Learning theories in practice/Integrative
The concept of integrative learning has been around for almost as long as organized education - since the era of Plato and his followers. Integrative learning is a form of alternative or progressive education that shares many philosophical viewpoints with holistic learning and interdisciplinary education. For example, both interdisciplinary education and integrative learning emphasize breaking down the walls between traditional disciplines and making connections between them, while both holistic learning and integrative learning also focus on looking at the system as a whole rather than discrete parts. Advocates of integrative learning also agree with the holistic philosophy of community and self-exploration as an important part of education. The idea has been praised by many leaders in educational theory, including John Dewey (Drake, 1998). John Dewey championed dynamic, relevant experiences to teach problem-solving using real-life skills, which is the heart of the integrated curriculum.
The theory of integrative learning has roots in many other learning theories, among them, Situated Cognition, Constructivism, Project-Based Learning, and Multiple Intelligences. Integrative Learning distills those theories down to a few main truths. First, in order to learn, education must be student-centered and student-driven. Assignments must be relevant, both to the child, and to the world around them. There is an emphasis on exploration, real-life experiences, and hands-on projects and lastly, there are many ways to learn, and no one way is better than another.
There is a strong belief that children learn more by active experience than by memorizing and retrieving facts. They will develop language, math, and reading skills by removing the walls between subjects and making connections between them. Students will be more actively engaged with projects that use real-life situations and problem solving skills, adding a social consciousness to the process prepares the student to be an active and productive member of society in a more comprehensive way than traditional curricula. A well thought out integrated curriculum will help students develop the tools they need to approach any problem with confidence, whereas memorizing facts has extremely limited application (Beane, 1977).
Our brains do not separate facts into separate disciplines. Instead, our brain makes connections between knowledge and uses pattern-recognition to recall that knowledge. By connecting new knowledge to an existing fact or experience, we remember more effectively (Caine, 1992). The richer, more interconnected, and relevant the experience, the more the physical structure of the brain grows and develops (Caine, 1992). According to Sandra Rief (1993), research shows that “students retain 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say, 90% of what they say and do” (p. 53). Because of the hands-on nature of an integrated curriculum, students are more likely to retain the information being taught. Integrating curriculum is a way to utilize the natural way the brain works.
An example of an integrative learning project involving citizenship and community must first involve student interest. A teacher can encourage students to identify a problem in their community, such as an environmental issue or traffic problems that is important to the students. Once the students find a problem that speaks to their interests, they can form a plan. Perhaps they will decide to write to editors of a local newspaper, or a congressman. If they become more interested in the problem, they can collect data and create an in-depth report with charts and graphs to display their findings. In order to see action taken in the community, they may become involved in the workings of local government by contacting the relevant departments or going to a city council meeting and presenting their findings. They may even sit on a committee to monitor progress on the problem over time. The learning that occurs is directly applicable to their lives, and will develop skills they will utilize as socially aware citizens.
Students can connect with their community through projects, or they can learn traditional subjects while picking up life skills at any age. Children in preschool or kindergarten can learn the skill of knitting, which also teaches fine motor skills, colors, counting, and pattern recognition. Students of all ages can learn math skills such as measurement and geometry as well as planning and problem solving skills through quilting or carpentry. Cooking is an important life skill that can teach so many skills and can evolve as students advance through school. Math skills such as measurement, multiplication, division, and fractions are essential to cooking. Chemistry, such as how protein changes when heat is applied, or why cream increases in volume when it’s whipped, or how baking soda reacts to make baked goods rise becomes an interesting subject when food is involved. Nutrition and biology, concerning both the human body and food, for example, how yeast makes bread rise can become an offshoot of a cooking experiment. High schools students can learn the concepts of analytical geometry and physics while shooting hoops and improve both their math scores and their basketball game, or delve into the inner workings of a car and learn chemistry and physics as well as how to rebuild an engine. While studying a certain period in history, students can run calculations on population shifts or study the new technology of the era or read literature written during that time, based upon their interests. There are a variety of ways a teacher can integrate subjects in an engaging and thought-provoking way.
File:Example1.gif Reprinted with permission of designer, Steven H. Cullinane
The most important aspect for a teacher to keep in mind is to remain flexible and allow students to guide their own learning. The learning that occurs may not be directly measurable by tests. The concepts that are learned are abstract, but are also real life skills that students will carry with them throughout their lives. Learning the equation for finding the angles of a triangle is not as important in the long term as understanding how to measure triangles for real projects, such as matching angles on a picture frame built by hand or cutting triangles to the correct size to create a quilt square.
Resources for the Classroom
Implementing an integrated curriculum works best on a school-wide level. If just one teacher in a school is focusing on integrative learning, students may experience problems switching between styles. If the curriculum is not planned as a coherent whole, expectations may be dramatically different between grade levels and teachers (Hills,1997). Starting a program of integrative learning into a traditional school is not easy – it requires time, research, communication, and constant evaluation. There are many pitfalls that a school may encounter. Parents and administrators may be reluctant to change from a traditional curriculum and teachers may not have the training to properly integrate curricula. Administors and teachers can participate in professional development to acquire more knowledge about integrated curriculum. Will the school day continue to be broken up into different classes with different teachers or will those classes be combined into longer periods? Do teachers work together as mentors representing different subject matter expertise for a single project, or do students have different projects from different teachers? What about students who transfer in from another school, or students who transfer out of the school; how will they fare in a new learning environment? There are many questions to consider. On top of that, there is the problem of assessment. Ideally, students from an integrative learning environment would be assessed through observation, portfolios, or demonstrations. However, in today's environment, schools must also focus on assessment through standardized tests.
