Few concepts which fall within the scope of technology education have received as much attention as “problem solving.” The Technology Teacher alone contained seven articles about problem solving between 1985 and 1989 (Sellwood, 1989; Thode, 1989; Barnes, 1989; Ritz, Deal, Hadley, Jacobs, Kildruff & Skena, 1987, 1986a; Baker & Dugger, 1986; Forbes, 1985). A thorough review of each of these articles will help any technology teacher teach technology. Many additional articles discuss problem solving, although they may not focus specifically on it. This does not suggest that problem solving is a new concept; it has been listed as a goal of our profession since its inception. However, the recent interest in problem solving does raise some questions: How should problem solving be defined in the context of technology education? How important is problem solving in technology education? Does problem solving hold a different place in a technology education curriculum than it did in industrial arts?
JTE v2n1 - Problem Solving: Much More Than Just Design
Problem Solving: Much More Than Just Design
Few concepts which fall within the scope
of technology education have received as much
attention as "problem solving." THE TECH-
NOLOGY TEACHER alone contained seven articles
about problem solving between 1985 and 1989
(Sellwood, 1989; Thode, 1989; Barnes, 1989;
Ritz, Deal, Hadley, Jacobs, Kildruff & Skena,1987, 1986a; Baker & Dugger, 1986; Forbes,1985). A thorough review of each of these
articles will help any technology teacher
teach technology. Many additional articles
discuss problem solving, although they may
not focus specifically on it. This does not
suggest that problem solving is a new con-
cept; it has been listed as a goal of our
profession since its inception. However, the
recent interest in problem solving does raise
some questions: How should problem solving be
defined in the context of technology educa-
tion? How important is problem solving in
technology education? Does problem solving
hold a different place in a technology educa-
tion curriculum than it did in industrial
This article will explore design and
troubleshooting as subcategories of problem
solving and will argue that the systematic
evaluation of the impacts of technology
(technology assessment) should be considered
an equally important category of problem
PROBLEM SOLVING: A DEFINITION
Problem solving has been defined in many
ways. One simple yet meaningful definition
describes a problem as a need which must be
met ( Ritz, et al. 1986a). This need could
include, among other things, the need to un-
derstand the forces of nature (science), to
alter the environment (technology), or to use
scientific knowledge to alter the environment
Industrial arts, in the past, and now
technology education programs have addressed
problem solving. However, even the most con-
temporary treatment of problem solving has
been primarily focused on designing new tech-
nical systems or, less often, repairing ex-
Unfortunately, many authors and educa-
tors consider problem solving from only the
perspective of design. In fact, some use the
terms "problem solving" and "design" inter-
changeably. This approach is far too limit-
ing. Technological problem solving can be
divided into three categories: design, trou-
bleshooting, and technology assessment (im-
pact evaluation) (see Figure 1).
Designing may be defined as proactive
problem solving (Baker & Dugger, 1986). It
includes not only the refinement of the ori-
ginal concept but also the research, exper-
imentation, and development necessary to
prepare the product for production. Innovat-
ing, creativity, and designing are closely
related. A wealth of good information exists
concerning design (e.g., Nelson, 1979; Hanks,
Bellistron & Edwards, 1978; and Beakley &Chilton, 1973).
Troubleshooting, or reactive problem
solving ( Baker & Dugger, 1986), involves the
recognition that technology encompasses more
than innovation. The production and utiliza-
tion of technical solutions is also a valid
source of course content for technology edu-
cation. Finding and correcting problems dur-
ing the production or utilization of
technical solutions is troubleshooting.
FIGURE 1. Three forms of technological prob-
Technicians can be satisfied with abili-
ties in design and/or troubleshooting. How-
ever, technologists must add the ability to
critically analyze the impacts of technical
solutions in order to predict possible out-
comes and choose the most appropriate sol-
ution to a problem. Of course, they must
also re-evaluate existing solutions. Most
practitioners in the field would agree that
evaluating the impacts of technology is an
important part of technology education. How-
ever, finding a way to integrate impact eval-
uation into a program can be difficult.
Encouraging students to approach the impacts
of technology with a well structured, analyt-
ical process (problem solving) should result
in significant learning.
HOW IMPORTANT IS PROBLEM SOLVING?
Few would argue that teaching problem
solving is unimportant. Whether an important
component of technology education curriculum
( Baker & Dugger, 1986) or the central focus
of technology education curriculum ( Barnes,1989), current thinking in the field seems to
strongly support the importance of problem
solving. Perhaps the most persuasive of
these arguments is based upon the explosive
growth of technology. Because so much of
what students need to know has not yet been
created, it makes little sense to teach stu-
dents the most up-to-date technology if they
do not exit with the ability to continue
learning ( Barnes, 1989). The development of
problem solving ability is a key factor in
creating an independent learner.
