The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) has set forth its vision of the educational program needed to provide a fully effective program for young adolescents in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010). This paper is a supplement to that foundational document and to AMLE's position paper focused on curriculum, instruction, and assessment. AMLE recognizes that to achieve this vision of curriculum, we must encourage middle level educators to push themselves beyond the conventional, separate subject format to expand their use of integrated curriculum formats.
Background and History of Integrated Curriculum
The integration of curriculum has long been a feature of progressive, democratic educational reform (Dewey, 1916, 1938; Dressel, 1958; Hopkins, 1937), and it was a defining characteristic of the program proposed by the early founders of the middle school movement (Eichhorn, 1966; Alexander & Williams, 1965). The recommendations in the influential Turning Points report supported curriculum integration (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989), and integrated curriculum was a major focus of much of the professional literature that proliferated as the middle school movement gained momentum in the 1990s (e.g., Beane, 1997; Brazee & Capelluti, 1995; Pate, Homestead, & McGinnis, 1997; Springer, 1994; Vars, 1997).
An Integrative Approach
Curriculum models in the middle level literature can be located on a continuum with a separate-subject design located at one end and a fully integrated design located at the other (Brazee & Capelluti, 1995). In between the two poles are numerous design models including correlated curriculum, fused curriculum, interdisciplinary curriculum, and multidisciplinary curriculum, to name a few. Rather than advocate for a particular design model or set of models for an integrated curriculum, this position statement calls for teachers to embrace an integrative approach to curriculum.
The Association for Middle Level Education Position Statement on Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment describes integrative curriculum in the following way:
An integrative curriculum focuses on coherent ideas and concepts irrespective of arbitrary subject boundaries and enables students to see connections and real-world applications. Integrative learning opportunities:
- Engage students in rigorous, in-depth study.
- Address reading, writing, and other fundamental skills within all subject areas.
- Enhance critical thinking, decision-making, and creativity.
- Require students to reflect on their learning experiences.
- Enable students to apply content and skills to their daily lives.
Because an integrative approach is a curricular stance rather than a curricular model, middle grades educators who adopt an integrative approach may design integrative learning opportunities within a curriculum plan that is multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or even single-subject.
Benefits of an Integrative Approach
Studies conducted in the 1990s yielded evidence of positive outcomes of an integrative approach for both students and teachers (Drake, 1998; Vars, 1997). More recent scholarship points to the compatibility of an integrative approach with neurological function and brain-based learning, justice and civic-mindedness, service learning, place-based learning, and personalization of learning.
Brain-Based Curricula. Learning occurs when a person makes connections. Teachers foster this kind of learning when they engage in responsive teaching that starts with the students themselves and offers multiple, flexible pathways (Strahan, Kronenberg, Burgner, Doherty, & Hedt, 2012).
Bresciani-Ludvik (2016) highlighted the incompatibility of linear, segmented, separate-subject learning environments with the type of non-linear, creative, critical thinking 21st century skills demand. The brain seeks novelty, stimuli (Sousa, 2006), and different forms of sensory input (Laster, 2008), and scholars recommend that we adapt schools based on our evolving understanding of how the brain works. According to Jensen (2008), a brain-based curriculum includes five key elements: information literacy, scientific inquiry, artistic expression, social fluency, and personal development. He suggested that a curriculum for young adolescents have
- strong emphasis on learning-to-learn skills and lifelong learning;
- emphasis on social skills, cooperative learning, teamwork, and interpersonal relations;
- exposure to computers; multiple functions and research potential;
- deep exploration of a few subjects rather than surveying a great number;
- emphasis on life skills (e.g., financial planning, bookkeeping, career planning, mental health, physical health, recreation, conflict resolution, interpersonal relationships, decision making); and
- reduced emphasis on rote learning, semantic learning, and superfluous content. (p. 210)
These characteristics of a brain-based curriculum align well with the student-centered nature of an integrative approach. Moreover, middle grades teachers need to make the learning process explicit and equip students with metacognitive skills so they can manage and regulate their own learning (Darling-Hammond, 2008).
Justice-Oriented Curriculum. Beane (1995) argued that "the central focus of curriculum integration is the search for self and social meaning" (p. 616). This view of curriculum integration puts students and their relationships to self and the world at the heart of curriculum development, making the exploration of identity, power, and privilege an important part of curriculum integration. As such, beyond supporting the developmental needs of young adolescents, integrated approaches to curriculum can and should be used as a means to enact civic-minded, justice-oriented curriculum in the middle grades (Harrison, Hurd, & Brinegar, 2019). (For an example of justice-minded curriculum integration see Falco, 2019).
Service-Learning. Service-learning is a pedagogical approach that combines academic study with community service (Farber, 2017; Kaye, 2010). Its purpose is to move learners from simply going through the motions of service to actually engaging in the identification of a community need through in-depth study, followed by the development and implementation of a project meant to fill that need. Critical service-learning, according to Mitchell (2008) is a form of service learning that asks learners to explore issues of power, leading to the exploration of themes and the development of projects that promote social change. Given their focus on problem-posing and solving, service-learning and critical service-learning are interdisciplinary in nature and have the potential to not only make curriculum relevant and engaging to young adolescent learners, but to help young adolescents position themselves as changemakers. (See Coffey & Fulton, 2018, for an example of how to enact critical service-learning in the middle grades).
