Exploring Integration in Elementary Curriculum, Part 1

Author:  Lori Reemts, Elementary Generalist

 

There is a place where the learning process, fueled by pure motivation, engages everyone in the room and authentically integrates critical thinking with content concepts. This place operates beyond barriers, perceived or otherwise, and capitalizes on the efficient and effective use of talent and time.

Although this may sound unattainable to some, the reality is that this place can often be found within our own instructional choices.   Of course we, as professionals, operate within larger systems and, of course, these systems each have their own issues, but when it comes right down to it the largest influencer and indicator of student success is the classroom teacher. (Stronge,  2010)  While respect should be given to the realities of life and teaching in today’s world, it is imperative to acknowledge and appreciate that educators do not have a simple or easy task;  it benefits no one to dwell on daily challenges when our energies could better be spent upon enacting change in our own classrooms.  Educators everywhere collectively cry out for the path and the simple answer to integration.  The goal of this series is to focus on this desire and suggestions for steps toward accomplishing this as we journey to this place we so covet.

In this first installment, it may be an excellent time to try to define “integration” so that our conversations center on similar ideas and starting points.  Believe it or not there are many variations in how we use this word which are quite dependent upon the person using the term and in what context.  Obvious historical examples exist referring to actual student integration during the Civil Rights movement, but in this context we are referring to skills and concepts addressed  in our classrooms.  The term itself has been thrown around for a number of years and has recently regained momentum; unfortunately for some, it has become a symbolic “buzz word” without substance.

Humphreys (1981) offers a basic definition: “An integrated study is one which children broadly explore knowledge in various subjects related to certain aspects of their environment.”  That is a wonderful academic definition of integration but let’s get to the practicality of the concept. Curriculum itself is the relationship between three main components: the written curriculum, the taught curriculum, and the tested curriculum.   Ideally this triad operates in balance and responds to each of the other sections.  The written curriculum would be that which we find on our documents. Components such as scope and sequence, vertical alignment, and unit guides exist to help teachers identify and define the “what,” the student expectations.  While important, this written curriculum exists and is effective only when brought to life through the taught curriculum, or instruction. This speaks to the art of teaching. These are the two areas with which to begin the conversation.  As written curriculum is built from the state standards, it is dependent upon those standards. Content area standards do change and not at the same time.  Aligning and integrating them within a written curriculum, therefore, takes time and may be at a slower pace than the call for it would like it to be.  One must know and understand the separate content areas’ requirements in order to accomplish the task of integrating them effectively.  This is not to say it cannot be done, but the reality is that written curriculum, as dynamic and living a document as it may be, is not equipped to change on a daily basis when classroom teachers must make instructional choices and connections, nor could it and remain credible and consistent.  What, then, is a teacher to do?

We turn to instructional integration.  This is where educators can capitalize on the information a written curriculum provides to them by seeking commonalities.  Learning does not occur on a bell schedule or subject shift during the day. Children and adults alike learn throughout the course of experiences rather than isolated skills or facts.  By embracing this continuous learning idea, even when operating on a much-needed school schedule, we can build transferrable skills in a more effective manner rather than feeling the need to “close out” Subject 1 in order to begin Subject 2.  These same real-life skills can be found within every content area as can almost endless content/concept connections. The key to locating these areas lies in working toward a core and solid understanding of what the most recent and required student expectations actually communicate.

Our next conversation will continue with this idea and explore how to use the required state standards and other information found within our written curriculum in order to effectively utilize and maximize the integration potential.

Humphreys, Alan, Thomas Post, and Arthur Ellis. Interdisciplinary Methods, A Thematic Approach. Santa Monica:

Goodyear, 1981.

Stronge, James. Effective Teachers = Student Achievement: What the Research Says. Larchmont: Eye on Education, 2010.


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