WHAT PLACE DOES PROBLEM SOLVING HAVE
IN TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION?
Problem solving was an important ability
in industrial arts because it allowed the
student to overcome certain stumbling blocks
which were inevitable in producing a well
crafted product. Problem solving in most as-
pects of industrial arts, in practice if not
in theory, was a spin-off skill. Although it
was rarely planned in a specific manner, some
degree of problem solving ability was almost
always imparted to students.
Technology education changes problem
solving from simply a means to an end into
the end itself. Rather than use problem
solving to produce a product, the product be-
comes one of many ways to teach problem solv-
TEACHING TECHNICAL PROBLEM SOLVING
Regardless of which of the three types
of technical problem solving are taught,
three basic concepts should be attended to.
These concepts are: (a) a model for problem
solving, (b) systems to subsystems approach,
and (c) necessary prerequisite knowledge.
Many good problem solving models are
available. Most models have between four
and eight stages. The larger models provide
more detail; however, a four-step model like
the one that follows includes all the major
steps but remains concise. Regardless of
which model is chosen, it should be reviewed
with students using examples to explain each
step: (a) identify the problem, (b) postulate
possible solutions, (c) test the best sol-
ution, and (d) determine if the problem is
An understanding of a problem solving
model can help students understand the proc-
ess of problem solving. However, attention
to content should not be neglected. Students
who are taught to solve problems in a way
which gives little attention to the content
of the problem will have great difficulty
transferring the learning to other situations
(Thomas & Litowitz, 1986). In such situ-
ations, students can be taught to solve prob-
lems without becoming problem solvers.
Because technical systems are involved,
an understanding of systems and subsystems is
another important component of technology ed-
ucation (Ritz, Deal, Hadley, Jacobs, Kildruff& Skena, 1986b). A system is a group of com-
ponents which work together to accomplish a
common goal. Many times the component parts
of a system are themselves systems, thus be-
coming subsystems. Two concepts are impor-
tant in relationship to this definition.
First, it is important to recognize that each
system or subsystem has a discernible func-
tion. Understanding how a system or subsys-
tem operates is frequently important when
solving technical problems. Second, the re-
lationship between systems and subsystems is
important. Subsystems can also affect each
other. The need to understand the interde-
pendence and function of systems and subsys-
tems will become more apparent when discussed
in the context of design, troubleshooting and
Problem solving is a higher level think-
ing skill. This type of thinking involves
analysis, synthesis and evaluation. These
cannot occur in the absence of appropriate
supporting learning (knowledge, understanding
and application). The cognitive domain
taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) supports this idea
(see Figure 2).
FIGURE 2. Bloom's cognitive domain
taxonomy: "The Building Blocks of Learning."
Simple knowledge or even understanding
of a content area will not by itself provide
a sufficient basis for solving problems in-
volving that content. However, knowledge and
understanding are necessary for solving com-
plex problems. For example, any one who has
tried to understand something about which
they have little or no knowledge usually ends
up with little or incorrect understanding.
Knowledge is foundational to understanding.
Imagine trying to apply knowledge without
understanding. Suppose an individual is
aware of many types of building materials
like plywood, drywall, nails, screws, etc.
However, this person has no understanding of
how these materials are used and no experi-
ence with them. Now imagine this individual
attempts to build their own house; frus-
tration would result from a missing link in
the chain of things necessary to apply know-
In order to explore the level of cogni-
tion necessary for problem solving, a person
named Hypothetical Harry will be used. In
search of a career, Harry decides to find out
what skills he would need to become a build-
ing inspector. The first thing he discovers
is that there are many different types of
building inspectors: electrical, plumbing,
structural and others. This type of system
(the whole building) to subsystem (elec-
trical, plumbing and structural) is analogous
to the type of analysis Harry will be re-
quired to do when he inspects buildings. In
order to conquer the task of deciding if an
entire electrical, plumbing or structural
subsystem of a building is safe for occu-
pancy, Harry will find it necessary to divide
the problem into manageable pieces.
The building inspector's job sounds in-
teresting to Harry but he decides the salary
is not enough. While investigating the
building trades Harry discovers that archi-
tects can have good incomes. However, this
job sounds a bit more challenging. Harry be-
gins to realize that an architect must under-
stand all of the subsystems of a building
(analysis) and he or she must recombine the
component parts of these subsystems to create
new solutions. In other words, an architect
is expected to combine the subcomponents of
electrical, plumbing, mechanical and struc-
tural systems to meet the requirements of a
variety of different building projects.
