KeywordsDisciplinary Knowledge Curriculum Document Integrate Curriculum Thematic Approach Global Theme
Most curriculum documents around the world are structured around subjects that are derived from disciplines. The subjects provide order and authenticity to the nature and scope of the knowledge to be taught and learned in schools. Curriculum integration is about teaching and learning processes that cross the traditional disciplinary or subject matter boundaries in some way. Integration can occur between broader subjects such as history and science, for example, students could learn about the history of the development of human understanding of gravity. Integration can also occur between closer disciplines within science, for example, students could learn about both mechanics and anatomy through investigations of bird flight. Some curriculum documents highlight the importance of integration, and others ignore it altogether. There are a number of alternative terms that are used to refer to integrated curricula, for example, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary. All these terms refer to a curriculum that bridges the boundaries of the traditional subjects in some way. There are a number of educational programs and comparatively new subjects that are inherently integrated. For example, environmental science is a topic that bridges the boundaries of traditional subjects by including subject matter from chemistry, biology, and physics as well as other disciplines including economics and politics.
Approaches to Integrated Curricula
While curriculum documents and schools are most often structured around traditional discipline-based subjects, there are a number of examples of different approaches to curricula reported in the literature that can be considered integrated. An overview as well as an in-depth analysis of case studies of these approaches is presented in Rennie et al. (2012a). Examples of different approaches include a thematic approach, a community-based issue approach, and a problem-based approach. Each of these approaches has something other than the subjects that drives what is taught and learned.
A thematic approach to integrated curriculum is popular in elementary and middle schools. Teachers and/or students select a theme of interest or importance to them around which all teaching and learning activities are organized. Examples of themes might include dinosaurs, the Olympics, and junk food. Teachers plan a number of activities that utilize skills and/or knowledge from a number of subject areas that are linked to the theme in some way. A thematic approach to curriculum often finishes with a special event, like a fair or an open day, where parents and other students and teachers are invited to come and see or participate in the learning.
Another example of an approach to integrating the curriculum is to focus on a community-based issue, event, or locality such as the health and well-being of local indigenous people, the ecology of a local lake or mountain, or a local industry such as a mine site or fishing industry. Through this approach, discipline-based knowledge is used to understand and explore the problem as necessary. For example, considerable chemistry may be used to investigate the solutes in a local lake and the different types of pollution from a local mine site. From a social science perspective, the importance of a lake or a mine site to the people who actually live in the town or city may be investigated.
In high schools, problem-based approaches to curriculum are often used to focus on issues that are of particular relevance or interest to youth. For example, problems such as teen pregnancy, binge drinking, or natural disasters can be the driving force behind the curriculum, and the students themselves may make decisions about which aspect of the problem they will use to develop their knowledge and understanding. Students often plan and conduct investigations in an inquiry-based manner to answer their research problem and then communicate their findings to other members of the class.
The Paradox of Integrated Curricula
The term “curriculum integration” can be considered to be paradoxical when we think about knowledge in our everyday environments. Knowledge outside of schools and educational institutions is not divided up into disciplines or subjects; it is of course integrated. The paradox, therefore, is that when we refer to integrated curricula, we are talking about bringing together something (the subjects) that is in fact always together in the real world. Ever since educational institutions first began, however, knowledge has been divided into compartments so that it was easier to investigate, understand, and communicate from generation to generation. Through a long history, the disciplines have developed great bodies of knowledge, and it is within the disciplines that the most powerful and useful ideas have come to fruition. Each discipline has its own way of understanding knowledge, its own traditions, language, symbols, methods of inquiry, and methods of communication. These factors have enabled disciplines to become authoritative and enduring; however, they remain human constructs.
It is a consequence of the influence and validity of the knowledge available through the disciplines, that the associated subjects provide the structure for almost all curriculum documents worldwide. In almost all school curriculum documents, major subjects include English (or the relevant language), mathematics, history, science, and physical education. Within science, the subdisciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, and sometimes geology and astronomy) are almost always present.
The State of Knowledge in the Global World
The state of knowledge in this age of globalization has resulted in many people rethinking how our curriculum documents are structured and how we can better engage students in learning activities that require them to be able to think and work across disciplinary boundaries. The state of knowledge toward the end of the twentieth- and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries seems to have shifted to more complex, integrated, and holistic issues and problems facing our planet and humanity. These problems and issues are not confined within one discipline, and solutions require people from a number of disciplines to bring their knowledge and expertise to bear. Furthermore, understanding these problems requires knowledge from a number of disciplines. An example of one of the problems is climate change: a global issue that can be informed and understood from a number of disciplinary perspectives including physics, chemistry, biology, geology, history, economics, geography, politics, and so on. Human population growth is another global complexity that may be better understood and informed through multiple disciplinary perspectives. Cutting-edge research also often involves experts from a number of disciplines. For example, advances in forensic science have been driven by knowledge from anthropology, chemistry, computer imaging, geometry, geography, dietetics, and other subdisciplines. Another example is research into endangered species which often involves conservation biologists, geneticists, and ecologists looking at the biological aspects of a particular plant or animal but also mathematicians and computer programmers who can use the information to conduct important population modeling based on a range of variables. It is questionable whether compartmentalized curricula in schools enable young people to appreciate global complexities and cutting-edge research of this nature.
