The rôle of the history and philosophy of technology in secondary education

Bissell, Christopher (2013). The rôle of the history and philosophy of technology in secondary education. In: Fifth International Conference of the European Society for the History of Science, 1-3 Nov 2012, Athens.



If the history and philosophy of science is seen as a useful approach in secondary education, then the history and philosophy of technology has an equal claim. The history of technology has often been seen as the poor relation of the history of science, yet its study can not only support the learning of scientific principles, but also engage students in a debate about contemporary and often contested technological issues – from the ‘information revolution’ to climate change. From this point of view, technology is much more than applied science. Certainly, scientific principles are involved, but even in its ‘purest’ form, technology is more about designing artefacts and systems than understanding the natural world. This significant difference is reflected in the sort of models that technologists use for design. Even where the underlying mathematics of a technological model may be identical to a related scientific one (differential equations, Fourier transforms, for example), the way the models are elaborated and used within a technological or engineering culture is very different from the comparable scientific context.

In recent years the historiography of technology has been greatly influenced by “science and technology studies” (STS) and “social construction of technology” (SCOT) approaches, both of which can be used – albeit in a fairly elementary manner – to contextualise school studies in this area. As far as the philosophy of technology is concerned, it is certainly less well established as a discipline than the philosophy of science, and its major concerns – determinism, social construction, design, sustainability, tacit knowledge, and so on – are perhaps less easy to define than those of the philosophy of science – causality, scientific method, the mind-body problem, scientific revolutions, for example. Clearly, however, the two fields merge when considering a number of theoretical and practical issues, in particular the social context of science / technology.

This paper develops the above themes with suggestions for the secondary school curriculum.

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