Harry can quickly conclude that this job
would require not only the ability to divide
systems into smaller systems and then to di-
vide the systems again and again but also the
ability to recombine these systems. Anyone
who is good at recombining systems to create
new solutions (synthesis) must first be capa-
ble of dividing the systems in the first
Just about the time Hypothetical Harry
decides to go back to college in order to be-
come an architect he wins the lottery. Now
Harry's career aspirations shift from making
money to spending and protecting his new
found wealth. Harry must constantly make de-
cisions about what to buy or which tax shel-
ters are the best this week. The reason
Harry finds this "work" so exhausting is that
he is constantly evaluating which of several
alternatives is the best answer to the prob-
lem at hand. To make the best evaluations
Harry must be able to break the problems into
digestible bits of information (analysis).
He should also be able to see potential con-
nections between varied solutions (synthesis)
in order to compare them.
Harry is not the only person who must
have the ability to evaluate. As consumers
and citizens every individual should possess
Problem solving may require analysis,
synthesis, evaluation, or a combination of
these. The building blocks which support
these various levels of learning may be sup-
plied by the teacher, sought out by the stu-
dent, or teacher and student may share the
responsibility for discovering these prereq-
The more abstract forms of learning,
problem solving included, cannot occur with-
out the foundation of concrete learning. De-
spite well intentioned claims to the
contrary, how much of what is actually accom-
plished in education progresses beyond the
concrete levels of knowledge, understanding
and application? Education which involves
abstract learning is rare and it is certainly
more difficult to produce and evaluate than a
system which focuses on the retaining of
facts. However, analysis, synthesis and
evaluation level thinking skills are essen-
tial to the development of a competitive work
force. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship
between this type of abstract learning and
FIGURE 3. Levels of learning.
A key in teaching design is the essen-
tial element creativity plays in this type of
problem solving (Thomas & Litowitz, 1986).
Every technology teacher should examine their
teaching style to determine its effect on
students' ability to generate alternative
solutions to a problem. Does the laboratory
experience students have encourage diversity
or demand conformity? The product oriented,
skill development strategies typical of the
industrial arts philosophy rarely celebrate
diverse solutions (Clark, 1989). The need to
efficiently transfer skills is one which
bleeds over into technology education because
a knowledge base is a prerequisite to devel-
oping problem solving ability. However, ef-
ficiency should not be allowed to overshadow
effectiveness; they should be balanced. When
teaching design, a strategy must be developed
which not only tolerates but rewards alterna-
tive solutions. This type of problem solving
should involve a divergent as opposed to a
convergent thinking process (Hatch, 1988).
Students who are encouraged to take control
of their own learning will be much more
likely to develop a broad rather than nar-
rowly focused approach to problem solving.
The idea that students can help teach them-
selves (Villalon, 1982) is appropriate for
The temptation is present to simply
teach divergent thinking the way one might
teach multiplication tables. The problem
with this approach lies in the critical role
creativity plays in the type of divergent
thinking which is required to come up with
truly unique solutions to problems. Can one
teach creativity? Can an educational system
so steeped in convergent thought encourage or
even tolerate divergent thinking?
A discovery method of learning can be
utilized in the teaching of design. When
students are faced with the need to know cer-
tain information, they will seek out that in-
formation. This requires them to work their
way down Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning, per-
haps even jumping around a bit filling in the
gaps as they find need. For example, suppose
a student wants to assess the impact of a
coal gasification. First, the student must
satisfy him or herself that they understand
what coal gassification is (knowledge and
comprehension). Second, the student should
begin to ask questions like: how is coal con-
verted to a gas, why is this process desira-
ble, what type of pollution can be eliminated
by coal gassification, and will new problems
be created? In this second step the student
breaks the problem down into managable chunks
(analysis). Finally, the student brings the
answers to all the smaller questions together
in order to answer the question: considering
both the positive and negative aspects of
coal gassification, what should be done with
this technology (synthesis and evaluation).
This method casts the teacher as guide and
facilitator. The student becomes an investi-
gator (Sellwood, 1989). The following illus-
trates a design brief in which the student
uses this investigative approach. When using
this approach, care must be exercised to in-
sure that each student obtains the prerequi-
site knowledge. As has been mentioned,
proper attention to context is necessary if
students are to transfer the problem solving
process to new situations.
Introduction to Control
A paper shear can cut fingers as easily
as it cuts paper. Design a control system
which will reduce accidents by forcing the
operator to press two buttons at once to
start the shear. Follow the steps below in
finding your solution.
1. Identify and document what you will use
as the components of your control circuit
(i.e., signals, decisions, actions).
