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 4, Number 1
Fall 1992

               Coping at the Crossroads: Societal and Educational Transformation in the
               United States
                         Glenn E. Baker
                         Richard A. Boser
                         Daniel L. Householder
                              As the nature of a workforce changes over time, one
                         broadly-defined group of workers diminishes in numbers
                         while another group increases in numbers. For example,
                         during the period 1890-1910, the major proportion of the
                         workforce in the United States shifted from agriculture to
                         industrial production (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975).
                         Figure 1 presents the concept.  Relentless technological
                         developments gave rise to new job classifications and to
                         increased employment opportunities in industrial
                         production.  At the same time, technological developments
                         diminished employment opportunities in another field, in
                         this case, agriculture.  Over the long term, then, one
                         might expect that demand for groups of occupations will
                         increase over time, but will be expected to decline when
                         that employment sector is eclipsed by yet another
                         employment sector, driven by a new technological wave.
                              The intersection of the two curves charting the demand
                         for agricultural occupations and industrial occupations
                         occurred during a time of rapid societal change, which was,
                         in turn, a significant impetus for major educational
                         change.  Moreover, because these times of change have
                         historical precedents, they may have a relatively high
                         degree of predictability.  Indeed, Toffler (1990) suggested
                         that recent events are shaped by "distinct patterns . . .
                         [and] identifiable forces" that once understood allow us to
                         "cope strategically, rather than haphazardly . . ." (p.
                              To explore the hypothesis that educational ferment is
                         a naturally occurring phenomena at the juncture of
                         technological ages, selected economic transition points
                         will be juxtaposed with developments in the evolving field
                         of technology education.  From this perspective, the
                         recently-recognized shift in employment patterns from
                         manufacturing-based employment to information-based
                         employment has influenced the shift from an industrial
                         materials content base to a technology systems base in
                         contemporary technology education programs.
                         FIGURE 1.  Labor force transition and educational reform.
                         PACE OF CHANGE
                              Zias (1976) argued that practitioners need a
                         comprehensive historical understanding of an educational
                         field in order to confront contemporary problems
                         realistically.  Without the underpinnings of a strong
                         historical perspective, educators may confront the present
                         with the naive belief that no previous situation has been
                         characterized by such rapid and sweeping change.  However,
                         since the onset of the industrial revolution, rapid
                         technological change has been characteristic rather than
                         unique.  Way (1964) noted that:
                         Change has always been a part of the human condition.
                         What is different now is the pace of change, and the
                         prospect that it will come faster and faster, affecting
                         every part of life including personal values, morality,
                         and religion, which seem almost remote from technology
                         . . . So swift is the acceleration, that trying to
                         'make sense' of change will become our basic industry.
                         (p. 113)
                         It appears that Way's prediction has already been realized.
                         Snyder's (1987) interpretation of the composition of the
                         U.S. workforce places more than 50% of the labor force now
                         as information workers.  The task of making sense of change
                         has become a basic requirement of everyday life.
                              The explanation of social change and the prediction of
                         likely future change through applications of wave theory is
                         not new. Toffler (1970, 1980, 1990) has written extensively
                         about the three great waves that have transformed human
                         society:  agricultural; industrial; and post-industrial, or
                         information.  In a contemporary analysis of economic
                         activity, Van Duijn (1983) compared the economic wave cycle
                         theories of Mensch, Jantsch and others.  This seminal work
                         condensed the thoughts of many theorists in many languages
                         and emphasized the influence of technological innovation on
                         economic and industrial growth and decline.  Van Duijn
                         cited Mensch, in particular, as depicting technological
                         innovation as driving cyclical periods of increase and
                         decline.  Ayers (1990) identified five long economic cycles
                         since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and
                         concluded that "advances in technology, together with, and
                         exhaustion of, certain natural resources, have combined to
                         bring about a series of coordinated technological
                         transformations that are correlated with waves of economic
                         activity" (p. 3).  Combining the agricultural, industrial,
                         and information waves delineated by Toffler with the five
                         economic cycles described by Ayers clearly identifies
                         periods of unusual social stress.  This analysis also
                         provides a useful framework for reviewing the relationships
                         of social stress and changes in education.  The analysis
                         also poses predicative implications.
