Curriculum Integration in Middle School


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Curriculum Integration in Middle School

  1. 1. Fiona B. Griswold CI 410 August 1, 2010 Curriculum Integration in Middle School Education Curriculum integration (CI) is not a new idea. In fact, the concept first came intopopularity and practice in the first half of the 20th century, but was soon discarded in favor ofmore “traditional” methods of instruction and curriculum development. The curriculumdevelopment model, though, is being explored once again as a better curriculum model for U.S.schools, particularly middle schools. While it is unlikely that the curriculum integration modelwill become the predominant model for curriculum development and instruction in the U.S., thecore ideas of this model, in whatever way they might be incorporated into middle schoolteaching, hold the promise of improved student engagement and achievement in the future. Thispaper seeks to provide one option of how CI might be incorporated into the future middle schoolcurriculum.What is Curriculum Integration? Giving a definition of CI is not as simple as it might appear on the surface. One reasonfor this is that the terms “curriculum integration” or “integrated curriculum” tend to be used by anumber of different individuals and groups to mean a range of approaches to curriculumdevelopment and teaching at various levels, including higher education. Despite these varyingdefinitions, there are a few common elements that can be found in most of them. In the mostbasic description of the curriculum integration model, curriculum is conceptualized as beingorganized around a specific topic, theme or problem, the investigation or exploration of which isguided by a number of “essential questions” drawing from a number of subject or disciplineareas. However, it might be argued that if the definition stops there, the CI model doesn‟t lookthat different from an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum development. Since the focus ofthis paper is the CI model in the middle school, the appropriate definition of CI would be thatwhich is promoted by CI advocates and reflected in the September 2002 National Middle SchoolAssociation (NMSA) Position Statement on Curriculum Integration: 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. (Brown & Knowles, 2007 p. 131)
  2. 2. The key areas in which this definition differs from and extends beyond the basic one is that thereis a specific focus on the transformative possibilities of CI. The form of CI which is embraced bythe NMSA and other middle school reformers (and is probably most true to that proposed in the1920s and 30s) emphasizes the social outcomes of CI. By promoting “personal and socialintegration” and focusing on “significant problems and issues, collaboratively identified byeducators and young people” [my emphasis] this CI model makes teaching and learning ademocratic process where the decision-making is shared equally by both teacher and student.Further, the curriculum is intended to focus on what matters to students and to go beyondacademic learning to personal and social growth and integration at a time when students arebeginning the transition to adulthood and acquiring the values and knowledge that will help themfind their place in society.Brief (and Simplified) History of Curriculum Integration In Chapter 2 of his book on CI, James Beane (1997), provides a summary of from where(and from whom) the present-day notion of CI is derived, or as he eloquently puts it “[we] standon the shoulders of giants” (p. 20). The following very simplified and somewhat brief look at theideas and movements that gave us our current notions about CI have been largely derived andrestated from pages 19-37 of this work. As stated in the previous section, the idea of CI extends back to the early part of the 20thcentury. With the start of the industrial revolution in the U.S., people also began to question thecommon mode of education, which, until around 1890 had been largely “a combination of thehigh-culture subjects associated with classical humanism and… mental discipline” (Beane, 1997,p. 20). The industrial revolution caused a questioning of whether this sort of education wouldmeet the modern needs of the age and led to a number of reform movements. The first of thesewas geared towards preparing individuals for their future role in society and differentiatedinstruction so that young men were prepared for a life of manual labor, management tasks or aprofession (such as medicine or the law) while young women were provided instruction indomestic matters as well as a basic education that would include literacy, basic math and so on.Not surprisingly, this type of curriculum not only met labor needs but also helped to reinforce theclass and race distinctions of the day. Another movement developed out of a new interest byGriswold 2 Curriculum Integration