2. Identify and document what type of logic
you will use in the decision section of
your control circuit.
3. Draw a wiring diagram for your solution
and discuss it with the instructor.
4. Wire the circuit you have designed; have
the instructor check the circuit before
5. Evaluate your solution; return to a pre-
vious step if necessary.
The design brief becomes a launching
point for the student. It is intended to de-
fine the assignment without being too limit-
Troubleshooting involves a systematic
approach to locating and correcting problems
in existing systems. A much more structured
approach can be applied to teaching trouble-
shooting than can be applied to teaching de-
sign. Usually the knowledge and
understanding necessary can be identified by
the teacher and delivered in a structured
fashion. This process begins when the
teacher helps the students identify the sub-
systems involved in the system under study.
Next, the function and operation of all sub-
systems must be completely explored.
Finally, a troubleshooting system can be
taught. Troubleshooting combines three fac-
tors: (a) interrelationship of systems and
subsystems, (b) subsystem function and opera-
tion (what and how), and (c) a search strat-
Each subsystem has a function which the
student must know. This answers the
question: What does the system do? Students
must also understand the operation of each
subsystem, or how each subsystem performs its
function. Without an understanding of what
each subsystem function is, it becomes very
difficult to determine if the subsystem is
functional. Equally problematic is an at-
tempt to isolate a malfunction within a sub-
system with no knowledge of how the subsystem
performs its function.
Most subsystems are affected by the
other subsystems within the same overall sys-
tem. An understanding of the interrelation-
ships of each subsystem to be troubleshot is
essential to success. An inefficient search
strategy cannot only waste time but may cause
the true source of a problem to be over-
looked. A binary search strategy is the most
efficient search method. If each successive
step in the search divides the remaining al-
ternatives in half, a problem can be isolated
very quickly. Good diagnostic charts are or-
ganized in this fashion. In fact, students
who are accomplished in the three factors in
problem solving will be able to write their
own diagnostic charts (see Figure 4).
Assuming that a communications class
contains a unit on telecommunication, a part
of that unit might include telecomputing.
The networks computers use to communicate
would probably be an important consideration
within this sub-unit. One good way to teach
students about computer networks would be to
ask them to create a troubleshooting scheme
for isolating problems with such a network.
The teacher might provide written resources
to help students identify the systems: (a)
purpose, (b) inputs, (c) outputs, (d) compo-
nent subsystems, and (e) interaction with
outside systems. In this way, students can
be allowed to "research" the information
needed to solve this problem. Such an as-
Creating a Diagnostic Tree
A diagnostic tree is a device that
guides the troubleshooter through a series of
steps which efficiently and correctly iden-
tify a malfunction. Creating a diagnostic
tree requires not only a thorough understand-
ing of the system involved but also an under-
standing of how to efficiently search for a
problem. Complete the following steps in
creating your own diagnostic tree. Carefully
document your work. Every diagnostic tree
should contain three basic components: pre-
liminary checks, system output test, and
problem isolation. Proceed as follows:
1. Identify the purpose of the system.
Identify the input and output points of
2. Determine how other systems might effect
the system under consideration.
3. Identify all subsystems (components which
contribute to the function of the system
4. Determine how each subsystem performs its
5. Devise and conduct a test which will de-
termine if supporting systems are func-
tioning. (This is your first set of
6. Devise and conduct a test which will de-
termine if the entire system is func-
tional. (This is your output test and
will be a second test.)
7. If the system is not functional, devise
and conduct a test which will split the
system in half (or as nearly in half as
8. Repeat step seven until the malfunction
is isolated. Correct the problem.
9. Retest the output of the system.
NOTE: Devising the test for a system or sub-
system requires an understanding of what the
function of the system is; you are determin-
ing if this function is being achieved. An
understanding of how the function is achieved
is also important because a test will usually
grow out of this knowledge.
TEACHING TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT
Although the evaluation of impacts of
technical systems is an important philosoph-
ical consideration in technology education,
it is often difficult to find the time or a
method to address this point. Not only
should time be made in the curriculum for
work with impact evaluation, but also stu-
dents should be guided during their experi-
ence by a systematic method of inquiry which
stresses the development of critical thinking
skills. Students should practice evaluation
frequently enough to begin to synthesize
these experiences into a coherent technolog-
ical value system.