                         Figure 2.  Transformational waves and long economic cycles.
                         THE FIRST LONG CYCLE
                              According to Ayers (1990a), a cluster of inventions in
                         Great Britain about 1775 made possible the development of
                         the steam engine, wrought iron, and cotton textiles (Ayers,
                         1990a; Kicklighter, 1968).  These developments, coupled
                         with a shift to coal as a major energy source and the
                         construction of an inter-linked canal system, fueled the
                         first long cycle.  Power, manufacturing and transportation
                         were the hub of the new technology which emerged.
                              Education response.  From this shift from agrarian to
                         industrial economies, two societal stresses also developed,
                         First, populations shifted to urban areas, and secondly,
                         demands for trained industrial workers began to develop.
                         From the initiation of industrial activity, changes in
                         society created conflicting viewpoints on the proper
                         education for changing circumstances.  During the first
                         cycle, the Calvinist ideals championed by Francke and the
                         sense-realist approach favored by Rousseau exerted
                         significant influence on education.  The Schools of
                         Industry which proliferated in Austria, Germany, and
                         Britain sought to develop the habits of industry among the
                         poor (Bennett, 1926).  With the development of such
                         practically-oriented programs, education was viewed as
                         important for all individuals growing up in the society.
                         Education was also viewed as a contributor to the solution
                         of social problems.
                              Rousseau is credited with opening a new era in
                         education by recognizing that "manual arts may be a means
                         of mental training" (Bennett, 1926, p. 81).  Rousseau
                         believed that the education of children should be a
                         natural, spontaneous affair catering to the natural
                         curiosity of children.  The concept of "learning by doing"
                         has developed a rich educational tradition that flourished
                         in the work of Pestalozzi, Fellenberg, and Froebel.  These
                         ideas all contributed to educational influences in the
                         United States as this nation underwent similar shifts in
                         economy and society.
                         THE SECOND LONG CYCLE
                              The first and second long cycles together make up what
                         is commonly referred to as the industrial revolution
                         (Ayers, 1990a).  The second cycle, which began in Britain
                         about 1825, was stimulated by technological inventions and
                         improvements that led to the railroad construction boom of
                         1838-1843 and the accompanying telegraph network.  These
                         two innovations created a faster, more efficient
                         transportation system coupled with a new communication
                         network.  Together, these systems established an
                         infrastructure which further expanded the opportunities for
                         economic development.  In the United States, the events
                         were somewhat later, but very similar. Fulton applied steam
                         to boats in 1838, the telegraph spanned the continent in
                         1861 and the historic "golden spike" connected the railway
                         systems of the east and west in 1867.
                              Educational response. While workers in the first cycle
                         of industrialization needed only minimal skills to perform
                         their jobs, many second cycle workers were required to
                         develop much higher levels of technical competence.  By
                         1875, few U.S. students finished high school and fewer had
                         employable skills despite a growing need for technically
                         proficient workers.  Society was expecting schools to
                         prepare its youth, but the schools were based on a
                         classical educational pattern. This societal impetus
                         influenced the thoughts of Runkle at MIT, Woodward and
                         Dewey (Bennett, 1926).
                              Other schools of applied science and engineering,
                         which built on the "learning by doing" precepts of the
                         first cycle, also appeared throughout Europe.  A
                         significant response in the United States was the Morrill
                         Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges for the
                         study of agricultural and mechanical arts in each of the
                         states (Bennett, 1926).
                         THE THIRD LONG CYCLE
                              The third cycle, the second industrial revolution,
                         began about 1870 (Ayers, 1990a). Major technological
                         breakthroughs of this era included the development of
                         steel, the widespread application of the internal
                         combustion engine, the creation of networks to transmit
                         electricity, and the evolution of a manufacturing system
                         based upon mass production and interchangeable parts.  In
                         the third cycle as never before, much of the technological
                         innovation was devoted to the development of consumer
                         products and services: interurban trams, telephones, and
                         household appliances.
