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close this bookProspects - Quarterly Review of Education, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1995 (Issue 93) - Science Teaching for Sustainable Development (UNESCO; 1995; 152 pages)
View the documentEditorial - Juan Carlos Tedesco
Open this folder and view contentsVIEWPOINTS/CONTROVERSIES
View the documentIntroduction: New cultural and ethical frames of reference - André Giordan
View the documentThe Science, Technologies and Society (STS) Movement and the teaching of science - Gérard Fourez
View the documentThe aims of scientific education in the coming decades - Victor Host
View the documentThe purposes and methods of technological education on the threshold of the twenty-first century - Jean-Louis Martinand
View the documentScientific and technological training for traditional communities - Raúl Gagliardi
View the documentConcept mapping to facilitate teaching and learning - Joseph D. Novak
View the documentThe non-formal communication of scientific knowledge - Bernard Schiele
View the documentNew models for the learning process: beyond constructivism? - André Giordan
Open this folder and view contentsTRENDS/CASES

The purposes and methods of technological education on the threshold of the twenty-first century - Jean-Louis Martinand

Jean-Louis Martinand (France)

Former physics and chemistry instructor; Professor of Educational Sciences at the École normale supérieure at Cachan near Paris; Director of the Laboratoire interuniversitaire de recherche en éducation scientifique et technologique. Recent publications include Enseignement et apprentissage de la modélisation en sciences [Teaching and learning science modelling] (2 vols., 1992 and 1994) and La technologie dans l’enseignement général: les enjeux de la conception et de la mise en oeuvre [Technology in general education: the stakes of conception and implementation] (1994).

In some countries technological education is a reality (Deforge, 1993; Eggleston, 1992) but in others it is still only a project. Its immediate, primary characteristic is that it is connected with technology, and hence to very changeable components of the operation and dynamics of our societies.

The question of education relating to technical matters is an issue everywhere and it is in this sense that the use of the word ‘technology’ has spread. In France, the emergence of it as a subject in general, compulsory education can be situated in the 1960s (Centre international d’études pédagogiques, 1992). It came later in the United Kingdom, where concerns were, however, very similar to those in France at the same time (Black & Harrison, 1985).

The world picture of technological education is varied and changeable. Constant thought should be given to the problems it presents and this article seeks to make a contribution to this process.

We will focus on four themes: the aims, the object and the approaches, and the thresholds that must be crossed in order to have genuine technological education.

The aims

What motivations underlie the political will to establish and develop technological education? Politicians often ascribe three aims to it: (a) to develop an attitude favourable to contemporary industry, business and technology; (b) to help people discover what they want to do at school and, through a deeper understanding of economic activity, what occupation they wish to take up, while revealing skills and inclinations; and (c) to combat failure at school through activities in which all pupils can succeed.

These aims are certainly legitimate, but the last of them is very largely mistaken. Because of the way in which subjects at school are structured and function, one particular subject cannot prevent failure in the rest. It would even be fair to say that a subject must be selective or lose its value. But while technological education cannot be a special weapon in the fight against failure at school, it must, nevertheless, like all subjects, confront the things in itself which produce difference and transform it into failure.

These three aims provide a framework for technological education and outline the conditions needed to justify its existence. They are, however, insufficient to ensure that it will be provided. For this to happen, another aim seems essential and must be examined with particular attention. This concerns the understanding and practical control of the contemporary world, which is deeply imbued with technology. This last aim raises the important problem of technical education and its social and educational status. It is essential to know what the character and place of technical education will be in order to plan school activities. This also implies a reformulation since, in reality, the problem is that of the relationship between technical and general education.

In contemporary society, there are technical subcultures connected with occupations, domestic tasks and leisure activities, which lead to the formation of very strong affinity groups. At the same time, it is fair to say that, side by side, there is also a massive lack of scientific knowledge. But the technical subcultures are socially undervalued and ‘culturally’ marginalized. Can they be used as a basis on which to develop technological education?