Wise producers and consumers of technol-
ogy must be capable of the type of critical
thinking necessary to see beyond shallow,
short-term considerations and select the most
appropriate technologies. Well thought out
arguments are built in much the same way
technical systems are designed. Discrete
pieces of information or arguments are com-
bined in a logical fashion which leads to a
well supported conclusion. This is similar
to the relationship between systems and sub-
systems. In fact, one way to explain analyt-
ical thinking is to consider it the ability
to identify and/or create both the discrete
pieces of information and the logical links
between this information. Once the logical
links between discrete pieces of information
FIGURE 4. Partial computer network system
be identified, correct conclusions can be
made. Critical thinking skills involve the
analysis of the logic behind an argument.
Eventually students should progress beyond
analyzing others' arguments to producing
their own. An example of such an assignment
Technological Impacts of Transportation Sys-
Directions: You may sign up for a topic
below. Prepare a one page summary to be sub-
mitted the day of your presentation. The
presentation should include a brief (5 min-
utes) discussion of your topic and conclude
with a short class discussion. The emphasis
of this assignment is on your ability to draw
logical conclusions. Collecting technical
information will help you draw conclusions;
however, it is not the ultimate purpose here.
Once you have collected the information, use
it to come to a logical conclusion. You will
be evaluated on how clearly the facts and
your arguments support your conclusion.
Present both sides of the issue, then take a
stand and justify it. The discussion follow-
ing your presentation should involve the con-
troversial nature of your topic. Have two or
three questions prepared to start the dis-
cussion. Include this sheet when you turn in
Evaluation: Your presentation will be
evaluated on the following three criteria:
A. Organization and Prese5tpoints
B. Content and Persuasiv10epoints
C. Written Report 5 points ______
20 points Total
o America's bridges die of neglect.
o Transportation systems and the greenhouse
o Alternative fuels and the internal com-
bustion engine: A step forward or side-
o The role of the automobile in the trans-
portation systems of the future.
o Trucking vs. rail transportation.
o The impact of the trucking industry on
rail and water transportation.
o The automobile and mass transit--the bus.
o America's roadways: An investment which
limits options for future transportation
o The automobile, a deadly weapon.
o Drunk driving: More should be done/we
are doing too much now.
o The automobile, a form of recreation:
o A love affair with old cars: Antique
cars--are they safe?
o Automotive air pollution: Still a prob-
o Asbestos and the transportation industry.
o The impact of the automobile on our na-
o Marine transportation and pollution; oil
o The automobile and stress.
o Seat belts and school buses.
o Only insured drivers may legally drive.
o State inspections: Necessity/annoyance.
o Other topics by approval of instructor.
As the field of industrial arts evolves
into technology education, problem solving
should take on an increasingly important role
in the curriculum. Students cannot be con-
sidered "technologically literate" until they
understand that technology involves making
changes to our environment to solve problems
or meet human needs. Equally important is
that students appreciate that the solution to
one problem often creates other problems
and/or other benefits.
Design has long been an important part
of industrial arts. However, design must be
integrated in all aspects of technology edu-
cation. Students will be much more likely to
appreciate the important role technology
plays in their lives if they have been pro-
vided with the opportunity to become design-
ers and solve technological problems.
Unfortunately, problem solving and de-
sign are sometimes thought to be synonymous.
When designs are produced, some troubleshoot-
ing will generally occur, unless the proto-
type works perfectly the first time. This
approach, if it is the only experience with
troubleshooting, neglects the fact that most
people's experience with technology involves
trying to solve problems created by technolo-
gies which they did not design themselves.
Students should also be given the experience
of locating and correcting problems in exist-
ing technological systems.
Many of the problems involved with tech-
nology go well beyond conceptualizing, creat-
ing and maintaining technological systems.
They involve the fact that technological sol-
utions almost always create some impacts
which are undesirable and sometimes unfore-
seen. It is not enough to simply recognize
that these problems exist, or even to discuss
them in detail. A systematic method of iden-
tifying and dealing with these impacts must
be developed. The increasingly powerful
technologies of the future will almost un-
doubtedly create extremely dangerous impacts
on society unless these technologies are
carefully controlled. The way for this con-
trol to occur in a democratic society is to
prepare the majority of the electorate to
make wise choices about technology. This re-
quires that today's students demand consider-
ation of the impacts of technology when they
In order to prepare the type of techno-
logically literate citizenry necessary to
control technology, three things must occur.
First, people must view technology as the way
in which we change our environment to meet
our needs. Second, it must be understood
that when technological solutions are imple-
mented new problems are created. Finally,
identifying these impacts, both before and
after a solution is identified, and balanc-
ing these impacts against the original goals
of the technology must become a way of life.
Joseph McCade is Assistant Professor, Depart-
ment of Industry & Technology, Millersville
University, Millersville, Pennsylvania.
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Permission is given to copy any
article or graphic provided credit is given and
the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education Volume 2, Number 1 Fall 1990