                              Educational response. By the time of the 1920 census
                         (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975), employees in the
                         manufacturing sector outnumbered agricultural workers in
                         the United States for the first time. The crossing of the
                         employment curves, as in Figure 1, signalled the need for a
                         change in educational direction. While the need for
                         educational change was clear, the direction that the change
                         should take was hotly contested. The social and education
                         turmoil of this era is well documented (Barlow, 1976;
                         Bennett, 1937; Glatthorn, 1987; Luetkemeyer, 1987). In
                         highlighting some of the concerns of the day, Law (1982)
                         observed that:
                            In the last decade of the 19th century, marked by
                            unrestricted capital speculation, violent clashes
                            between labor and industry, social unrest and political
                            turmoil, there was a mounting wave of criticism
                            regarding the elitist posture of the public high school.
                            In a period when private and public secondary schools
                            combined served only 6.7% of the age group, and colleges
                            1.5% of theirs, the inherent failure of the public
                            school system had become a burning issue. (p. 19)
                              During this period of social upheaval, the
                         Smith-Hughes Act, which was passed in 1917, marked the
                         beginning of federal funding for secondary vocational
                         education in the public schools. Passage of the
                         Smith-Hughes Act could only be accomplished through the
                         formation of a remarkable coalition comprised of diverse
                         special interest groups (Hillison, 1987).  Bennett (1937)
                         observed that the Smith-Hughes Act was likely the best
                         compromise possible, given the turmoil of the time.  Even
                         critics of the Act, such as Law (1982), conceded that no
                         other legitimate alternative seemed possible.
                              The crises of this period were addressed by the
                         promulgation of the seven cardinal principles which were
                         adopted by the NEA and which formed the basis of the
                         comprehensive schools of the next several decades
                         (Kozak & Robb, 1991). These principles, when combined with
                         the Smith-Hughes Act and the guidance movement, formed the
                         educational structure that effectively launched a reformed
                         educational approach to address the societal needs of the
                         time.  Included in these new reforms were industrial arts,
                         as distinguished from manual training, manual arts, and
                         vocational education -- especially as developed by Bonser
                         and Mossman at the Speyer School of Columbia University
                         (Bennett, 1937).
                         THE FOURTH LONG CYCLE
                              While the fourth long economic cycle did not have a
                         clear starting or ending point, Ayers (1990b) located its
                         origins in the depression of the 1930s and its end in the
                         mid 1970s.  The leading economic sectors in this cycle
                         included the automobile, electrical and electronics,
                         chemical, and aerospace industries.  Ayers noted that, in
                         spite of the array of technological developments, only
                         television, semiconductors, and electronic computers were
                         new technological innovations of this era.
                              Educational response.  Glatthorn (1987) described four
                         major approaches to curriculum development that were
                         popular during the period, 1917 to 1974.  The major
                         societal strains involved in accommodating the shift to the
                         industrial era were relatively well stabilized by the time
                         of the passage of the Smith Hughes Act and the
                         establishment of support for formal programs of vocational
                         education in 1917.  A relatively stable period followed in
                         education until about 1940. Three identifiable curriculum
                         orientations (developmental conformism, scholarly
                         structuralism, and romantic radicalism) appeared in
                         succession as the industrial age gave way to the service
                         and information ages. Coincidentally, 1974 marked the shift
                         to a new curriculum orientation, privatistic conservatism
                         (Glatthorn, 1987), and the approximate transition point
                         between Ayers' fourth and fifth cycles.
                              Bell (1973) identified 1956 as the date when number of
                         white collar workers surpassed total employment of blue
                         collar workers for the first time.  Toffler (1980) also
                         noted 1956 as the approximate beginning of the Third Wave.
