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Education as Technology

by Joseph Kirschner - 1968

The author is concerned with the traditional neglect of the "should" by technologists of education.

Professor Kirschner teaches history and philosophy of education and is here concerned with the traditional neglect of the "should" by technologists of education. Recognizing the importance of planning and rationality, be asks for renewed interest in “the humane use of intelligence in the affairs of men.”

The conception of institutionalized education as the deliberate acculturation of the young raises certain questions. Ought the educational system to be concerned solely with cultural transmission, or should it include an innovative dimension? What is the basis of choice? Even if these questions are adequately treated, there remains the problem of how to go about teaching a given subject. A concern with the "how" of teaching involves a consideration of the psychological impact of teaching techniques upon students as well as the efficiency in imparting concepts to learners in a manner that enriches them and opens them up to fresh, more inclusive experiences.

The focus of this essay will be upon the consequences of choosing and acting on particular teaching techniques, or on the technological dimension of education. One cannot, of course, talk about technique without dealing with the interaction of means and goals, techniques and valued ends. Nor can one speak of technique in a manner relevant to the teaching-learning situation without talking about the confrontation of teacher and student as they work towards particular ends.

The technological dimension must first be distinguished from the scientific and artistic dimensions of education. As a teaching-learning process, education initially involves the creation and/or selection of principles and objectives; a rationale for choosing one purpose or goal over another; a plan of attack (a lesson plan); and actual encounters between teacher and student. Before a teacher spells out what he plans to do in the classroom, he ought to spend time thinking about what he is teaching, to whom, and why. This kind of thinking ought to bring to the fore some guiding principles concerning the logic of the subject matter and the psychology of the potential learners. These organizing principles are involved in what I have called the scientific dimension of education and are to be distinguished from principles of methodology, which I am calling technology.


Both scientific and technological aspects are necessary if education is to be an intelligent process. But necessity does not here imply sufficiency. The teacher must do his scientific and technological thinking before he enters the classroom and confronts the student. The confrontation involves a host of outcomes which can never be predicted in advance, unless we were to find it possible to delimit exhaustively dimensions of human personality and human interaction. To attempt to get across a particular subject matter to a particular set of students requires a sensitivity to other people on the part of the teacher. The give and take of human encounter, the empathy of one person for another may be called the artistic dimension of education. This is the level at which attitudes towards a given subject matter as well as towards other human beings are developed. This is the level at which children all too often learn to be apathetic if not downright hostile to the subject. This is the domain of action out of which follow consequences for good and ill in human affairs.

If the artistic realm is where potentiality is translated into actuality, then it behooves the educator to plan his work intelligently enough to render the artistic dimension effective. This takes us back to the planning for teaching a particular lesson and should suggest that the insecure, emotionally unhealthy teacher will not be an effective teacher except where his neuroses complement those of his students.

Granting good mental health on the part of the teacher, the teaching problem must be directed to the planning stage so that the artistic stage can be intelligently directed. The artistic realm becomes irrational without planning; but planning that does not include awareness of the artistic dimension is doomed to irrelevance and ineffectiveness. Planning, or the technological side of education, is a crucial link between theory and practice.


The technological aspect of education has been a dominant concern of American schoolmen for almost three quarters of a century. Let us recall for a moment the Herbartian method of teaching that was so much in vogue about the turn of the century. It was based on a psychology that "led to the idea of a curriculum that was nothing more than a succession of presentations wherein the child constantly passed from familiar to unfamiliar but closely associated subject matter."1 The idea basically was that a child learns new subject matters by relating these to concepts already formed in his mind. This doctrine of teaching and learning was reduced by the late nineteenth century to the famous "five steps."

In any given subject area, the technique based on this doctrine involved starting the lesson with concepts already clearly held by the students or with direct sense observations. Then the new concept to be taught was presented to the students and comparisons drawn between it and the concepts already in mind. At this point generalizations could be drawn and tested by being applied in various new contexts.

Note that here is a rather precise technique for teaching any subject to anybody in a form that is presumed to be intellectually honest. (The paraphrase of Jerome Bruner's well-known dictum is chosen deliberately here to suggest one dimension of the continuity in American educational history of viewing education as technology.) This method, if properly used, would involve stimulating the student's interest to make him want to effect some of the connections himself. As a matter of fact, manifestations of interest on the part of the learner were taken to be a sign that connections, or apperceptions, are occurring. The method helped give depth and thrust to a sensitive teacher's teaching. In less sensitive hands it became more mechanical. Yet it at least made teaching more systematic and rational.

To use this method adequately requires that each step be viewed as something more than mere technique. Adequate preparation ought to involve knowing your students as people and being sensitive to their interests and aversions. The same might be said at each step where the teacher sets out to translate plans into actions. Forget the artistic side of teaching and the method becomes mechanistic, a mechanical plugging in of techniques into a particular situation without being sensitive to subtle nuances that spell the difference between mediocre and effective teaching.


Another method of instruction that became increasingly popular during the second and third decades of this century involved the technique known as activity analysis. To use this method, a teacher had to assume that the activities which were to be the concern of school children were the very ones considered important in adult society. The selection of activities important enough to be taught was made on the basis of suggestions from the well-informed in the various fields of human endeavor. If, for instance, one were preparing a curriculum for prospective printers, one would first observe what printers actually did in their occupation, and one would ask them what they considered important for a printer to learn. If one were concerned with a liberal arts kind of curriculum for college women, one would study the everyday lives of women college graduates.

