This is Part 3 of a series of four posts about Technology Education. You can go back to the first post here, or read Part 2 here.
The Technology Process
The technology process is never linear, straightforward or easily-defined. Having said that, it does help to think about it happening in four (or five) stages: investigation, design (and plan), creation/production, and evaluation. All are important, although the order they’re undertaken can differ from project to project. I’ll give some examples of this at the end.
Investigation describes the discovery of the knowledge and skills required to complete a project. This includes a formal or informal definition of the purpose of the technology, the contexts in which it needs to work, the specifications and constraints of the technology’s design, production, use and disposal, and the criteria that will be used to evaluate it.
Sometimes, this phase also involves true scientific testing. For example, to produce a pencil case, students might like to investigate the properties of various materials, by testing their strength, flexibility, or resistance to water. It’s often possible to integrate science and technology together very effectively here: scientific inquiry helps us to design a superior product, and the technology task demonstrates complex application of our science knowledge and skills to solving a problem.
Sometimes, the investigation phase involves exploration of materials, ideas, and previous examples of the technology. This ensures that everyone working on a project is on the same page regarding the goals and criteria for evaluation of the technology.
Sometimes, this phase involves learning or practising new skills or techniques. We might learn a new painting technique for creating a work of art, HTML for designing a website, or how to use certain tools for building a chair. Tomorrow’s post will discuss skill development for making technologies more.
As an innovator works through the Investigation phase of the technology process, it’s important they define the criteria by which it will be evaluated. If a final product meets all the criteria, then it has the best chance of being a successful product. Without criteria, it’s difficult to know whether or not the product is a good one. How do you know that your mobile phone is the best mobile phone? You assess it against your own set of criteria. A savvy teacher will negotiate the criteria for evaluation of a project with students, integrating students’ own evaluation with her assessment of the product. As an added bonus, asking students to share their criteria for their products can also assist students to understand that other people have different ideas, values and needs to their own.
Often, this phase can last the longest… Check out Joshua Klein’s design for a vending machine for crows. How long did he spend researching crows, behavioural psychology, vending machines etc before he actually made a design and had it built?
Design (and Plan)
The design phase, sometimes referred to as “ideation”, is the phase in which ideas are brainstormed and mapped out. For tangible products, such as a pencil case or a toy, a plan that describes the shape, role or place of various parts of the technology might be needed. For other products, a description or process may need to be written. For example, a fitness plan might be constructed using a list or a calendar or a series of goals along with instructions to get there, and an itinerary might be used to plan a holiday or a school tour. A list of products and processes might be described in a campaign plan, or a plan for a school graduation dance. A plan for a story might describe the characters, setting, plot developments and conclusion. A map for a Rube-Goldberg machine might include materials and an proposal for how it can be enacted. You can probably see that some of these designs or plans can simply be drafts for a final product, while other designs and plans help guide a student through the construction process.
Sometimes, students might test their design and head back over the the Investigation Phase, then return to the Design phase (“back to the drawing board”), before making it to the Production phase…
In this phase, the technology is finally actually made! A student uses their skills to their best ability to make the product or enact their plan. I’ll talk more about skills in tomorrow’s post.
There isn’t much planning a teacher can do around this phase for their students. My advice: make sure you’ve checked your students’ plans before you allow them to make their products and that they have all the materials and tools they’ll need; allow twice as much time as you think they’ll need; and take a deep breath as you remember that after the mess comes clean-up time!
It is worth remembering though, that in today’s world, not all products can be made by individuals. Just check out Thomas Thwaite’s attempt to make a toaster by scratch, and the lessons he learned from trying.
Lastly, it’s time to evaluate the technology. This is very important! Young innovators may have created something very important and valuable, but how will they know? They will know by evaluating the product, system or information against the criteria they defined in the first phase of the process.
A few (not too many) well-defined criteria will help the designer to know that their product, system or information is effective, efficient or useful, and just how effective, efficient or useful it is. Just as we know a joke is successful when people laugh at it, we know just how successful it is by how many people laugh at it, and how hard they laugh. Criteria relate closely to the purpose, context, specifications and constraints of the technology, and the Evaluation phase gives us time to reflect on these. Criteria regarding the impacts and consequences of the technology might also be included.
Evaluation also includes valuable reflection on what aspects of the development of the technology went well, what not so well, and how they can do better next time. An unsuccessful technology can be turned around by reflecting on the process and returning to the Investigation phase.
So, here’s an example: Imagine that you have asked your students to design a pencil case. Immediately, your class can identify the purpose: to contain their stationery. The context might be: for travel between classes, or between home and school. Specifications might include how much stationery needs to be carried, the size and volume of the pencil case, as well as other attributes such as whether it needs to be flexible or stiff, waterproof, transparent (for exams?), etc. Constraints would include access to materials, financial constraints, and time constraints. Straight away, you can see that there are some criteria that can be framed here, too, some qualitative (aesthetic, textural, etc) and some quantitative (capacity). Investigations might include the strength, texture and water resistance of a variety of materials. Students could also examine some of the skills and tools that might be needed to construct pencil cases of different kinds. They will also need to look at the accessibility of those tools, materials, as well as the cost of using them. Students might learn skills such as sewing, or working with tools to cut wood. Concurrently, students can investigate different designs and ideas, before moving on to create and justify a final design plan. For a pencil case, such a plan will include material patterns, a method, and list of materials, and justification for their choices. Once approved by their teacher, the student can progress to actually making the (hopefully) final product, keeping a journal of brief insights, ideas, issues and solutions they encounter. Finally, they can present their pencil case to the class, demonstrate how it meets the criteria, complete a self-evaluation and a product-evaluation, and enjoy their finish product! Peers might also contribute evaluations.
The final post of this series, Part 4, will discuss some of the skills that can be developed by Technology Education, and will be published tomorrow.