Magazine article Techniques

The Modular Model

Magazine article Techniques

The Modular Model

Article excerpt


Could you be persuaded to abandon a teaching approach honed over more than a decade for something entirely new?

Brenda Vatthauer wasn't sure. But the 12-year family and consumer sciences veteran made up her mind after a field trip and a four-hour car ride with a fellow instructor.

Her journey began a couple of years ago with a visit from her Minnesota district superintendent, who handed her a book by Harvey Dean--CEO of a company that produces furniture, curriculum and materials for "modular" learning systems--and told her to study up.

"I looked at the front cover, skimmed the rest and said, `Yeah, right? We don't have the money for this,'" recalls Vatthauer, who teaches at Lafayette High School in Red Lake Falls. "But then he called me a few days later to ask me what I thought, and I realized he was serious."

Soon Vatthauer and technology education teacher Ken Knutsen were off to tour school labs furnished by Synergistic Systems, a division of Dean's Kansas-based company, Pitsco. What they found were pairs of students sitting at clusters of computer stations--tables divided into quadrants, much like a typical business office. At each one, the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders were learning something different: fashion and textiles, family relationships, nutrition, interior design, clothing care, child care, baking, fitness, stress-management skills, money management, sewing basics. They'd shift to the next module after seven days.

They also noticed the teachers weren't orchestrating their classes from the front of the room. Instead, students followed instructions on CD-ROMs, took pre- and post-tests on their computers and initiated their own cooking, sewing and design projects. Teachers became coaches, moving among each pair of students to answer questions and supervise their learning.

"That's what really sold us," says Vatthauer. "The students were excited when they came in to class. They were busy, they were sitting quietly at work stations, they enjoyed what they were doing -- and the teachers didn't have to spend half the class disciplining them."

What's more, Vatthauer and Knutsen asked the students to describe what they were doing, and the answers tumbled quickly--a telltale sign of enthusiasm.

"We drove the four hours home so excited, wondering how we could make this work in our classrooms."

Pitsco has had several years to ponder that question and make adjustments. Dean's Pittsburg, Kansas, company pioneered the modular lab approach in 1988 for technology education, the modern outgrowth of junior high industrial arts. The company created its first FACS lab in 1991.

CHEC systems of Logan, Utah--maker of career exploration labs since 1976--targets the FACS market and came out with Life Management modules in 1993. Two makers--Paxton/Patterson of New York and Lab-Volt of New Jersey--introduced FACS labs last year. Hearlihy of Springfield, Ohio, launched "Life Ed" in 1996.


Technology is a centerpiece of modular systems. They emphasize networked computers that can access the Internet, store student work and grade some types of tests without so much as a glimmer of a red pen. The content covers such "life skills" as money management in addition to FACS staples like fashion and cooking, though the breadth of material may be greater. Students don't sew until they learn about fibers and design, or they may not sew at all.

Vatthauer has Synergistic's furniture plus 10 of 14 modules, all of which come with the curriculum and materials that support each--such as microwave ovens, fabrics, petri dishes, reference books and models. Computers were purchased from another source.

Labs tend to range from $1,500 for a single module's curriculum and materials to over $100,000 for a soup-to-nuts version with multiple modules, computers, furniture and other equipment. …

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