In Europe, the major option for technological education at school could be to include technical culture as a component of general culture, which would clearly have to be reshaped to be able to admit technical culture. It is not therefore a question of integrating the technical subcultures based on occupational skills or hobbies such as do-it-yourself.

A solution has to be found to some fundamental problems concerning the status of technical skills and the relationship between culture and technical skill, in schools and in society as a whole. In this connection, a whole series of facts needs to be examined. The subcultures mentioned above are often based on highly developed technical skills. Thus there are deep-rooted adolescent technical cultures for mopeds, computers, etc.

At the same time, a field or a subject may be rejected by the recognized general culture because of its technical nature which is, nevertheless, the precondition of its existence. This ‘technical nature’ is regarded as being too specific.

However, when a field becomes part of general culture, its technical nature is accepted. We should remember that a large part of school education in a country like France is devoted more to literature and its techniques than to language as a tool for thought and communication.

From this point of view, discussions about technology contain features of a much more general debate that exists about all subjects - for example, about music, to make an apparently distant comparison. There is much at stake for society in the determination of the content and values attached to technology in all its aspects, particularly the aspects connected with the links between technology and changing economic and cultural structures, and with general culture.

The object

How are technical activities in schools to be devised? Two requirements must be taken into account. The first follows from the aims discussed above, the intention of which is to include the main features of technological development among the subjects taught. The second requirement involves the school and educational practice accepting responsibility for these subjects. Deciding on subject matter, preparing activities and selecting the means are all occasions when choices will be made that will determine the nature of technological education.

All this is far from being a foregone conclusion. There will be many different pressures and entreaties for technological education to be defined in the form of a list of concepts to be achieved, which is possible but ‘suicidal’. Conversely, there will be pressures and entreaties to limit activities to making a few things, or just to a few technical operations.

In reality, technological education must provide both for practical familiarization with projects, processes and roles and for the intellectual work necessary for technological thinking.


New things of decisive importance often appear here first. For example, at the end of primary school, French curricula now contain wholly new areas, such as electronic assemblies - mechanisms and electro-mechanisms - and computers and computer systems.

This means that certain objects have to be put into the classroom, handled, built or made. It is a matter of exploring technical fields. From this point of view, the areas thus defined are not ‘projections in school’ of the science or technology taught at the university, but school activities corresponding to productive or consumer activities. Electronic assemblies must therefore relate to industrial electronic construction or that of the radio ham, i.e. the technical world, and not to electronics in the university.


In order to arrive at knowledge, these areas of familiarization have to be questioned from a number of points of view that together make up technology. It will then be possible for the artificial object, or the useful ‘natural’ object, to become a technical object and be examined as such. It becomes the basis of various interpretations.

According to an interpretation that can be called ‘technical’, the technical object appears: (a) as an arrangement of material elements, or of ‘information’ (a computer programme is a technical object from this point of view); (b) as a system of inter-relating technical functions (here the way to knowledge is through the conceptual distinctions between object and environment: physical, technical, or economic, and between functions and operators or organs); or as (c) the application, often also a ‘hijacking’, of empirically or scientifically controlled phenomena (the major idea here is that of the ‘principle’ which guides the design and provides the foundation for the subsequent developments of technical objects).

But these points of view, which are traditional in vocational training, and more recently in general education, cannot exhaust the demands of technological education. An ‘anthropological’ interpretation has to be added, in which the object is a product resulting from a productive social organization; an item of merchandise in a system of circulation and trade; a part of a social environment, an agent of social change, the physical medium through which symbolic values are expressed, the trace of a civilization.

Technology should therefore find a place among the human sciences if it has to be placed among the sciences.

This point of view corresponds to elementary and middle schools, but needs to be supplemented by taking account of the technical systems and networks for older pupils.


How can activities that are consistent with these basic options be described now? There are two main types of approach that can give technological activities a direction, namely, exploration, which must include observation, experimentation and inquiry, and creation, with its phases of design, manufacture and use.

Exploration is obviously not specific to technology, but it is necessary if, among its aims, priority is given to understanding a technological environment. The exploration activities will thus be technological, less because of the choice of objects than because of the points of view attached to those objects, as they were described above. This approach is thus essentially analytical, guided by a form of questioning that carries within it the technological orientation.

