What does integrating curriculum really mean?

What do we really mean when we talk about an integrated approach to education?

I believe that many teachers have a simple and sometimes misleading concept of integration. I believe if all teachers had a deeper understanding of what integrated curriculum really is, it would greatly improve teaching practice and student engagement. For this discussion let’s say that integrated curriculum has two core elements.

An integrated curriculum incorporates learning points from multiple disciplines or learning areas within the same unit of work.

The learning points are not taught simultaneously, but rather within the same learning sequence. An integrated unit could be taught in different classrooms across a school by different teachers.

Junior Secondary Example

For example a junior secondary unit built around the concept of Identity that culminates in a ‘This Is Your Life’ exhibition projecting into their future at the age of 60.

  • The English teacher explores the power of autobiographies, with students reading existing autobiographies of people of personal interest, culminating in them writing their own autobiographies.

  • The Health and Physical Education teacher explores aspects of healthy living that have led to them being healthy and happy at age 60.

  • The Art teacher discusses and teaches the power and importance of portrait painting throughout history with students painting their own portrait.

At the culminating exhibition, each of these aspects of Identity are presented.

Primary School Example

A primary school unit for students in Foundation (i.e the first year of school) built around the concept of Change could investigate how people’s lives have changed over time for better or for worse (History), how the seasons change our world (Geography) and how our brain and senses help us to understand our world (Science).

Integrated curriculum means that content and skills from different disciplines are being taught in the same developmental sequence. We know curriculum is more powerful when learning is developmental and sequential.

As in most secondary and tertiary education systems it is almost impossible for teachers to keep track of what their students are studying in their other classes. This results in a siloed education, which means that the student at nine o’clock is asked think like a tax agent, at ten o’clock to think like an engineer, then have lunch, then think like a demographer and then throw a javelin. How exhausting and disjointed.

What is missing here is an opportunity to make a link between different ways of thinking and behaving.

If I am integrating learning from other disciplines I am having the same conversation, I can therefore mention the connections between the learning points, and what’s even better, I can assess their understanding of these connections.

The connections between the integrated elements become new teaching points. Realising parallels between disciplines is what entrepreneurs and inventors do, it is what great artists do and it is what we need our students to be able to do.

Secondly, integrated curriculum is more than mixed curriculum. Each teaching point needs to be clearer, and more engaging in the integrated format than if it were is taught in isolation.

It’s not just a matter of picking random elements from Subject A and some from Subject B and teaching them one after each other. It is vital to be picky when choosing teaching points for an integrated unit. Each point needs to be clearer because of the new context of an integrated unit and it needs to be more engaging for students.

Using the analogy of a professional conversation clarifies this point. When you arrange a meeting about a student at school you invite all of the key stakeholders; the parents, the social worker, the speech pathologist, the integration aid, the teacher and the school leader. Each of these people brings something more to the conversation that would have been missing had they not been present. Each of the participants is careful to include and omit information to best fit the context of the conversation. In the same way, choosing what to integrate is as important as choosing what to omit. Some teaching points are better taught in isolation. This is true especially for some discipline specific skills like literacy and numeracy.

Integrating the curriculum means that teachers will weave together distinct content areas such as the humanities and science, or as in the example above – English, Health and Art, as well as skills that are taught more effectively and efficiently when taught in relation to each other. Some of the skills may also be essential to assist with understanding the content that is being taught.

Designing curriculum in this way provides a holistic approach to teaching and learning. Students are taught in a way that reflects the real world, where disciplines merge and interact with one another.

Karen Green Curriculum Specialist

PlanningKaren Green