  3. 3. notables like Rousseau and G. Stanley Hall in children as individual beings, separate anddifferent from adults who required a special curriculum geared toward their interests, a “child-centered” curriculum. A third reform movement was concerned about education as a social forcethat could be used to promote democracy and remedy some of the inequalities in wealth andclass that were becoming more pronounced with the second wave of immigration in the last halfof the 19th century and U.S. transformation from a more agrarian society to an industrial one. Inthis reform, curriculum was designed to use social problems as learning opportunities and toencourage more involvement between school and community. Though all three of thesemovements came to see CI as a means to their ends, it is largely these last two movements, aswell as the work of John Dewey and, later, the contributions of William Kilpatrick, MeredithSmith and L. Thomas Hopkins that came to form what we view as CI today. The educational writings of John Dewey published between 1900 and 1930, and his workat the University of Chicago Laboratory School, are fundamental to much current educationalthought, particularly its social aspects and effects. Dewey‟s contributions toward the model of CIbeing promoted for use in the middle school came from both his ideas of education as key to afully-formed democracy and in his idea that classroom instruction is most effective when it isexperiential and interactive and when students play an active role in shaping their own learning.Many models of teaching that are related to CI, such as inquiry-based learning, hands-onlearning or project-based learning, owe much of their theories to Dewey‟s work. Another important figure in the creation of the CI model is a teacher named MeredithSmith. Informed by Dewey‟s theories about the importance of children‟s interactions with theirenvironment (i.e., their school, the larger community and society as a whole) in the learningprocess, Smith decided to test these ideas. In her experiment, she had a group of first-gradestudents begin a community project in which they built themselves small houses which weregrouped together and small dolls were given to the children to represent the residents of their“pretend community.” What Smith observed was that the children, without prompting fromteachers or other adults, proceeded to create all the other structures, roles and responsibilities thatwould be required of a real-life, functional community. In addition, their interactions, over the 5-year span of the experiment, became more sophisticated and they began to tackle complex socialand economic issues. Smith concluded from this experiment that the children had, on their own,had more effectively learned about the needs of a community and the concept of democracy andGriswold 3 Curriculum Integration
  4. 4. that the children were not only willing participants in their learning, but that they were activelyseeking more information and knowledge. Smith‟s ultimate conclusion about education based onher observations was that the traditional form of instruction, in which students were largelypassive recipients of knowledge, was inadequate. Instead, children should be given theopportunity to engage with an act upon their environments, developing skills (such as math andliteracy) and gaining knowledge as they became increasingly informed about their roles in andrelationships with others in their society. Following on the publication of Smith‟s doctoral dissertation, Education and theIntegration of Behavior in 1927, the term “integration” came into common usage when referringto the ways that education was meant to serve both the needs of the individual as well as those ofthe individual in society. In the 1930s, one of the most important theorists of the integrationmovement was L. Thomas Hopkins from Teachers College, Columbia University. In hiswritings, Hopkins consistently promoted integration as involving both the personal and socialand insisted that curriculum must be problem- and experience-centered created through acollaboration between teachers and students. Hopkins also criticized others in the education fieldfor misusing the term “integration” when their projects were really multi-disciplinary in natureand more concerned with acquisition of subject-matter knowledge. The 1940s saw the publication of the results of the Eight Year Study which had beenconducted by the Progressive Education Association. This study compared the social andacademic success of graduates of non-traditional high schools that followed some sort ofintegrative curriculum model (in that they shied away from the traditional separate-subject meansof instruction) with graduates from traditional subject-focused high schools. The graduates ofnon-traditional high schools did better than the traditional students in all measures, and graduatesof the six schools that were most like the integrated curriculum model performed best on all themeasures. The results of the Eight Year Study had an impact in the curricula used at bothelementary and secondary schools in the 1940s, but the most obvious influence of the study canbe seen in the development of “core” programs for teaching general education requirements inmiddle and high schools. In its most progressive form, the “core” curriculum was to becollaboratively planned, problem-based and free from subject matter distinctions, and “core”scheduling consisted of large blocks of time and, sometimes, multiple years of teachers andGriswold 4 Curriculum Integration
