Monday, November 22, 2010

The Power of Integrated Curriculum

Today has been declared a Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform. There is no way I can be as eloquent as many of the bloggers in the educational community will be today. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the bigger picture of education reform. Merit pay, firing teachers, getting rid of unions. I admit that some of it frightens me. Ok, maybe a lot of it frightens me. We are talking about some pretty major changes coming at a time when, financially for many schools, things can't seem to get much worse.

In thinking about how I could contribute to this conversation, my mind kept returning to the theory of integrated curriculum. The world inside our middle and high schools is so subject oriented and fragmented that it should be no surprise that we are "losing" students at an enormous rate. We are losing them literally as many choose to drop out, and we are losing them figuratively as they become more and more disenchanted with school and education.

Integrating the curriculum in order to make apparent the connections between all facets of life and the world could go a long way to bring the enchantment back to education. We need to get away from teaching Biology for 45 minutes, then sending our students off to 45 minutes of History, then 45 minutes of math, etc. By centering the curriculum around essential questions and the bigger concepts that transcend subject areas, we bring meaning back to the curriculum. And by letting students ask the essential questions that drive the curriculum, we bring relevance and authenticity back into learning. For students, we bring back the joy of discovering that so many of them lost after elementary school. The National Middle School Association has addressed the value of curriculum integration in this Positon Statement.

The theories of curriculum integration have been around a long time. But it was in 1993 when James Beane wrote his book A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Realilty, that the conversations began in earnest for middle level educators. Beane describes curriculum integration in a 1995 article from Phi Delta Kappa this way:

Curriculum integration is not simply an organizational device
requiring cosmetic changes or realignments in lesson plans across
various subject areas. Rather, it is a way of thinking about what
schools are for, about the sources of curriculum, and about the uses
of knowledge. Curriculum integration begins with the idea that the
sources of curriculum ought to be problems, issues, concerns posed
by life itself. (p.616)

But some of the structures put in place during the middle school movement actually keep us from the goal of curriculum integration. When teachers are teamed in order to have common planning time, students are attending their "specials" classes of art, music, and PE. In a truly integrated curriculum, these "specials" are part of the core.

And even teachers in teams still tend to think of themselves in terms of the subject they teach. While teams of teachers may do innovative things like interdisciplinary units to help make more concrete the connections between subjects, these units are often add-ons. Some teachers even feel resentful when they have to take time away from their curriculum to "do interdisciplinary units." These teachers cannot be faulted for their feelings of fear and resentment. Our culture of standardized testing has made them feel that the curriculum, the standards, benchmarks, and grade level content expectations for their subject are of the greatest importance. And the fear of repercussions if students don't achieve to those standards has led many teachers to teach in a very regimented way.

The fact that teachers see themselves as subject area experts is partially a result of teacher training. Therefore, teacher training and certification is another roadblock to integration. When teachers have to be certified, tested and proven highly qualified in a subject area, we severely limit their ability to attempt curriculum integration. As a teacher who is certified to teach language arts, I can easily integrate other subject areas into a class, but I still have to send students off to do their time in those other subject areas. Although I am perfectly capable of leading my students to answering their questions and helping them find the resources they need when I don't have all the answers, the state says that because I haven't passed a teacher certification test in social studies, science, or math, I am not qualified.

Organizing the curriculum around essential questions and larger concepts is something many teachers have no practice with. Even elementary teachers, who tend to teach with themes, may find that their units are a lot of flash with little substance. Organizing units around dinosaurs, apples, Western Expansion, etc., limits the depth that we can help students achieve in their thinking and learning. Carol Ann Tomlinson addressed this in a November 1998 article in the Middle School Journal; For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics.

For the past 4 years, as an adjunct instructor, I have been teaching a graduate level course on middle level curriculum. The final assessment in the class is to be able to create integrated curriculum. My university mentor has always wanted me to require that the teachers in the class work in teams to create an integrated unit. While I admire her immensely, I have been moving away from that requirement in the last couple of years. As school budgets dwindle, middle schools that operate on the middle school model tend to be first on the chopping block. It takes extra staff to provide common planning time for teachers. Because so many of my grad students no longer work in team-teaching environments, it has become increasingly important to me that they learn how to look differently at their subject area. That they help students ask the important questions, develop curriculum around those questions. That they show their students the integrated nature of learning in order to re-awaken their desire for learning. It is important that they be able to work on their individual subject area to find ways to make the concepts of that subject integrated and show their students how the knowledge gained in their class can help them develop deeper understandings of our world.

Resources recommended and/or mentioned in this post:
Beane, James A. (1993.) A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Nesin, G. & Lounsbury, J. (1999.) Curriculum Integration, Twenty Questions--with Answers. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Middle School Association.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (1998) For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics. Middle School Journal, 30(2), 3-8.

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