Whatever the source of information, the next step involved classifying the activities selected in terms of the various disciplines. What activities involved historical understandings? Which drew on the various sciences, arts, and so forth? Subsequently, after ranking the derived subjects in terms of importance, the activities could be analyzed, or broken down, into a series of steps, the size of which depended on the maturity of the learner. Thus the learner set out to conquer his environment by a series of small steps, ideally small enough to permit the learner to teach himself.2

This method was designed to insure that the subject matters taught would be relevant to the student and the life he was to lead. It was hoped, as the technique of activity analysis improved, that education would soon reach a state where all one had to do was construct a curriculum which would teach itself. The student would make all the connections necessary for acquiring a more meaningful and useful behavioral repertoire. This, of course, was a forerunner of the programmed instruction that would concern so many American educators from about the mid-1950's on.

It is worth noting, in fact, that when most people think of educational technology they tend to think in terms of the "hardware" currently on the market, such as teaching machines, talking typewriters, and the like. I am suggesting that the fruits of technology applied to education is part of a larger concern with developing and presenting curricula—viewing education as technology.

Notice that the idea of activity analysis, or even the recent idea of programmed instruction, involves careful thought on the part of educators concerning what they are trying to do in the classroom. This idea incorporates a constant challenge to the routine reliance on tradition. So far so good.


The limitation in using activity analysis grows out of the tendency to become so involved in the curriculum that the student as a human being is forgotten except as a manifestation of behavioral patterns revealed to the teacher rather than a particular personality in a particular context. To the extent we overlook the individual as a person we overlook the moral component of education, the artistic side concerned with the effects of teacher-activities on the student and the desirability of producing such effects. This concern finally reduces itself to whether we shall view people as ends or as means? To treat them as ends is to treat them with respect. To show respect involves the sympathy and understanding which only appear when people really relate to each other. For an educator to avoid this concern is to render his teaching a form of programming, as if he were a computer. Once again we see the ever present danger of a particular technique becoming mechanical and breeding insensitivity to the student who, after all, is the main reason for the enterprise. Even if one chooses to view education as simply cultural transmission, what is defined as culture is quite irrelevant apart from its realization in and contribution to the lives of human beings.

In 1950, Ralph W. Tyler prepared a syllabus for a University of Chicago course in "Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction." The purpose was to "help the student of education to understand more fully the kinds of problems involved in developing a curriculum and plan of instruction and to acquire some techniques by which these basic problems may be attacked."3 His rationale for developing any curriculum and plan of instruction turned on four questions:

1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?

2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?

3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?

4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?

While question three is the more obviously technological one, the others are also concerned with techniques of choosing what it is that is to be taught and how it is to be taught. Tyler's concern was with providing a more adequate basis for selecting objectives and for converting these objectives into behavioral terms so they could be taught to the student in such a way that the outcomes, or effectiveness of teaching, could be determined. One finds these objectives by considering student needs and interests, societal needs, and the concerns of subject matter specialists. Philosophy and psychology are used as screens to clarify the list of objectives and put them in a form appropriate for the learners involved. One winds up with a list of precisely stated objectives accompanied by appropriate activities for their realization.

Once again, there is little question that the educator who uses this rationale is forced to think systematically and carefully about what he is trying to do in the classroom as well as consider if he is realizing what he had hoped for in his teaching. Obviously, education thus viewed is a positive, directing, acculturating process. And education, by definition, must be at least this, though I again add not only this.

That Tyler is aware that learning is more than a mechanical acquisition of new behavioral patterns is evident when he says "the teacher must always be on the lookout for undesirable outcomes that may develop from a learning experience planned for some other purpose." Granting, then, that education is concerned with the deliberate change in behavior in harmony with the needs of the individual as well as society, its value finally resides in what it does for the individual to make him a better, more humane individual. What one ought to keep asking himself as a teacher is whether or not the particular activity he has the children engaging in serves to further inner harmony in the child and sensitiveness to other people, as well as a deeper appreciation of the subject matter being taught.


Let me suggest that it is not only the child's immediate desires or the experiences valued by adults that make life worthwhile. It is rather, as Dewey pointed out some thirty years ago and as Montaigne pointed out nearly 400 years ago, the interaction of the two which enables the individual to live a richer, fuller life. Education as technology is an indispensable part of the educational process. Yet a concern for technology all too easily results in forgetting the human dimension. It then becomes rigid, absolutistic, and increasingly irrelevant if not downright detrimental to human affairs.

What makes me uneasy about the various new curricula today is that we seem to be more concerned with effective transmission of concepts than with considering why the child at, say age three, should learn how to write, except as we say something about the inevitably increasing complexity of life and our need to cope with it by acquiring more powerful intellectual tools. Yes, we do need to be able to handle more powerful and productive concepts in today's world. But we must also try to regain a sensitivity to other people that we seem to be fast losing.

Somehow we must learn to regain our sense of outrage at man's inhumanity to man, whether in the treatment of the poor, whites as well as Negroes, or in what happens in Vietnam. In spite of, or perhaps because of, increasing violence we seem to prefer to insulate ourselves. Let me suggest that insulation involves cultivating insensitivity. And I, for one, hope we do not encourage this quite understandable though self-perpetuating defense mechanism in the schools. Let us renew our dedication to the humane use of intelligence in the affairs of men. Education as technology without education as art is education for insensitivity.

1 John S. Brubacher, A History of the Problems of Education. New York: McGraw-Hill and Co., 1947.

2 W. W. Charters, Curriculum Construction. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1929.

3 Ralph W. Tyler, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction: Syllabus for Education 360. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 70 Number 2, 1968, p. 121-126
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1869, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:39:22 PM

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