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This article and sidebar were published in the October, 1999, issue of Classroom Leadership,

the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's (ASCD) journal for teachers.



Technological Literacy

By Miguel Aznar and Addie Holsing


"Is it good to rely on technology?" Natalie asked while we were still taking roll.  Who really has a choice?  From grocery store checkout scanners to automated teller machines (ATMs), antilock brakes, and the computers that ask us to "press 1 if you have a billing question" our lives are permeated by technology.  Because of how rapidly technology replaces itself with new, more powerful technology, knowledge of how to operate a specific technology has a short useful life.  The enduring value that students will take away from school is technological literacy.


We define technological literacy as understanding the context of technology, the context in which we use all those tools that extend our abilities.  It is through context that we take meaning from knowledge.  In 1998, a group of educators, businesspeople, and computer engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area formed KnowledgeContext, a non-profit corporation, to develop a curriculum for technological literacy and to deliver it to secondary schools.


KnowledgeContext started by asking what concepts of technology would prepare students for the future.  We asked people in technology, business, and education.  Then we developed activities that incorporated those concepts and tested them in classrooms.  With one of our team experienced in developing and integrating classroom curriculum, we drew on cognitive theory, multiple intelligence concepts, and effective teaching techniques.  Our conclusions for what it meant to teach students technological literacy distilled down to:


      - giving them a framework to evaluate technology that influences their lives

      - showing them how people invent, develop and influence technology

      - showing them how technology connects to what they study


Fortunately, teachers are well-positioned to teach this understanding of technology.



Why is Technological Literacy Important?

  1. Critical thinking about something that affects all of us, like technology, requires understanding why we use it, how it works, where it comes from, and how to apply it.

  2. Knowing how to use a web browser or word processor, while important, is tied to that specific technology.  Technology doubles in power every two years (Moore, 1996) making specific technologies—and operating knowledge of them—obsolete in shorter and shorter periods of time.  Context spans specific technologies so the concepts are of enduring value.

  3. Technology is cross-disciplinary.  Its invention and application are driven by history, science, math, communication, and many other fields.  Therefore, technology provides a uniting theme for study in these fields, as well as a tangible, familiar application.

  4. Technology does not care about the student’s skin color, gender, ethnicity, popularity, looks, or background.  Technology can be invented, developed, and applied by anyone.  Underprivileged students may assume that they have no role to play in the development of technology, but context shows the variety of ways that people invent, develop, apply, and influence technology.

  5. The labor market is short of technology workers.  Although the context of technology can reach all students, for those with inclination, it can reveal careers in technology.  Not well publicized is the fact that many, if not most, developers of technology were having a great time changing some aspect of their world to be just the way they wanted it*.



How do We Teach Technological Literacy?


KnowledgeContext tested activities in a one-semester technology elective and in multiple pilots ranging from one to five days in three different schools.  The result is what we’ve come to call “First Context.”  We determined that having a brief, ready-to-use curriculum would be important for teachers.  First Context is a five-segment curriculum readily teachable in five class-periods, usually spread across five days.  It introduces concepts basic to understanding technology, including why do we use it, how does it work, and where does it come from.  A flavor for First Context in the classroom is given in the sidebar article “First Context."


Field testing our five-day program showed that many concepts we considered important would not fit into five periods.  Because of this, we incorporated these concepts into long-term projects that we show teachers how to integrate into the curriculum they are already using.  As an example, a teacher covering Egyptian history could use the “Backpacking Through Time” activity we provide.  A team of five students research what technology was present in ancient Egypt before one of the team chooses an objective (e.g. becoming Pharaoh) as well as five technologies to pack back in time.  The other teammates decide what happens when the time traveler attempts her imaginary journey using various anachronistic technologies.  Students quickly discover that there are no ready sources of electricity or supplies.



Technological Literacy and Teachers


KnowledgeContext delivers First Context and long-term project structures to secondary school teachers through one-day workshops.  These workshops have two objectives.  First, involve teachers in the experience of the First Context activities.  And, second, facilitate teachers in placing First Context in the context of their own curriculum.  The First Context activities are structured as games, so playing the games with other teachers in the workshop gives a visceral sense of how they may apply in the classroom.  Through individual and group activities, teachers consider where in the student learning cycle, and where in their teaching portfolio, First Context and long-term projects will integrate.


Perhaps it should not be surprising, but teaching technological literacy relieves an anxiety expressed by many teachers.  We’ve heard many variations of “How do I teach technology to these kids who have so much time to play with it and who understand it better than I do?”  Becoming comfortable and familiar with technology through play (Turkle, 1997) is just one view of technology, and a myopic view at that.  What students need most is the panoramic view that places technology in relationship to our world.  Teachers are well-positioned to introduce students to the big picture of technology:


     - recognizing historical patterns,

     - understanding human nature,

     - making connections to science, math, and other fields of study

     - communicating processes and strategies


The activities in First Context will be familiar in structure and approach to any teacher.  The focus the activities take on technology, the technology content itself, and the structure into which they fit is what distinguishes them.  Pilot classes in several different schools with varying student composition prove students’ receptivity.


Understanding comes from context and context from breadth of knowledge.  Making connections from technology to science, math, history, communication, and perhaps any field, is a goal suited to teachers.  So at a time when many feel left behind by technology and by their students who so readily play with it, it is reassuring to discover that teachers have the right background to bring perspective to the changes and to teach technological literacy.




*Steve Wozniak created the personal computer that he, himself, wanted to play with.  Steve Jobs recognized that it would have general appeal and so developed it into the first Apple computer.





