Innovative educators concerned with improving student achievement are seeking ways to create rigorous, relevant, and engaging curriculum. They are asking questions such as these:
- Can making wind and rain machines improve the reading comprehension and writing scores of elementary students on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test?
- Do students really learn math by learning to clog dance?
- When students spend after-school time participating in a microsociety that reflects the roles of real life, will their test scores in math and reading improve?
In Florida, Okhee Lee, an education professor at the University of Miami, engages elementary students in making little wind and rain machines. Students focus on the “big ideas” such as evaporation, condensation, and thermal energy. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) does not test science; however, Lee’s students have shown more than 100 percent gains in comprehension and writing on the FCAT. Their success in language is particularly impressive because many of the students come from different ethnic backgrounds, and many of them speak English as their second language. Lee claims that when she teaches science concepts she also teaches students to think and write in the structured, coherent ways required on standardized tests (Barry, 2001).
In public schools in Asheville and Buncombe, North Carolina, students learn math skills through clog dancing and explore the solar system through modern dance. In these schools, teachers deliver the core curriculum through the arts. This approach is based on the research report Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning (Fiske, 1999). This report offers clear evidence that sustained involvement in particular art forms—music and theater—is highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading. Furthermore, at-risk students do particularly well both academically and personally in these types of programs (Blake, 2001).
Students participate in a microsociety in an after-school program at Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut. This program prepares middle school students from a poor minority population for colleges, careers, and citizenship. They attend traditional classes during the regular school day, and after school for a few hours a week, they belong to a microscociety—holding jobs, paying taxes, running businesses, making laws, and punishing lawbreakers. The purpose of the program is to make school more relevant and fun while building transferable life skills. The school raised its average test scores two and a half levels in math and one and a half levels in reading. In 1998, a study of 15 microsociety schools in six states found that at two-thirds of the schools, students posted gains on standardized reading and math tests that were as much as 21 percent greater than those of their peers (Wilgoren, 2001).
In these three examples, student achievement is a primary focus. Teachers maintain accountability while designing learning experiences that are relevant to student interests. Interestingly, two of the schools serve populations of diverse students. In each case, teachers have developed intriguing curriculum that pushes beyond the boundaries of traditional disciplines to produce positive results. Comprehension, for example, is comprehension, whether taught in a language class or a science class. When students are engaged in learning, whether they are taking part in the arts or role playing in a microsociety, they do well in seemingly unconnected academic arenas. These are only a few of the countless examples of students involved in interdisciplinary studies at all grade levels. The examples highlight the potential of integrated curriculum to act as a bridge to increased student achievement and engaging, relevant curriculum.
Defining Integrated Curriculum.
What exactly is integrated curriculum? In its simplest conception, it is about making connections. What kind of connections? Across disciplines? To real life? Are the connections skill-based or knowledge-based?
Defining integrated curriculum has been a topic of discussion since the turn of the 20th century. Over the last hundred years, theorists offered three basic categories for interdisciplinary work; they defined the categories similarly, although the categories often had different names. Integration seemed to be a matter of degree and method. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) offered the following definitions in 1935:
Correlation may be as slight as casual attention to related materials in other subject areas . . . a bit more intense when teachers plan it to make the materials of one subject interpret the problems or topics of another.
Fusion designates the combination of two subjects, usually under the same instructor or instructors.
Integration: the unification of all subjects and experiences.
We joined this conversation in the early ’90s. At the time, we were unaware of the long history of educators with similar concerns. In our separate locations, we defined three approaches to integration—multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. Our definitions of these categories emerged from our personal experiences in the field. We noticed that people seemed to approach integrating curriculum from three fundamentally different starting points. In looking back, we see that our definitions closely aligned with the definitions proposed by other educators over the decades. The three categories offer a starting point for understanding different approaches to integration.
Multidisciplinary approaches focus primarily on the disciplines. Teachers who use this approach organize standards from the disciplines around a theme. Figure 1.1 shows the relationship of different subjects to each other and to a common theme. There are many different ways to create multidisciplinary curriculum, and they tend to differ in the level of intensity of the integration effort. The following descriptions outline different approaches to the multidisciplinary perspective.
Figure 1.1. The Multidisciplinary Approach
Intradisciplinary Approach. When teachers integrate the subdisciplines within a subject area, they are using an intradisciplinary approach. Integrating reading, writing, and oral communication in language arts is a common example. Teachers often integrate history, geography, economics, and government in an intradisciplinary social studies program. Integrated science integrates the perspectives of subdisciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space science. This type of intradisciplinary program is offered for middle school by the University of Alabama’s Center for Communication and Educational Technology. Through this integration, teachers expect students to understand the connections between the different subdisciplines and their relationship to the real world. The program reports a positive impact on achievement for students who participate. (See http://www.ccet.ua.edu for more information.)
Fusion. In this multidisciplinary approach, teachers fuse skills, knowledge, or even attitudes into the regular school curriculum. In some schools, for example, students learn respect for the environment in every subject area. At Mount Rainier Elementary in Washington State, teachers incorporate the theme of peace into every thread of the school’s curriculum (Thomas-Lester, 2001). Students begin each week promising to be peaceful, respectful, and responsible. They follow a list of responsibilities and learn about peace in their classes. In reading, for example, students analyze positive characteristics of people in stories; in social studies, they learn the importance of cultures working together. The school records the number of days without a fight as “peace days”; teachers write the accumulated number of peace days on the blackboard in every classroom. Teachers wear peace signs, and students greet each other with the peace sign.
by Susan M. Drake and Rebecca C. Burns.