Industrial Arts: Call It What You Want, the Need Still Exists: Teaching "Technological Literacy" at the Expense of Hands-On Skills Training Is Wrong for the Students, Wrong for the Economy, and Wrong for the Nation, Mr. Howlett Argues

By Howlett, James | Phi Delta Kappan, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Industrial Arts: Call It What You Want, the Need Still Exists: Teaching "Technological Literacy" at the Expense of Hands-On Skills Training Is Wrong for the Students, Wrong for the Economy, and Wrong for the Nation, Mr. Howlett Argues


Howlett, James, Phi Delta Kappan


WE CLEARLY have a division of thinking within the education community. Unfortunately, that division is within the disciplines that have devoted themselves to the task of passing on to the next generation the body of knowledge that has been the hallmark of progress for the "industrialized" world. Len Litowitz and Scott Warner--and apparently the entire International Technology Education Association (ITEA)--assert that "technology education" has taken over the teaching of industrial arts. Perhaps.

Litowitz and Warner summarize the history of vocational education and argue that industrial arts education is no longer necessary. Their goal of "developing technologically literate citizens" is admirable, and it is obvious that much time and thought have been devoted to the conceptualization of "technology education." What is missing from the decision to provide students with a program to ensure "technological literacy" at the expense of skills training is the research and accompanying data to justify the changes. This is a philosophical decision based on an effort to divine the future.

The ITEA Standards for Technological Literacy advocate that "all students in K-12 can become technologically literate and should be given the opportunity to do so." How is that to be done? Litowitz and Warner talk extensively about "contemporary technology education curricula," but no course titles are offered. Let us assume for the moment that we have a class titled "Power Mechanics," in which we have incorporated the concepts of applying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Litowitz and Warner suggest three questions that might be asked in a technology education course to explore various sides of contemporary issues: "Do robots in industry really eliminate more jobs than they create? Are hybrid vehicles really better for the environment than gasoline-powered vehicles? Is the use of more nuclear power generation desirable or even inevitable?" Ask these questions of most high school students--even in the best of circumstances--and you will be greeted with a wave of apathy. In the arena of high school electives, the survival of a class depends on having a "hook"--something that ignites immediate interest, something that grabs students' attention and holds it for 36 weeks. These questions do not.

On curricular matters, Litowitz and Warner claim that vocational education "focuses on trade preparation, whereas technology education is broader" in its content and intended audience. I'm not sure how they arrive at this conclusion. Most vocational education teachers rely on federal funding to stay current with industry and to purchase equipment, and one of the requirements of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Improvement Act of 2006 is that the curriculum must "teach all aspects of the industry." A tall order, indeed, but surely not a narrow one. Moreover, I am confused by their reference to a "contemporary computer-aided drafting course." Is there any other kind? I have taught CAD (computer-assisted design) classes since the mid-1980s, and the beauty of teaching CAD is that students can be challenged to apply all their knowledge in new ways. Notice the word "apply." All good high school industrial technology/arts teachers look for opportunities to expand their skills training with mind-stretching activities.

Certainly, "contemporary technology education curricula serve to enhance the development of such core subjects as mathematics, science, and reading by adding variety, relevance, and purpose to a student's academic program of study." Good stuff! That is precisely the point of the original article. It was an affirmation, a restatement of the content and rigor taught in today's courses that remain the core of industrial technology/arts: Wood, Metals/Machines, Auto, Drafting, and Welding. Where then lies the basis of their criticism? It seems to be in the method of delivery. If "industrial arts" is passe and no longer relevant in the education system, then are we to believe that "hands-on skills training" is no longer needed in the K-12 curriculum?

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