With the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act, our country has shifted attention to standardized testing and accountability. Funding, jobs, and even the schools themselves are on the line. In order to avoid such punishments, schools nationwide are fine-tuning their curriculum. Some schools are cutting or reducing time spent on secondary subjects such as art, music, physical education, and even social studies in favor of focusing on subjects that will appear on the tests, such as math and reading (Karp, 2004).
Instead of dropping subjects such as art, physical education, music, and social studies, why not integrate the mathematics, science, and language arts into those subjects? After all, studies show that students learn best when they are engaged and interested in the material, and the more connections the brain makes between subjects, the more likely the student will remember those connections. This is an ideal way to implement a Multiple-Intelligence approach in the classroom. An integrated curriculum is a perfect way to take advantage of the way the brain works, and it meshes well with almost any topic that personally interest students.
Studies are showing that students from an integrated curriculum are scoring better than their discipline-oriented counterparts. As Vars and Beane (2000) point out, “Almost without exception, students in any type of interdisciplinary or integrative curriculum do as well as, and more often better than, students in a conventional departmentalized program.” (para. 16). These results were obtained using scores from standardized achievement tests (Vars & Beane, 2000). In another article evaluating research on interdisciplinary curriculum, it is stated that over 100 studies show the same results – the integrated curriculum students perform better than the non-integrated curriculum students (Ellis, 2001).
In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Steve Cordogan (2001) discussed in-depth research tracking of over 400 high school students from suburban Chicago from both discipline-based and integrated curriculum programs. His research compares students on standardized test scores such as the Iowa Test of Educational Development and the ACT. Students from the interdisciplinary program scored higher on both tests (Cordogan, 2001). The study also tracked behaviors such as attendance, tardiness, and suspension. The interdisciplinary students were absent less often and had lower rates of suspension (Cordogan, 2001). Simply put, if students enjoy school, they are less likely to drop out, act out, or skip school.
Lastly, a study of two high schools in Texas - Harlandale High School in San Antonio and Bowie High School in El Paso – revealed that integrating the curriculum can raise standardized test scores. Both schools in question had a high percentage of low-income students, minorities, and students whose first language is not English (McMillian, 2001). In response to the difficulties their students had with their academics, these schools implemented an integrated mathematics curriculum. During that time, the students from Bowie High School taking the integrated course scored higher on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test than their counterparts in the traditional math class (McMillian, 2001). At Harlandale, the test scores rose over 40% during a period of five years (McMillian, 2001). In addition, in most cases, the ESL students also had improved language arts scores (McMillian, 2001).
Educational experts argue for an integrated curriculum to capitalize on the natural processes of the brain. In fact, many advocate incorporating standards into integrated curricula. Kenneth E. Vogler suggests using a proactive approach by using standards as the end point for designing a curriculum. Designing lessons around what students need to know may be a "backward design" process, but it is useful to assure that the curriculum addresses the standards while integrating various content areas (Vogler, 2003, p. 7). Vogler (2003) emphasizes involving students in the planning process, which guarantees personal relevance and can become an integrated lesson plan in itself. Not surprising, students in Vogler’s class went above and beyond the parameters of the assignment when creating their own integrated curriculum and included in-depth research on their topics and debated as a class over the merits of each proposal.
Regardless of scores on standardized tests or the method teachers use to integrate standards into the curriculum, students coming from an integrated curriculum are more interested in school, and teachers feel better about the process. Teachers report feeling more control over their work, less burnout, and a feeling of “making a difference” (Cordogan, 2001). Students are less likely to drop out of school and have lower rates of absence and suspension (Cordogan, 2001). Students do not feel that school is boring and is not related to their real lives anymore. With happier students and teachers, and test scores that are better than students from a traditional school, an integrated curriculum is a win-win situation.
Beane, James A. (1977). Curriculum integration: designing the core of democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1992). Making connections: teaching and the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Cordogan, S. (2001, April). A four-year contrast between high school students in interdisciplinary and discipline-based curriculum. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.
Drake, S. (1998). Creating integrated curriculum: proven ways to increase student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Drake, S., & Burns, R. (2004). Meeting standards through integrated curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Ellis, A. K., & Fouts, J. T. (2001). Interdisciplinary curriculum: the research base. Music Educators Journal, 87, 5.
Hills, T. W. (1997). Critical issue: assessing young children's progress appropriately. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved April 2, 2006, from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/earlycld/ea500.htm
Karp, S. (2004). NCLB's selective vision of equality: some gaps count more than others. In D. Meier & G. Wood (Eds.), Many children left behind: how the No Child Left Behind Act is damaging our children and our schools (1st pbk. ed., pp. 53-65). Boston: Beacon Press.
McMillian, G. (2001, January). Integrated mathematics and high-stakes standardized testing—they do go together! Mathematics education dialogues. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved April 1, 2006, from http://www.nctm.org/dialogues/2001-01/20010112.htm
Morrow, L.M, Pressley, M., & Smith, J. K. (1995). The effect of a literature-based program integrated into literacy and science instruction on achievement, use, and attitudes toward literacy and science. Athens, GA: National Reading Research Center.
Rief, S. F. (1993). How to reach and teach ADD/ADHD children: practical techniques, strategies, and interventions for helping children with attention problems and hyperactivity. West Nyack, NY: Center for Applied Research in Education.
Vars, G. F., & Beane, J. A. (2000). Integrative curriculum in a standards-based world. ERIC digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED441618)
Vogler, K. E. (2003). An integrated curriculum using state standards in a high-stakes testing environment. Middle School Journal, 34, 5-10.