Moore, G. “Nanometers and GigabucksÑMoore on Moore’s Law” University Video Corporation Distinguished Lecture, 1996 (http://www.uvc.com)


Turkle, S. Growing Up in the Culture of Simulation, an essay contained in Denning, Metcalfe Beyond Calculation:  The Next Fifty Years of Computing.  New York:  Copernicus 1997

This sidebar accompanied the article


First Context


First Context is a five-segment curriculum on technological literacy, often presented in one class period each day for five days.  Pilots in several schools with varied student composition provided our proving ground.  The sections below give a glimpse into each day and explain the objectives for each.



Day 1


How do we understand technology?


Melissa is a difficult student, prone to walking and dancing around the classroom.  Now she sits still on a high stool, facing the class, smiling, arms cradling a cardboard box.  Only she knows what technology is inside the box and the student teams are competing in Technology Gameshow to figure that out using “yes” or “no” questions.


“Is it used for entertainment?” the reporter for Table 1 asks.


   Table 2 scrambles to replace the question they had prepared, given this new information.

“Is it used mostly by kids?” the Table 2 reporter hesitantly offers.


   Table 3 passes their turn and I wince.  I want them ALL engaged.

“Does it use batteries?”  without delay from Table 4.



Students are learning that we understand technology the way we understand anything:  by asking questions.  The questions that students ask fall into predictable categories:  why do you use it, how does it work, what does it look like, and is it this.  Competition among student teams to figure out what's in the box motivates them to figure out what questions are the most powerful.  "Is it a CD player?" gives much less information than "Is it used for entertainment?" or "Does it use batteries?"  Powerful questions like these give a segue to Day 2 and Day 3, which focus on "why do we use technology?" and "how does technology work?"


Day 2


Why do we use technology?


"It's a cel phone" Lisa offers, trying to imagine I don't already know.

"What's a cel phone?" I ask, playing the role of someone from the year 1799.

"You use it to talk" Lisa's teammate Eric helps out.

"But we're talking right now and we don't need a cel phone"

"You can talk to your friends that are far away" Lisa explains.

"Aaah, that could be useful"

"Like if your relatives are in Florida and you want to talk to them." Peter jumps in.

"Well, I'd write to them and then send the letter on horseback...it might take two weeks."

"Yeah, but this is quick, like a second" Peter continues.

"And you can call 911" Lisa adds.

"What's '911'?"

"It's for emergencies, like police or fire"


On the second of our five days on understanding technology, the students are uncovering the timeless human needs that are satisfied by ever more quickly changing technology.  These students were born more recently than the first Macintosh computer--pure magic to someone from 1799 and yet now placed in front of surplus stores marked "free".  Through the "Host a Time Traveler" activity, they have found common ground with someone from 200 years ago:  why do you use it?  The same enduring patterns will help these students as future technology places today's state-of-the-art on future sidewalks with signs marked "free."



Day 3


How does technology work?


"If both buttons are on then the light is off" Josh tells the class.

"Let's test Josh's hypothesis" I suggest, inviting Josh to use the computer connected to the big screen.

Josh proves to the class that his description works and all the teams move on to more complicated mystery boxes.

Peter calls me over to his team's computer and points to the mystery box on the screen with eight switches and three lights.

"We can't use a table on this one" Peter points out.

"You're right.  You'll need to use another technique."


Finding patterns in chaos is part of understanding how technology works.  In Technology Jeopardy, students play with technology to look for patterns and then they share those patterns with the class.  The web-based technology they play with happens to be logic gates, the basic building blocks of all digital electronics.  The worksheets they use to record the patterns they find are "truth tables" used in computer engineering.  When truth tables reach their limit, as Peter quickly realized, students use narrative to explain the patterns.  Understanding the elemental components of computers and the Internet can give students confidence for attempting to understand any technology.



Day 4


From where does technology come?


"Aaaah!!!  The dead frog jumped!!!" screams one student, playing the role of Galvani's wife.

"What's going on here?" Galvani rushes into the scene.

"It jumped.  The dead frog jumped!" in mock hysteria.

"What does it mean, professor?"  ask several students playing the role of Galvani's students.

"Uh, I have discovered 'animal electricity'" exclaims Galvani, afraid of appearing dumb in front of his students.

Later, Volta challenges Galvani.  "You don't know what you're talking about!"

"No, you don't know what you're talking about!" responds Galvani.

"I will prove to you that electricity can be made without animals" vows Volta.


Before the end of the scene, Volta has turned a rivalry familiar to any student into the first electric battery.  Those who changed the world with technology shared personality characteristics and life circumstances with many of today's students.  Getting past the image that inventors were all "white guys in white lab coats" is accomplished by acting out scenes from the history of technology and having the students in the audience note what characteristics they see.  The technologies are selected to build on each other, showing connections.  The battery leads to the electric generator to the light bulb, vacuum tube, transistor, integrated circuit, microprocessor, and finally to the personal computer.



Day 5


How will we apply what we’ve learned?


"Is it used for entertainment?"


"Is it used for communication?"


"Is it for between two people?"


"Does it connect to something...so it doesn't work on its own?"


On the last of five days, we repeat Technology Gameshow from Day 1 to see if students are asking more powerful questions about technology.  Much of the time is left for journaling.  The week flies by, with the days too busy to stop and reflect.  With reflection comes understanding of how this new view of technology may be applied in a personal way.


While much of the emphasis on technology in our schools has been to learn how to operate it, little has addressed understanding its context.  Technological literacy, an understanding complementary to "how to use" knowledge, brings an enduring perspective to students facing a future of near-unimaginable technological change.



 2010 KnowledgeContext


Teaching Young People to Think About Technology