  5. 5. students working within the same group (as opposed to the traditional annual move from oneclassroom and teacher to another). Unfortunately, the fairly widespread adoption of the “core” curriculum along with otherprogressive education movements were not destined to last. With the launch of the Sputnikrocket by the USSR in 1954 and the fear of Communism and the Cold War, progressiveeducation movements were linked to communism and a threat against the U.S. by conservativestrying to preserve the status quo and protect traditional institutions and systems within U.S.society. For much of the 1950s through the early 1980s there was the occasional publicationdiscussing CI, but very little implementation of the practice in schools. Then, most recently,beginning in the late 1980s and early 90s, the term “curriculum integration” once again appearedin writings about early childhood education, whole-language elementary instruction, giftedprograms and outcomes-based instruction. Also, research from the 1980s and 90s on how thebrain organizes information leant support to organizing curriculum around central themes andlearning theorists reported that knowledge is more likely to be retained if it is presented in thecontext of previous experience and as whole ideas rather than isolated pieces of information. The resurgence of interest in CI is subject to some of the same problems that were facedin the past. In particular, Hopkins complaint about the mislabeling of any sort ofmultidisciplinary curriculum model as “integrative” continues to be an issue today, as evidencedby the range of definitions and models that can be found in current literature on curriculum. Oneinteresting difference, identified by Beane (1997), between discussions of CI from 75 years agoand current (as of the late 1990s) discussions is the link between CI and a bigger social agenda.Most often, articles about CI are focused on the individual and not on the true integration ofindividual learning with that of society. In some ways, the lack of the social (or some may say,“progressive”) aspect of CI has likely made the appeal of the model more palatable toconservative interests. However, a quick review of some of the more recent publications aboutCI shows that the social, progressive benefits of CI are again receiving attention, resulting incriticisms from conservatives that are nervous about the “social agenda” of CI proponents (see1996 opinion piece in Education Digest by Paul George).Griswold 5 Curriculum Integration
  6. 6. Why Curriculum Integration? Implementing the CI model in the nation‟s middle schools would require an enormousreorganization of the way these schools currently function as well a major shift in thinking aboutthe way curriculum is developed and implemented, instructional methods, classroomorganization and the role of students in determining their own curriculum. Given the extremechange that would need to happen before CI could be implemented, then why do someindividuals or organizations advocate so strongly for this model? A simplistic answer would be,“because it works” or “because the interactions and learning observed in students immersed inthis sort of curriculum model are so compelling and inspiring,” These responses would be true,but are not sufficient to convert the skeptic or to explain to a veteran teacher why you would likethem to completely retool their curriculum and way of teaching. In fact, this sort of simplisticanswer may be one of the reason why CI frequently comes under scrutiny or criticism. While it istrue that there are studies (which we will examine later) that show that students from schools thatuse the CI model frequently do better on standard measures of academic and social achievement,much of the most compelling evidence of the advantages of CI comes from first-personnarratives by teachers and students that have experienced this curriculum model or from outsideobservers who have had the opportunity to witness the benefits of such a program. In addition,some of the research that is offered to support the assertion that CI is the best model for themiddle school is not able to show that CI is the sole or major causal factor in the high levels ofachievement. The major reason put forth by CI advocates as to why the CI model is the mostappropriate one for middle school is that it meets all the essential attributes of an effectivemiddle school as detailed by NMSA. The CI model is developmentally appropriate in meetingthe young adolescent‟s desire to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them.It‟s challenging because it meets students‟ instructional needs on every level--students who areahead of grade level have the ability to take their inquiry and learning to the next level whilestudents who may be struggling are able to contribute their particular strengths and to bechallenged by the higher achieving students with whom they are collaborating. The CI model isempowering because it includes students in all aspects of the decision-making process and isdesigned to focus on their interests and questions about their world. Finally, it‟s equitablebecause everyone participates, every student has access to the same instruction and the sameGriswold 6 Curriculum Integration
