This article and sidebar were published in the
October, 1999, issue of
the Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development's (ASCD) journal for
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
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
- 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
Why is Technological Literacy Important?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
*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
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
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
“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?"
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
"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.
"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."
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
From where does technology come?
"Aaaah!!! The dead frog jumped!!!" screams one student, playing the role of
"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
"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
"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
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.
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.