The Dilemma of Integrated Curricula
The current status quo in schools throughout the world is to compartmentalize the subject matter taught and learned into subjects based on disciplinary knowledge such as science, history, mathematics, and English. On one hand, this provides students a wealth of foundational knowledge in highly respected disciplines that are easily examined and are accompanied with high status. Passing discipline-based subjects like physics and chemistry provides students with the power to pass high-stakes entrance exams and gain entry into prestigious universities as well as providing career trajectories into highly remunerated occupations such as medicine, law, and engineering. On the other hand, restricting students’ learning to within the disciplines can be considered to prevent their access to powerful ways of thinking that are not available from within one subject. For example, learning to think from different perspectives and in creative ways is said to be enhanced through an integrated curriculum. Learning important facts and information in chemistry about acid rain is one thing, but being able to apply that understanding to real-world contexts and create arguments and debate issues around acid rain extends that learning. Students also are better engaged by a curriculum that is more grounded in the everyday, integrated world and the problems and issues that are relevant to them. Integrated subjects, however, are difficult to define and difficult to assess in quantitative ways. The dilemma with regard to integrated curricula faced by teachers, parents, and students is that learning within the discipline-based subjects is likely to support and facilitate them making rapid progress through the educational pipeline; however, learning restricted to these same subjects is likely to confine their learning to narrowly defined skills and knowledge that is not very helpful or easily applied in the real world.
Student Learning Within Integrated Curricula
Student learning through integrated curricula is more difficult to measure than learning through discipline-based approaches to curriculum. One reason for this difficulty is that students often work independently or in small groups, and their work is idiosyncratic and not uniform across the whole class or the whole year cohort. It is, therefore, inappropriate to test specific types of knowledge when students are engaged in an integrated curriculum because different students often learn different things.
Integrated curricula are not common; therefore, the education community has not necessarily developed the types of tests and assessments that may give a clear indication of the learning that has occurred. For example, students experiencing an integrated curriculum may learn about ratios in mathematics and apply that knowledge to a genetics problem. The transfer process and application to a real-world problem may be something the student has learned; however, it is difficult to test their ability to transfer knowledge in an exam situation.
Another example of the type of learning that is more likely to occur through an integrated curriculum is that students learn to use different sources of information to help them solve problems, as is common in the real world. For example, students may be working on a project for which they need to know how to apply Ohm’s law to get the maximum amount of power from that of a solar-powered boat. They may learn that asking their teacher, a knowledgeable friend, or parent for information, accessing information from the Internet or a textbook, and doing their own investigations and trials are all legitimate ways to help them understand these types of processes in the real world. But it is very difficult to test students’ ability to use different sources of knowledge, or how they make judgments about the quality of knowledge from different sources in an exam context. Of course this type of assessment is not impossible; it’s just much more difficult, less valid, and less reliable than current approaches to discipline-based examinations that educators have developed and trialed over many years.
Other learning that occurs in integrated curricula is said to be less about discipline-based knowledge and more about aesthetics, communication, and collaboration. For example, students may learn how to work with other people who bring different points of view and different knowledge to a problem. They need to be able to communicate with these people and to collaborate and negotiate in order to problem solve and move forward with whatever project it is that they are working on. These types of knowledge and skills are less tangible and less reliable for educators to measure, and this means that in competitive, exam-driven educational environments, integrated curricula often have less value and less status and are considered to inculcate soft concepts and everyday knowledge.
The perspective that integrated curricula do not contain hard or valuable knowledge misses entirely the point that through integrated curricula, it is possible for students to learn disciplinary-based knowledge, but in addition, they are more likely to learn the skills that will enable them to apply that knowledge in different contexts. They are more likely to learn to collaborate with people and utilize each other’s skills and abilities; they are more likely to be able to think from different perspectives, to weigh up the pros and cons, and to make decisions; and they are more likely to be able to communicate their thoughts and findings to a range of audiences. These qualities may not help students to pass discipline-based exams, but they are much more likely to help young people to develop into better researchers, better employees, better thinkers and decision makers, better communicators, and ultimately better citizens.
The Challenges When Implementing Integrated Curricula
The biggest challenge to designing and implementing an integrated curriculum is that curriculum documents are usually written around the disciplines and are assessed through the disciplines. This means that the content that has to be taught and the various modes of teaching and assessing often are discipline specific. It is difficult for teachers to map the things that students learn through an integrated curriculum onto the discipline-based curriculum documents to ensure that all the contents, skills, and values that students are required to learn have been addressed.