  7. 7. products of learning and nobody is tracked or labeled as “high” or “low” achievers. Those whohave participated in CI as teachers or learners report greater motivation and engagement (byteachers and students), a better understanding of the ideals of democracy, the ability to thinkcritically, increased intellectual curiosity and, the gold standard in the era of No Child LeftBehind (NCLB), improved scores on achievement tests.What the Research Says Despite some deficiencies in the supportive research about CI implementation, thereexists some compelling research to bolster its use in the middle school environment. Though itwas difficult to find current, original studies, one of the more interesting and useful resourceswas a meta-analysis found in the unpublished doctoral dissertation of Deborah Hartzler (2000) ofthirty studies on the effects of integrated curriculum programs on student achievement. Thisdissertation is useful for several reasons. First, it confirms the difficulty that a researcher faces indetermining a suitable definition for CI on which to base research. For her meta-analysis,Hartzler (2000) first had to arrive at a definition for integrated curriculum, then identify studiesof programs that conformed to this definition. After an examination of a number of historicaldefinitions of CI and a presentation of the various models for CI (many of which would notsatisfy Beane‟s definition as they did not include student collaboration or emphasize bothpersonal and social integration), Hartzler was left with the following, “In general, all thedefinitions involve a curriculum design that combines the skills and/or content from thedisciplines that have traditionally been taught separately.” (p. 40) Using this definition of CI andseveral other factors, such as the use of a control group, thirty studies were included in the finalanalysis. After a statistical analysis of the results of the included studies, Hartzler (2000) reachedthe following conclusions: 1) programs using a CI model were effective in raising academicachievement, 2) they were most effective when science and language arts were combined withother subject areas, 3) students from the “middle class” and those who were achieving belowgrade level at the start of the integration showed the greatest gains, and 4) students participatingin integrated programs showed significant gains in standardized test scores (p. 153). In addition,the analysis showed that “none of the categories assessed resulted in negative effect sizes… theoverall outcomes were positive. Regardless of the type of program, the grade levels involved, theGriswold 7 Curriculum Integration
  8. 8. training and support provided, or the assessment instruments used, integrated programs haveconsistently demonstrated that these programs work” (p. 156). The “classic” study that supported the effectiveness of CI is, of course, the Eight-YearStudy, the results of which were published in 1942 in a five-volume collection titled, Adventurein American Education. The first volume of this publication, The Story of the Eight-Year Study,has recently been republished online by staff and students from the University of Maine,Farmington, with support from the Maine Association for Middle-Level Learning. According tothe introduction to the Web project, the Eight-Year Study (1942), which followed the graduatesof thirty experimental high schools during the 1930s is “considered by many educationalresearchers to be one of the best program evaluation studies ever conducted.” (ProjectIntroduction section, para. 1) As mentioned earlier in this paper, this study is of particularimportance to the CI movement because the results showed that “the traditional separate-subjectapproach appeared to be the least effective for preparing students, even for things that we‟dalways assumed it was best for” (Eight Year Study, Project Introduction section, para. 1).Furthermore, the schools that were most effective employed a CI model for organizingcurriculum, which, at that time, was called “Core Curriculum.” Though researchers found onlymodest increases in academic achievement in the experimental high school graduates, they foundthat these students made much greater gains in other areas and did as well as or better at collegethan there traditional high school counterparts. From the thirty participating schools themselvescame the conclusions that current, lifeless subject matter should be replaced by content that is“alive and pertinent to the problems of youth and modern civilization.” In fact, much of whatwas concluded by the authors of the Eight-Year Study about the role of the school vis-à-vis theacademic, social and wellness needs of the student has found its way into the current NMSAvision for the middle school, This We Believe. There have been some other, more recent studies that touch on the effectiveness of theCI model in middle or other schools, but the difficulty with interpreting these results is that,usually, CI is just one aspect being examine in a larger context that may include other middleschool curricular reforms such as teaming, small-group instruction and authentic instruction andassessment. In addition the form of CI being examined in many of these studies often does notmeet the standard of the definition put forth by Beane (1997), and repeated by Brown andKnowles (2007) and the NMSA. One such article, “Middle School Practices Improve StudentGriswold 8 Curriculum Integration
