No Subject Is an Island: Why and How to Implement an Integrated Curriculum

Integrated Curriculum No Subject Is An Island Hero

If you want to write a book, the trick is to pay special attention in your English Language Arts classes to become a master writer. Then write it. …Right?

Except publishing a book is a bit more complicated than writing an essay for English class. Think about all that goes into it:

  • Properly laying out the pages, including calculating margin size and cover and spine dimensions
  • Designing a book cover
  • Ensuring proper copyright attributions
  • Researching names, places, dates, and events to ensure nonfiction writing is accurate and fiction writing is realistic
  • Finding an agent, editor, and/or publisher, preparing letters, emails, and manuscripts, and negotiating pay

And if you talk to someone who’s published a book, whether it’s a cookbook, textbook, or children’s book, you would learn that different books come with different problems, and very few of the problems are covered in English Language Arts classes!

It’s not just writing a book. Imagine trying to develop a vaccine without politics or logistics. Or sell a painting without economics or communications. Our world does not neatly divide itself into clear, distinct subjects the way a school report card might imply.

Integrated Curriculum Definition

As we look to educate the students who will become our next leaders, doers, and thinkers, we have to recognize that we live in a globally integrated world with fast-advancing technology and knowledge that can come from anywhere. There isn’t a single way to integrate subjects, as it depends on the teachers, learners, and environment. So how do you define "integrated curriculum?" There are some common features:

  • The same skills are taught across different subject areas.
  • Activities have a low floor and high ceiling, providing for a range of interests and abilities.
  • Experiences are designed to facilitate connections across the curriculum.
  • Learning is thought of as a meaningful whole, with critical and creative thinking given closer attention than isolated skills.

This can be implemented at a more surface level with intradisciplinary integration from two closely related subjects within the same broad discipline, for example, exploring properties of proteins in both chemistry and biology. A deeper approach would be to incorporate big ideas such as creativity or citizenship across different classes. One could also implement a fully transdisciplinary curriculum, which starts with real-world projects, for example improving local pollution or starting a business, and guides student exploration based on personal interests.

Benefits of an Integrated Curriculum

When it comes to making academic learning effective, having an integrated curriculum works. Evidence collected across many studies at all grade levels for the last century repeatedly leads to the same conclusion. Students who learn via integrated approaches do as well as, or better than, students in traditional classrooms in academic success.

Provide More Meaning

A question that every teacher has been faced with (especially if they teach math!) is “when will I ever use this in the real world?” It’s a hard question to answer, especially when students often only see equations in math classes and poems in ELA classes. Don’t just tell; show. Students who don’t get why they have to learn about a poem can understand better the context and importance when the poet and subject show up in history class and the poet’s peers in art class.

Center School Around the Learner

A core tenet of Lifelong Kindergarten author and MIT professor Dr. Mitchel Resnick is encouraging students to explore whatever they’re interested in. Talk about high ceilings! Whether it’s rocket ships or reality TV, let the learner be the guide for what to learn next. A student otherwise uninterested in math might care all of a sudden when the math is about calculating the right amount of fuel for their mini-rocket to launch or providing precise timestamps for their custom reality show.

Make Content Authentic

When it comes to the real world, rarely should an essay be exactly five paragraphs. Science lab results rarely result in the exact data expected. Math rarely appears as simple, definable problems with single, correct answers. Rather, the real world is flush with ambiguities and exceptions. This is a story you can have students explore themselves when content isn’t isolated to a single class, but instead investigated across different contexts and with different teachers.

Build Learner Appreciation

Students often have the mindset that one doesn’t have to understand something in order to appreciate it. A student does not need to know how snow forms in order to appreciate a snow day! (Or know how to program in order to browse social media.) One way to help students not only gain an appreciation for what they’re learning but yearn for it is to connect curriculum. When snow isn’t isolated to a one-off lesson in science class but perhaps coordinated with a geography lesson on snowy climates and a literature lesson on a Siberian story, then any aspect of a snow day—whether it’s a news story involving a cold front or the vocabulary term accumulation—has the potential to pique a learner’s interest and build on what they already know.

How to Implement Integrated Instruction

Outlining the benefits of an integrated curriculum is one thing. But how to do it? How do you get buy-in from teachers who are perhaps fearful of missing standards or having to work with content they don’t yet know?

Designate Planning Time

Curriculum integration isn’t possible unless teachers agree to do it. Organize conversations among teachers that lets them meet, plan, and decide on specific topics and lessons of focus. Plan an agenda specific to your students' needs:

  • Which learners would benefit? Are there specific students struggling with a topic who can help guide your plans?
  • Which topics are best for integrated instruction? What topics are you already planning on teaching next? Do they lend themselves well to other classes?
  • Which topics are relevant right now? What is happening in the news or in students’ lives that connect to different subjects?

Analyze Different Sets of Standards

What standards are different teachers looking at? There is no universal answer, as standards vary by state, subject, year, and sometimes even school. Instead of thinking of an integrated curriculum as a barrier to getting through standards, think of standards as a blueprint to finding ways to integrate curriculum!

For schools that have the resources to create interdisciplinary courses, you can fuse standards from history, geography, science, and the arts, for example, to make an entire course on anything from the Beatles to the Enlightenment. A more modest approach would be for teachers to discuss how they typically show applications of the standards they’re responsible for and collaboratively brainstorm new ways to leverage the same applications. For example, instead of a technology teacher devoting an entire lesson to one standard, perhaps that same tech standard can be incorporated into projects across several different classes.

Create Themes

Integrating subjects doesn’t limit what students can explore, nor should it restrict what teachers can teach. Quite the opposite, in fact. One approach may be to establish broad themes that all teachers can support in different ways. For example, a theme of identity, animals, or water can last days or weeks and encompass every subject from art to math.

The themes can also take the form of big-picture questions that cannot be neatly answered within any specific subject. Consider questions that allow for personalized, nuanced solutions:

  • How can we increase public civic engagement?
  • How does art reflect climate change?
  • How has technology changed society?

Select Assessment Methods

If you’re going to combine subjects, don’t forget to combine assessments, too. It’s important when implementing a new way of teaching to make sure the way you measure learning matches. After all, you want your answers as to whether your integrated curriculum works to be data-driven and valid. Although students may still be beholden to state assessments, look for ways for students to write essays, create presentations, and deliver oral reports that can show depth of understanding and encompass multiple subjects.

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No matter how your school or district organizes its curriculum, we help ensure students see connections. HMH Anywhere provides instruction for all grades and all subjects through a single platform.

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