Another challenge when implementing integrated curricula is that high school teachers usually have specializations in one discipline area. Even if they are a science specialist, their own education means they are likely to have strengths in subdisciplines such as chemistry, physics, biology, or geology. Teachers often are uncomfortable teaching outside their area of expertise, and research has shown that when they do, they tend to rely more on traditional, teacher-centered approaches commonly referred to as “chalk and talk.”
An integrated curriculum often requires teachers to collaborate with teachers with expertise in another field. In high schools where there are subject-based departments, often in different buildings and on different timetables, collaboration can be very challenging. Extra money often is required to allow teachers the time they need to get together and plan, to change their programs and teaching activities, and also to incorporate field trips and guest speakers. Block time often is required in the school timetable to allow for the nonclassroom-based activities that are frequently part of an integrated curriculum.
Parents, principals, and community members are usually more familiar with the traditional subjects and understand and value them better than subjects that are more integrated. When teachers try to implement an integrated curriculum, it may not be well understood by major stakeholders, and it has been shown that they may disapprove or not look favorably on these subjects.
High-stakes exams require students to memorize a lot of information from a particular content domain, and this forces teaching into narrow aspects of the curriculum and into more teacher-focused approaches. This means that integrated approaches to curriculum are often ignored, particularly around exam time.
One of the major challenges for integrated approaches to curriculum is that due to their very nature, they challenge the status quo of discipline-based approaches to education and the power and status that accompanies discipline-based subjects. Everything to do with education revolves around the subjects. There are subject-based professional learning programs, the architecture of schools is planned and built to accommodate the subjects, teachers are qualified to teach subjects, and school departments are based on subjects. These are powerful mitigating factors that work against the implementation of integrated curricula.
Within schools, the status of discipline-based knowledge is defended and lauded by those who belong to the discipline-based community. Integrated curricula can be seen as a threat to the high status of subjects like science and the subdisciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics, for example. Integrated approaches to curricula may be seen to break down the walls that delineate strongly defined areas of knowledge and to erode the identity and status of the people who belong to the discipline-based communities of teachers.
Facilitating Integrated Curricula
One way to conceptualize curricula for the future that addresses many of the concerns raised above is to view approaches to curriculum from a Worldly Perspective (Rennie et al. 2012b). A Worldly Perspective reflects a holistic view of knowledge, grounded in students’ experiences, relationships, and contexts. Disciplinary knowledge is an important component of this holistic view, and from a Worldly Perspective, the integrated and disciplinary paradigms should be considered together, overlapping rather than mutually exclusive. A Worldly Perspective encourages educators to balance a discipline-based and an integrated view of knowledge in curriculum. It also encourages connection between local and global themes and issues in curriculum. This balance between integrated and disciplinary approaches to curriculum and connection between local and global themes and issues challenges more traditional ways of making judgments about knowledge and approaches to curriculum. From a Worldly Perspective, the better a curriculum demonstrates these aspects of balance and connection, the more powerful the curriculum, and the more intellectual power it provides to those who have access to it (Rennie et al. 2012b).
While the Worldly Perspective is a powerful way to reimagine curriculum, a number of practical steps also need to be implemented at the school and classroom level to support a curriculum that is consistent with the Worldly Perspective. These practical steps can be put under four broad categories including shared purpose, collegial relations, norms of improvement, and structure. Implementing and sustaining an integrated approach to the school curriculum requires changing the context of schooling and addressing factors in each of these four broad categories. This requires including an integrated curriculum in the shared ideas about the purposeful educational direction of the school and documenting these shared ideas within the school mission and vision statement and other relevant documents and garnering administrative and community support for that direction. Collegial relations between teachers need to be addressed so that mutual sharing, assistance, and joint effort are valued and honored and become part of the normal practice in the school. This may involve the establishment of stable teams or small groups of teachers who work together in a cross-disciplinary way on aspects of the curriculum. Changes need to be made to the way teachers seek to improve their practice, that is, they may have to focus less on feedback from state or national testing results and focus more on outcomes displayed by their students in the classroom context. Teachers need to understand the holistic direction the school is taking, their role within that direction, and they should focus on improving their practice to serve the school vision. Finally, structures within the school need to be changed so that they support the other three conditions. This may involve changing the timetable to give more flexibility, providing time for teachers to work together as teams, rearranging the seating and other work arrangements for teachers and students to better facilitate communication, revisiting assessment and rewards processes, or rebuilding or refurnishing parts of the school or classroom to reconnect with the outside environment and the local community.
- Rennie L, Venville G, Wallace J (eds) (2012a) Integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: issues, reflections and ways forward. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- Rennie L, Venville G, Wallace J (2012b) Knowledge that counts in a global community: exploring the contribution of integrated curriculum. Routledge, Milton ParkGoogle Scholar