Creation plays a fundamental role. It can in fact be subdivided into two approaches well known in teaching, namely, the overall, direct, empirical approach to all the aspects of an area of practical familiarization, and the integrated approach, favoured when one seeks to apply and include everything that has been learned or constructed in order to make a decision.

In technology, the integrated approach revolves around two essential notions - that of the technical project, which is the objective, detailed expression of the aims, conditions, limitations and means in accordance with which creation is going to have to be carried out, and that of a contract for creation, which is a mutual commitment to carry out the work in conformity with the technical project.

These two notions have to begin with a technical significance as they reproduce essential elements of contemporary socio-technical processes in industry and services.

They are far more than this, however, because it is here that technology meets teaching. It is the contract, based on the technical project, which will give direction to the activities of the class group by specifying each person’s roles and responsibilities: teacher, groups, pupils. Lastly, these notions, explicitly expressed and applied, and related to a wide-ranging practical experience, will give their technological meaning to exploration activities in, and above all outside, school (Rak et al., 1992).

At this stage, it is worth bringing together a number of the proposals made around the guiding principle that gives them direction. Indeed, for all the components of technological activities in school, links have to be made with what is going on in real areas of social activity. This is true of objects, projects and roles. School activities are therefore planned as images of social practices. This is one final fundamental notion - that of the practice of reference (Martinand, 1986).

What does this mean?

In the first place, it serves to draw attention to the fact that in technology (although this is also true of many other subjects), one cannot restrict oneself to knowledge alone, nor even to the teaching situation, to judge the relevance of content. All the components of a practice must be taken into account, such as problems, objects, tools, knowledge, attitudes and social roles.

In the second place, it serves to draw attention to the relationship between the practice taken as a reference and the school activity. The relationship cannot be one of identity, nor even of ‘reduction’, but must be one of ‘transposition’. There are necessary differences between the reference practice and the school activities, which must be determined and checked, precisely and in detail, if one of the aims of the activities is indeed the ability to interpret reference practices.

In the third place, it is important to understand that the differences are as much the result of the limitations of the school in terms of costs and time as of the pupils’ and teachers’ abilities and the conditions of the teaching-learning process, with its progressive phases of varied activity, separated by breaks.

In the fourth place, the idea of reference implies the possibility of there being many references and hence the need for choice. It seems that the consistency and meaning of an activity depend very much on the practice of reference and that the choices, at any given moment, are broadly exclusive. It is here that one sees the links between the science of teaching, in the shape of knowledge and implementation of the conditions for consistency, and policy, in the shape of the choice of the most suitable reference practices.

The thresholds

The transposition, for teaching purposes, between the chosen reference practice and the school activity is therefore a fundamental task. The question of technological education in school should certainly be put in the following terms: are there minimum requirements, or thresholds, if this transposition is not to become a distortion? It would be irresponsible to seek to add technology as a ready-made subject like the others. It still has to be built up throughout the world and a forced introduction would very likely be rejected.

The only reasonable prospect is to gradually introduce and develop activities which all take their direction from the points of view that form the basis of technology. Three development criteria can be distinguished for this, namely: introducing new technology such as computers; studying the technical, social and historical aspects of work; and constructing technological concepts.

We must pause a moment at these concepts needed for technological thought. The corresponding ideas are accessible from the end of kindergarten and certainly at primary school, provided that they are not confused with the imposed use of pedantic terms. The following notions must be examined: technical functions and operators, and working material (the distinctions here form the very basis of technical concepts); materials and shapes; properties associated with materials and properties associated with shapes; the industries of shapes or properties; the operation and the programme; the technical principle and technical development; the technical division of labour; economic relationships.

The learning of these analytical and conceptual tools must be continued throughout compulsory education. It is now a matter of urgency to lay down very precisely all the levels at which they are to be developed, with regard to areas of familiarization, possible school activities and children’s abilities. It will not be possible to speak honestly of technological education unless there is at least some conceptual framework.

