Organizing the Middle School Curriculum
James A. Beane
Almost all platforms for the improvement of middle level education, including those of National Middle School Association and the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, support the idea of moving beyond the separate subject approach to organizing the curriculum. This idea has a long and rich history at all levels of schooling, from early childhood to higher education, and is supported by research regarding learning theory, curriculum organization, and neuro-psychology. The interest in curriculum approaches beyond the separate subject one has roots in the work of the Herbartians in the 1890s, the Project Method of the 1920s, the curriculum integration and core curriculum movements of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and other curriculum moments. Moreover, that history, like the present, involves many different types of approaches. This paper provides definitions for various approaches, beginning with the separate subject approach, and connects them with the larger field of curriculum design. It also includes a discussion of sources of themes and issues associated with implementing curriculum designs beyond the separate subject one.
Separate Subject Curriculum
The separate subject curriculum is based on the concept of knowledge organized by "disciplines" or scholarly fields of specialized inquiry. Within this approach students are expected to encounter and master selected content from various disciplines through school subjects that are intended to represent them. While proponents of the separate subject approach may agree on its use as a way of organizing the curriculum, there are continuing debates over what content from particular disciplines should be included in the school curriculum and how subjects ought to be "learned." The separate subject approach has a long tradition at the university level and was promoted in the U.S. for the elementary and high schools in the 1890s by committees of the National Education Association that made recommendations for standardizing the curriculum. The separate subject curriculum is often referred to as the "traditional" or "departmentalized" curriculum.
Multidisciplinary or Multisubject Curriculum
The multidisciplinary or multisubject curriculum is intended to correlate two or more subjects in relation to some organizing theme, concept, topic, or issue. Planning for such a curriculum usually begins with identification of a topic or theme, followed by the question, "what can various subject areas contribute to the study of the theme?" In this way two concerns are addressed. First, as subjects are connected in the context of the theme or topic, they may seem less fragmented to students. Second, by opening a topic to consideration through the lenses of two or more subject areas, it may be better and more completely understood. Like the separate subject approach, the multidisciplinary or multisubject approach continues the purpose of encountering and mastering content from various subjects. Moreover, though a central theme or topic is used to correlate them, the separate subjects retain their identity and, typically, their separate time slots in the school schedule. The multidisciplinary or multisubject approach has roots in the correlated curriculum advocated by the Herbartians in the late 19th century and has also been referred to as "curriculum correlation" and "parallel disciplines."
"Interdisciplinary" is a broad term used to refer to both curriculum designs and projects that seek to combine two or more disciplines of knowledge. Interdisciplinary curriculum design begins with particular disciplines and uses them to create new fields of inquiry, such as Art History or Environmental Studies, in which the individual disciplines are necessary -- but not alone sufficient -- for work within the new field of inquiry. In a sense, as the two examples suggest, these new fields are often close to what might be thought of as new disciplines. Interdisciplinary projects use various disciplines in combination to solve problems or consider issues that cannot be adequately addressed by any one of the disciplines alone. Interdisciplinary curriculum designs have also been referred to as "fused" or "cross-curricular."
Curriculum integration is a curriculum design that promotes personal and social integration through the organization of curriculum around significant problems and issues, collaboratively identified by educators and young people, without regard for subject area lines. Planning for curriculum integration begins with an organizing theme followed by the question, "what significant activities might be done to address the theme?" Projects and other activities involve "integration" and application of knowledge in the context of a theme. Content and skill are taught, learned, and applied as they are needed to work on particular themes. While knowledge is drawn from the traditional disciplines (among other sources) students move from activity to activity, or project to project, rather than from subject to subject during the school day (as in the multidisciplinary approach). With its emphasis on real-life themes, contextual application of knowledge, and constructivist learning, the curriculum integration approach is particularly well suited to help students integrate learning experiences into their developing schemes of meaning. For this reason, the term "integrative" is often used to describe this approach. In one variation of curriculum integration, teachers and students plan together to create a thematic curriculum based upon questions and concerns students have about themselves and their world.
Curriculum designs based upon the philosophy of integration have been referred to variously as uot;transdisciplinary," "problem-centered core," and "unstructured core." Note that unlike other non-separate subject approaches, "curriculum integration" does not have the word "discipline" as its root and the same may be said for its use in schools.
Curriculum integration is rooted in progressive educational ideas like the Project Method, Gestalt psychology, the experience curriculum, and the problem-centered "core" curriculum. Because of its emphasis on collaborative teacher-student planning and real-life personal and social issues, the curriculum integration design is frequently associated with movements for democratic schools and curriculum.
Sources of Themes
Organizing centers for curriculum units are frequently referred to as "themes" and the term "thematic curriculum" is often used generically to describe any or all approaches beyond the separate subject one. In any given case, however, that term does not reveal the important matter of what the theme is or where it came from. In fact, educators seeking alternatives beyond the separate subject approach draw curriculum organizing themes from a number of sources.
One source themes is the existing subject curriculum. In this case, a topic already taught in one subject is opened up for consideration from the viewpoints of other subjects. Usually themes drawn from existing subjects involve historical periods like "Colonial Living" or the "Middle Ages," but others like "Metrics," "Technology," or "Myths and Legends" are also common. Themes selected from inside the existing curriculum often seem easier to use since they already have legitimacy in the curriculum as well as resources available for learning activities.
A second source of themes is major social issues or problems like "Conflict," "The Environment," "The Future," or "Prejudice." Social issues can be taken up on a variety of levels ranging from the local neighborhood to the global level. Although, such themes have traditionally been thought of as content for social studies course, they are more thoroughly studied and understood when approached using content and skills from a variety of disciplines.