                         The educational impact of these transitions was eclipsed on
                         October 4, 1957, when the U.S.S.R.  successfully launched
                         the first space vehicle into orbit around the earth.
                              The change in workforce demographics, coupled with the
                         response to Sputnik, released a massive burst of school
                         reform and curriculum innovation.  Conant's (1959) work
                         reemphasized the need for a comprehensive high school
                         encompassing the arts, humanities, science, math, and
                         vocations. Conant also stressed the need for high standards
                         in the comprehensive high school.  Cochran (1970) observed
                         that the 1960s produced more change and modification in
                         industrial arts programs that any previous decade.  The
                         Industrial Arts Curriculum Project, American Industry
                         Project, and Orchestrated Systems Approach were some of the
                         better known industrially-based curriculum projects of the
                         era.  Further, the study of technology, first proposed by
                         Warner in the 1940s, received increased emphasis through
                         the work of Olson and DeVore (Householder, 1979).  Olson's
                         (1973) concepts of interfaces stressed that a static
                         curriculum was inappropriate.  These concepts, combined
                         with Maley's (1973) emphases on group synergy,
                         technological development, and research helped provide a
                         foundation for a systems approach where the individual
                         interpreted factors in solving technical problems.
                         THE FIFTH LONG CYCLE
                              The long cycles described by Ayers (1990b) averaged
                         approximately 50 years in length.  They generally began
                         with a cluster of innovations that occurred during the
                         economic slowdown between cycles.  The fourth long cycle
                         concluded in the mid 1970s; the fifth long cycle is still
                         evolving.  But, as Ayers noted:
                         It is now widely recognized, and correctly so, that
                         'high tech' was the leading sector of the 1980s.  Within
                         the present decade, or early in the next one, the
                         computer and telecommunications sectors are almost
                         certain to overtake the auto industry and its satellites
                         as the 'locomotives' of the world economy.  Already,
                         computers and related automation equipment have become
                         the dominant form of capital equipment, and software
                         development and maintenance are becoming major sources
                         of employment. (p. 127)
                         Ayers suggested that the computer chip revolution has yet
                         to have significant impact upon manufacturing and that
                         computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) will "almost
                         certainly turn out to be one of the 'leading sectors' of
                         the fifth technological transformation" (p. 128).
                              Educational Response.  Analysis of the educational
                         change that occurred in previous long cycles could be
                         addressed from the comfort of a historical point of view.
                         However, as this essay is written at the transition between
                         two long cycles, as defined by Ayers, and two technological
                         waves as defined by Toffler, the analysis of the present is
                         much more difficult, and the inference of the coincidence
                         of the two wave cycle patterns suggests enormous impact.
                         The early 1980s were characterized by numerous reports that
                         suggested what "ought" to be done in various educational
                         settings.  Strickland (1985) noted the relationship between
                         education and national security in the call for educational
                         reform.  In reviewing four prominent reports on education
                         Strickland drew the parallel between the post-Sputnik
                         reaction and the clamor for educational reform which
                         characterized the 1980s.
                              Industrial arts responded to the realities of the new
                         workforce expectations by pursuing a change to technology
                         education. While many varieties of technology education are
                         currently practiced and proposed, the common features of
                         most programs include: (a) an emphasis on problem-solving
                         capabilities; (b) an interdisciplinary approach that empha-
                         sizes alternatives and compromises, (c) the integration of
                         context in an approach to recognize systemic functions, and
                         (d) an assessment of the consequences of technological
                         THE WORKFORCE
                              A useful summary of the impact of technological
                         transformations on the workforce is provided by data on
                         labor force participation in the four sectors of the United
                         States economy.  For the period between 1860-1995, Liedtke
                         (1990) reported that:
                         1.   The agricultural workforce peaked in the late 1800s
                              and had declined to less than 3% by 1980.
                         2.   Industrial workers had three employment peaks in
                              this period, around 1860, 1917, and the mid 1950s.
                              However, since the peak in the 1950s, industrial
                              sector employment has declined to less than 20%
                              of the labor force.