At the same time, the range of socio-technical reference practices must be broadened. Traditionally, this still had some meaning in the nineteenth century. Craft and domestic practices were given priority in primary schools, and industrial practices beyond that. Contemporary industrial and service practices must be taken into account. To do this, it is not enough to introduce new objects. There are ways of using computers in schools which close the school in upon itself and lead to it becoming its own reference point. This is not technological education. World society inhabits an urban environment full of technology. This is the new environment to which technological education must surely give operational, conscious access.

Lastly there is the problem of taking the technical and social dimensions of the work into consideration. More generally, technological education which is unable to provide reference points so that one can find one’s way among the connections between the development of knowledge and scientific approaches, and among changes in technology and its impact on society, would not be fulfilling its role.


In everything that has been said in this article, the aim of which is to depict what technological education may be like in the twenty-first century, stereotypes about university and school subjects have been set aside in favour of breaking down and reconstruction, the essential phases of which are: establishing concepts for technological thinking; areas of practical familiarization and their reference practices; and exploration/creative activities, with the notions of contract and project. This is necessary to ensure that technological activities have at least a modicum of authenticity and consistency (Séminaire de didactique des disciplines technologiques, 1990/91,1991/92, 1992/93).

It is also necessary if a number of generally accepted ideas, which are like pitfalls, are to be avoided:

The pitfall of objects. It is commonly thought that manufactured objects by their nature come under technology and that natural phenomena come under the so-called ‘natural’ sciences. Nothing could be further from the truth. Firstly, physics and biology have from the beginning been both natural and artificial sciences. Furthermore, there are technical uses of natural phenomena, and therefore technological knowledge concerning them. Lastly, true technical objects are never completely artificial. The laying hen is probably one of the best examples of a technical object accessible to children.

The pitfall of the simple and the complex. It is not possible to give priority to one or the other in technological education. In some countries, nursery-school children are familiar with computers. Approaches have to be found which make it possible to directly develop partial but authentic technical knowledge about them. Obviously, children do not have to follow the same road as their parents. Conversely, it would be risky to abandon simple objects, the understanding of which can be more complete and which can serve as pegs on which thought can be hung.

The pitfall of uniformity. It is sometimes said that there is one ‘technological approach’ and that it must be repetitively followed in order to be absorbed. Technical activity and technological thought are more varied because they have above all to solve problems and not conform to a systematic approach.

Teaching constraints themselves introduce other reasons for adding variety.

There is no such thing as a typical object, special situation or single approach. Once again, the only criteria are authenticity and consistency.

Within the framework of general education, technological education cannot be defined in isolation from the rest of culture. But it is on the basis of the whole-hearted recognition of the special characteristics of technology that technological education can be better situated in relation to educational activities as a whole, and their unity can thus be brought out. The fact that technological education seems to be a necessary component is its best chance for being accepted and developed.


Black, P.; Harrison, G. 1985. In place of confusion: technology and science in the school curriculum. London, Nuffield-Chelsea Curriculum Trust. 31 p.

Centre international d’études pédagogiques. 1992. Textes de référence - technologie [Reference texts - technology]. Sèvres, France. 131 p. (Rapports français de la Commission permanent de réflexion sur l’éducation technologique. 1984 and 1985).

Deforge, Y. 1993. De l’éducation technologique à la culture technique [From technological education to technical culture]. Paris, ESF. 159 p.

Eggleston, J. 1992. Teaching design and technology. Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, Open University Press. 112 p.

Martinand, J.-L. 1986. Connaître et transformer la matière, des objectifs pour l’initiation aux sciences techniques [Understanding and transforming matter: guidelines for an introduction to the technical sciences]. Bern, Peter Lang. 315 p.

Rak, I., et al. 1992. La démarche de projet industriel, technologie, pédagogie [How to go about the industrial project, technology, teaching]. Paris, Foucher. 383 p.

Séminaire de didactique des disciplines technologiques. [Proceedings, 1990/91, 1991/92, 1992/93.] Cachan, France, Laboratoire interuniversitaire de recherche en éducation scientifique et technologique.

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