Place-Based Learning. Curriculum that is situated in the local context by physically placing learners into their local environment for academic study, is referred to as place-based learning (Buxton & Provenzo, 2012). Dani (2019) cites Hutchinson (2009) in stating, "place-based learning represents a cross-cultural and multidisciplinary approach to teaching that immerses learners in local heritage, culture, ecology, landscapes, opportunities, and experiences as a foundation of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects" (p. 46). As such, young adolescent learners engaged in place-based learning can learn to become engaged citizens and creative problem-solvers through an integrated exploration of aspects of their local community.
Personalized Learning. Personalized learning is a broad concept that takes on many meanings in education. For the purpose of this paper, personalized learning represents a pedagogical approach that puts learners in the drivers' seat enabling them to actively design their own learning, including identifying goals, setting benchmarks, and developing ways to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and skills (Bray & McClaskey, 2015). This approach to personalization pairs well with Beane's model of negotiated curriculum, in which learners and educators co-create curriculum based on learners' questions about themselves and the world (Bishop, Downes, & Farber, 2019). These questions are focused on "problems, issues, and concerns posed by life itself" (Beane, 1997), generally making them interdisciplinary in nature. Learners then collaborate with educators, peers, and community members to create learning experiences and assessment strategies that are meaningful to them.
Obstacles to Curriculum Integration
Beane (1991) contended that the separate subject approach had been so deeply ingrained in our system that it would be difficult or impossible to change. The disciplines had become territories of knowledge that had been protected by academics, sometimes for their own self-serving purposes. The separate subject approach that dominates the middle grades curriculum remains an impediment to unified learning. In addition, teachers and teams of teachers may experience a variety of material, relational, structural-organizational, and cultural obstacles to curriculum integration (Virtue, Wilson, & Ingram, 2009).
- Material: Do teachers have access to adequate instructional supplies and resources, the Internet and other technology, and other material support?
- Relational: Are relationships among teachers, students, and staff positive, trusting, and collaborative?
- Structural-Organizational: Do teachers have common planning time, flexible scheduling, and other structural/organizational supports?
- Cultural: Does the culture in the school and external community support curricular innovation?
A teacher or team of teachers may experience one or more of these obstacles to curriculum integration. However, because an integrative approach is a curricular stance and not a curricular model, even a teacher working under less than ideal conditions can implement an integrative approach. As Virtue, Wilson, and Ingram (2009) observed:
Individual teachers and teams of teachers can move toward the integrative end of the continuum by using local, school-based resources; by employing emergent curricular designs that capitalize upon teachable moments; by starting with simple, less complex approaches to integration; and by implementing small-scale integrative learning experiences within a single classroom. (p. 6)
Moving Curriculum Integration Forward
Moving curriculum integration forward will require leadership from teachers and school administrators who adopt an integrative stance toward curriculum (Virtue, 2013).
Classroom teachers should:
- Reconsider the notion that skills and concepts on standardized tests can be mastered only through conventional curricula.
- Begin curriculum conversations across disciplines to identify common standards and goals that can lead to a more coherent curriculum for your students (see Summers, Rodens, Denos & Atkinson, 2019).
- Discuss ways to involve students in various phases of their education, from planning to classroom implementation to assessment (See Brinegar & Bishop, 2011 and Bishop, Allen-Malley, & Brinegar, 2007).
- From these first actions, begin to develop curriculum concepts or integrated themes that students and teachers could explore, not as an add-on, but as replacements for conventional separate-subject-area units (See Moser, Ivy, & Hopper, 2019).
- Discuss and design new assessment strategies that reflect students' accomplishments and performance beyond those measured by standardized tests.
- Discuss and design new assessment strategies that reflect the goals and accomplishments of the integrated curriculum methods used, and that explore ways to improve and extend these integrative strategies.
- Share the results of your work with your local community and with the world.
- Make sure that curriculum integration practices are developmentally responsive, culturally responsive, and equitable (Harrison, Hurd, & Brinegar, 2019).
School administrators should:
- First and foremost, encourage teachers to begin the process outlined above by providing them with the same safe learning environment we seek for students: an environment in which experimentation, exploration, and discovery are valued (Virtue, 2010).
- Provide professional learning opportunities in integrated curriculum for teachers.
- Provide discussion and planning time for teachers to design new integrated curriculum plans.
- Look for ways to modify conventional schedules and facilities to allow greater flexibility to facilitate integrative plans developed with your staff (See Summers, Rodens, Denos & Atkinson, 2019).
- Discuss and design staff and curriculum assessment strategies that reflect a new emphasis on integrated teaching and learning and that encourage ongoing development of increasingly sophisticated integrative strategies.
- Reach out to your community and provide opportunities for parents and interested community members to learn about curriculum integration. Invite them to sit in on planning meetings, staff development sessions, and classrooms where curriculum integration is implemented.
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Adopted October 2019