                         3.   Service workers averaged about 20% of the work
                              force from 1860 through 1960.  Since 1960,
                              however, the proportion of service workers has
                              risen dramatically.
                         4.   Only the information sector of the work force has
                              demonstrated consistent growth over the period.
                              As of 1987, information workers held more than
                              50% of all jobs.
                              Combining the long cycle analysis by Ayers (1990a,
                         1990b), workforce demographics, and the history of
                         industrial education leads to the conclusion that major
                         philosophical and curricular stress points do indeed
                         coincide with the wave cycles of technological
                         transformation.  As each wave of economic activity required
                         different skills of its workforce, societal and educational
                         forces attempted to reform to meet the perceived needs.
                         Efforts at educational reform prior to the societal needs
                         largely fell on deaf ears, regardless of the validity of
                              Further, as the occupational requirements became more
                         complex, the degree of educational ferment accompanying
                         each transition point appeared to have increased.  During
                         the early waves of industrial enterprise, the educational
                         response was generally limited to isolated activities of
                         individual innovators. These resulted in such diverse
                         offerings as the SCHOOLS OF INDUSTRY and the Mechanics'
                         Institute Movement.
                              However, dealing with educational change in later
                         industrial waves became increasingly complex as diverse
                         interest groups championed their own interests.  The
                         cauldron of educational controversy preceding the passing
                         of the Smith-Hughes Act was clearly without precedent in
                         the United States.  Subsequent educational responses have
                         perhaps been as frenzied from the point of view of
                         curriculum development and legislation, but not as bitterly
                         contested.  For example, the educational innovation which
                         followed Sputnik seemed to proceed from a collective
                         national purpose.  Coping with the age of the information
                         worker has led to substantial reporting and substantial
                         displacement of workers.  The corollary, a cohesive
                         reorganization of the whole educational focus, such as
                         occurred in 1917 and 1958, appears to be lacking.
                              The major controversy seems to focus on educational
                         retrenchment and the re-emphasis upon the traditional
                         academic subjects.  Historically, this sort of modification
                         often follows a pattern in which retrenchment of one group
                         eventually leads to a new solution promulgated by another
                         group. For example, the content and emphasis of the
                         baccalaureate degree changed markedly as land grant
                         colleges provided new solutions to the need for
                         practically-oriented programs of higher education.  The
                         answers to the problems which have precipitated the current
                         educational reforms are still evolving and are clearly not
                         yet complete.
                              The analysis of historical cycles presents
                         opportunities for addressing present and future educational
                         needs.  This analysis suggests a wide range of lessons from
                         the past and offers provocative implications for future
                         educational planning.  These inferences and implications
                         include the following:
                         1.   Change in the composition of the workforce is a
                              continual process driven largely by technological
                         2.   The responses of education have generally been
                              reactive in response to the forces of change, rather
                              than proactive in anticipation of change.
                         3.   The skills required of workers have consistently
                              become more complex.  Literacy is no longer an
                              option. Increasing job complexity requires
                              high-order thinking skills and problem solving
                              capabilities in a world of local area networks
                              (LANs), fax, and e-mail.
                         4.   One constant in the evolution of technology
                              education has been the need to demonstrate that
                              the discipline has made a contribution to the
                              economic well-being of the country.  Times of
                              retrenchment by traditional educators, who vastly
                              outnumber technology educators, exacerbates
                              this need.
                              Educators in every era have been convinced that there
                         have never been times like these before.  And while this is
                         always true to some extent, perhaps only now has the rate
                         of change reached the point where teaching only cognition
                         (the exchange of information) is in question.  Toffler
                         (1990) observed that the information age does not need
                         workers who are essentially interchangeable workers as in
                         the industrial era, but rather individuals with diverse and
                         continually evolving skills. Wright (1990) pointed out more
                         specifically the need for developing students who are:
                              Flexible, adaptive, life-long learners who can
                         effectively work in groups. . . .that manual skill and
                         detailed technical knowledge had only marginal value
                         compared to problem solving and creative abilities; and
                         that a broad understanding about technology provides a
                         valuable base for consumer, citizenship and career
                         activities. (p. 3)
                              Many reports and studies have repeated this call.  The
                         conceptual framework for technology education (Savage &
                         Sterry, 1990) placed problem solving at the center of the
                         curriculum development model.  This is a significantly
                         different approach than the model of industrial technology
                         education (Hales and Snyder, 1980) which has guided the
                         field in recent years.