The personal concerns of young people can serve as a third source of themes. These might include "Getting Along With Peers," "Living in our School," "Jobs and Careers," or "Who Am I?" Such themes offer space in the curriculum for students' personal agendas and can involve analysis through statistics, historical events, artistic representation, and other subject-related skills. However, a curriculum made up solely of themes based on personal concerns is inadequate to meet the school's obligation to bring issues from the larger world to student's attention.
A fourth source of themes might be called process concepts. Process concepts focus on relationships such as "Change," "Cycles," or "Systems." Such concepts make it easy to involve various subject areas since they are found in almost any area of living. However, because such processes apply to almost everything, they are often too ambiguous to offer students a clear context for their learning experiences.
A fifth source of themes might be called appealing topics. These might include topics supposedly popular with students, such as "Chocolate" or "Apples." Teachers who develop units around these themes often invent very engaging activities that students find interesting. However, it is not always clear to whom such themes offer the most appeal. For example, the popularity of thematic units on the 1960s may have more to do with the fact many teachers were in their own young adulthood in the 60s than with student interest in that decade. While units using "appealing" topics may contain significant educational content, publicizing the titles alone, without any explanation of what they involve, has sometimes led parents and others to believe that thematic units trivialize the curriculum.
Teachers who use multidisciplinary designs draw from all five sources depending upon which seems useful in correlating information and skills from different subjects at any given time. However, teachers who use curriculum integration designs draw themes from social issues and personal concerns since they emerge from real-life issues, offer powerful, significant, and relevant contexts for learning, and offer possibilities for introducing students to democratic problem-solving and constructivist uses of knowledge.
Curriculum Approaches in Action
The definitions of various curriculum designs presented here are drawn from curriculum theory as it has evolved over most of this century. Thus the technical differences among them may not always be so apparent in the on-going life of a school or team where teachers may overlap or blend different designs. Rarely does any curriculum design, other than the separate subject approach, completely dominate the program of a whole school. Instead, it is likely to find a mix of approaches in a school, particularly a combination of separate subject and multidisciplinary courses and units. Moreover, when a teaching team is involved in a particular multidisciplinary unit, it is possible that not all team members will participate or that team members will participate to varying degrees depending on their interest in the theme or their subject's perceived relation to it. At the present time, the curriculum integration approach, as defined here, is almost always carried on by only a few teachers in any given school and often used for only part of the day.
Because teachers or teams may mix and match approaches and because the concepts behind various approaches may be implemented in diverse ways, it is probably unwise and unfair to engage in debates over whether any particular case qualifies strictly as one or another approach. Rather it is important to observe the general direction taken by a teacher or team with regard to how they define the purposes of the curriculum, the sources and uses of knowledge, the boundaries between subject areas, the sources of themes, and other important features of curriculum approaches. Furthermore, the use of one or another curriculum approach cannot be identified merely on the basis of the kinds of learning activities employed. While such activities as projects, collaborative planning, group learning, and student self-assessment are used within the curriculum integration approach by definition, they may be and are often used in other approaches, including the separate subject one.
Finally, as discussions in schools and elsewhere address the possibility of using curriculum approaches beyond the separate subject one, it is important to remember that the approaches defined here are not simply points along a continuum. While the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary designs are intended to cross subject boundaries, those approaches are still aimed at encountering and mastering content from the subjects involved. Curriculum integration is not another step along a continuum, but rather a fundamental departure from those other approaches with regard to purposes, organization and uses of knowledge, and other important features. For this reason, while some teachers may feel a need to work through a multidisciplinary approach before attempting curriculum integration, others choose to move directly to integration approach so as to pursue the purposes it intends.
Alexander, Wallace; Carr, Dennis; & McAvoy, Kathy. (1995). Student oriented curriculum: Asking the right questions
. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Beane, James A. (1993). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality (rev. ed.). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Beane, James A (Ed.). (1995). Toward a coherent curriculum, 1995 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA: The Association.
Beane, James A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of a democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Brady, Marion. (1992). What's worth teaching? Selecting, organizing, and integrating knowledge. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Brodhagen, Barbara L. (1995). The Situation Made Us Special. In M. Apple and J. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Brazee, Edward & Capelluti, Jody (Eds.). (1995) Dissolving boundaries: Toward an integrative curriculum. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Drake, Susan. (1993). Planning integrated curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Hopkins, L. Thomas and Others. (1937). Integration: Its meaning and application. New York: D. Appleton-Century.
Jacobs, Heidi Hayes (Ed.). (1989). Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Pace, Glenellen (Ed.). (1995). Whole learning in the middle school. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Pate, Elizabeth; Homestead, Elaine; & McGinnis, Karen. (1996). Making integrated curriculum work: Teachers, Students, and the Quest for a Coherent urriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.
Ross, Ann and Olsen, Karen. (1993). The way we were...The way we can be: A vision for the middle school through integrated thematic instruction. Oak Creek, AZ: Susan Kovalik and Associates.
Siu-Runyan, Yvonne & Faircloth, C. Victoria (Eds.). Beyond separate subjects: Integrative learning at the middle level. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.
Springer, Mark. (1994). Watershed: A successful voyage into integrative learning. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Smith, Carol, Kenney, Meg, & O'Donnell, Meghan. (1996). Student-Directed Theme Planning. In Integrated thematic teaching. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
Stevenson, Chris & Carr, Judy (Eds.). (1993). Integrated studies in the middle grades: Dancing through walls. New York: Teachers College Press.
Vars, Gordon F. (1993). Interdisciplinary teaching: Why & how. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
This paper was written by James A. Beane, Professor, College of Education, National-Louis University.
Review comments and suggestions for this paper were offered by Gordon Vars, Barbara Brodhagen, and Ed Brazee.