establish norms for
                        describing the characteristics of technology
                        education problem-solving activities. The
                        typical activities required students to apply
                        knowledge gained in technology education
                        class as well as other classes.  The design
                        process was used to structure a procedure for
                        reaching a solution. Lecture, discussion,
                        demonstration, and experimentation were meth-
                        ods most frequently used to implement activ-
                        ities. Teachers typically shared the goals of
                        the activity with students and decisions were
                        reached through agreement.
                             The results represent a hierarchal
                        paradigm that emphasizes the design process
                        and application of knowledge learned in
                        school.  Four of the five problem-solving
                        processes and six of the eight thinking
                        skills were typically used occasionally.  In-
                        creasing the application of those elements
                        less frequently used could be the focus for
                        improving technology education problem-
                        solving activities.  Relating to thinking
                        skills, Feuerstein, Miller, Hoffman, Rand,
                        Mintzker & Jensen (1981) have shown that the
                        development of thinking skills increases
                        problem-solving performance.  Narrol,
                        Silverman & Waksman (1982) have shown that
                        remedial students in vocational education
                        programs benefit from thinking skill instruc-
                             The teaching methods used by teachers
                        represent techniques that are associated with
                        teaching low as well as high level cognitive
                        skills. As discussed by Nickerson, Perkins, &
                        Smith (1985, p. 327), the use of several
                        teaching methods is common when implementing
                        problem-solving activities. Often students
                        need to gain basic knowledge to apply to the
                        solution especially in a new area of study.
                        The sequence of instruction then leads stu-
                        dents to methods such as experimentation,
                        game structured competition, and discovery
                        that give them a more active role in know-
                        ledge seeking. The teaching methods listed in
                        cluster five were seldom used by the teachers
                        surveyed. These methods are associated with
                        developing cognitive skills associated with
                        effective problem solving. Likewise, the
                        teaching style used least frequently (cluster
                        five) is associated with high-level perform-
                        ance. Methods such as case study, contract
                        and scenario could be used to focus activ-
                        ities on current technological problems.
                             This study showed that technology educa-
                        tion is providing students with experiences,
                        as defined by the literature cited, that de-
                        velop valuable problem-solving skills. To im-
                        prove technology education problem-solving
                        activities, the intent of instruction and
                        scope of problem-solving skill developed are
                        the issues. If the intent of instruction is
                        to focus on certain elements and treat others
                        as subsets then a hierarchal paradigm should
                        be the focus for further development. If the
                        elements are to be treated with equal value
                        then a paradigm representing a balance in
                        scope should be pursued. With this paradigm,
                        students should be taught to identify the
                        problem type and select the appropriate proc-
                             As problem-solving activities continue
                        to evolve, educators must insure that appro-
                        priate processes and thinking skills are
                        taught and teaching methods and styles allow
                        students to grow. Curriculum developers
                        should consider the variables identified and
                        described in this study to analyze the
                        paradigm that characterizes the learning po-
                        tential of problem-solving activities within
                        the scope and sequence of technology educa-
                        tion instruction.
                        V. William DeLuca is Assistant Professor, De-
                        partment of Occupational Education, North
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              Journal of Technology Education   Volume 2, Number 2       Spring 1991