                              In a more specific context, Zirbel (1991), in a needs
                         assessment of the manufacturing engineering technologies,
                         found that only two of the top seven rated competencies
                         were directly related to engineering technologies -- and
                         those two dealt with analyzing processes.  The other
                         competencies look familiar to those analyzing workplace
                         1.  Understand the importance of quality.
                         2.  Display motivation, responsibility, and natural
                         3.  Communicate clearly and concisely.
                         4.  Work effectively as part of a team.
                         5.  Demonstrate a basic working knowledge of personal
                              Carnevale, Gainer and Meltzer (1990), in the report of
                         a major study which seems destined to become a classic,
                         proposed seven essential groups of workplace competencies:
                         1.  Knowing how to learn.
                         2.  Reading, writing, and computation.
                         3.  Oral communication skills: listening and speaking.
                         4.  Creative thinking and problem solving.
                         5.  Self-esteem, goal setting, motivation and decision
                         6.  Interpersonal skills, negotiation, and team work.
                         7.  Organizational effectiveness and leadership.
                              What is interesting about the new list of "oughts" is
                         the convergence of various occupational needs with current
                         educational priorities.  The common focus is on problem
                         solving, communicating and team work, all in more
                         technological and complex settings.
                              Finding educational direction at the crossroads of
                         technological eras is clearly no easy task.  Scores of
                         educational reports of the 1980s attest to this difficulty.
                         However, each of the cycles which have been examined in
                         this essay eventually evolved its own unique solution.
                         Based on historic precedent, the following conclusions
                         appear likely:
                         1.  Education reform may be two cycles behind changing
                             social and economic circumstances.
                         2.  Education should be less concerned with courses and
                             subjects as static elements and more concerned with the
                             identification of the components of "basic education."
                         3.  Change will occur more rapidly.  Change may now be
                             occurring at a pace that makes it difficult to even
                             observe the transition points.  Ayers (1990b) pointed
                             out the difficulty in precisely defining the transition
                             points in the last two waves in a way which highlights
                             this problem.
                         4.  The new "basic" should not be based on a static
                             curriculum.  Rather, it should have a proactive ability
                             to anticipate.  The new "basic" must diminish barriers
                             between subjects of study (knowledge) and  seek to
                             integrate knowledges and experiences to make them more
                             meaningful.  While technology education is not
                             construed to be "vocational," it must relate to a
                             competent  workforce as a part of basic education
                             required by all prior to the acquisition of job skills.
                         5.  The nation, to remain competitive in a  global society
                             and economy, cannot depend on government bureaucracy to
                             lead the change.  Historically, all major reformations
                             were preceded by periods of diversity and
                             experimentation.  If we face a future of continued
                             rapid change, school quality could become more
                             dependent upon new ideas and experimentation.
                             Conformity and stability of context are not conducive
                             to coping with rapid change.  The future will depend
                             upon individual schools and educators who are empowered
                             to innovate rather than conform.
                         6.  Accreditation guidelines  and procedures must also
                             change from an emphasis upon meeting standards to an
                             emphasis upon successful motivation and learning.
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                         the Department of Industrial, Vocational and Technical
                         Education, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX.
                         Richard A. Boser is Assistant Professor in the Department
                         of Industrial Technology, Illinois State University,
                         Norman, IL.
                       Permission is given to copy any
                         article or graphic provided credit is given and
                         the copies are not intended for sale.
               Journal of Technology Education   Volume 4, Number 1       Fall 1992