  9. 9. Achievement in High Poverty Schools,” authored by Steven B. Mertens and Nancy Flowers(2003) looked at data from the School Improvement Self-Study collected from 121 middleschools in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi during the 1998-99 and 2000-01 academic years.In analyzing the data, the authors looked at practices related to CI, such as “curriculumcoordination and integration,” which was defined as “team members work together to coordinatelearning activities and integrate curriculum” (p. 35); but this was just one of many team andclassroom practices included in this study. Some of the authors‟ conclusions about CI as a resultof their analysis are 1) “schools with 60% or more students from low-income families also havethe highest levels of curriculum coordination and integration practices [author‟s emphasis] ascompared to schools serving more affluent populations” (p. 39); 2) the highest level ofassociation between team and classroom practice was found to be that of team “curriculumcoordination & integration” and classroom “integration and interdisciplinary practices,” (p. 37).In other words, as the amount of time or frequency the teaching team meets to plan andcoordinate curriculum, the more integrated or interdisciplinary content is delivered in theclassroom. However, when the authors performed an analysis of how the study factors affectachievement, particularly in low-income schools, the results were not so positive. Achievementscores from low-poverty schools far exceeded those of high-poverty ones, though, schools in thehigh-poverty group that had the most time spent in teaming practices, such as curriculumcoordination and integration, had the highest reading scores (Mertens & Flowers, 2003, p. 41).However, a weakness of this study, at least in terms of its relation to implementation of the CImodel put forth by the NMSA, is that the author‟s definition of integration does not meet thecollaborative planning condition and there is no way of knowing what sort of integration,specifically, was occurring at any of the study‟s schools.Barriers and Opposition to Curriculum Integration Thus far, this paper has focused primarily on the positive aspects and benefits of the CImodel and the support it has received from various associations, research bodies and educators.Despite a good amount of support and documented benefits, however, the CI model is not a“simple fix” and has its share of critics. Even for those who might feel the CI model is, in essence, the best choice for middleschools, the changes required to implement this model may feel overwhelming. James BeaneGriswold 9 Curriculum Integration
  10. 10. (1997) reports what must be a fairly common feeling about CI. A journal editor, after reviewingan article about CI written by Beane, commented, “I know you‟re right about this idea, but itterrifies me. So much would have to change” (p. 95). Most of the barriers to CI lie in the ways inwhich it represents a complete shift in curricular thinking from what has always been thetraditional way of teaching in middle schools. Teachers may feel uncomfortable with their newrole as collaborator rather than authority and may struggle with the lack of certainty in coursedirection inherent in the CI planning process. School and district administrators may feel at a lossabout all the changes, from how the day is scheduled to how state standards are considered ormet, that CI implementation would require. Parents may be worried about a departure from thetraditional curriculum that they likely experienced as middle school students and worry as towhether their children will be sufficiently prepared for high school and for university or otherendeavors that lie beyond. Finally, the use of the CI model in U.S. middle schools would requirea radical reimaging of the curriculum of our system of public education, which hasn‟t changedmuch in the last century, despite the enormous changes that have occurred in U.S. society duringthis same period. Also, while the CI model has some very vocal supporters, it also has attracted equallyvocal detractors. One highly-visible critic of CI is Paul George, an education professor at theUniversity of Florida and well-known scholar of middle school education. In a 1996 opinionpiece published in Education Digest, George listed 36 reasons why he believes that “manycurrent claims for integrated curriculum are unfounded, unsubstantiated, or both” (p. 16). Inparticular, George argues that, while there are some studies and testimonies that support theeffectiveness of CI, proponents have failed to make their case for broad implementation of CIand have not shown evidence that it holds any advantage over a well-developed traditionalcurriculum delivered by experienced, dedicated teachers. While George‟s 1996 piece might be a bit overdramatic, he does make some validarguments. While it is clear that many U.S. middle schools are struggling and that achievementscores for their students have generally fallen or remained flat in recent years, these problemscannot be generalized to every traditional middle school. In fact, there are likely any number ofexamples of highly successful middle schools which by combining a traditional, subject-centeredapproach with excellent enthusiastic teachers and a supportive and nurturing school environment,are showing great gains in achievement even in student populations that have historically been atGriswold 10 Curriculum Integration
  11. 11. risk for academic failure. On the other hand, there are some great examples or case studies ofhighly effective middle schools that have moved to the CI model, and the personal stories andaccounts from teachers and students in these schools are frequently quite compelling. Yet, canthis relatively small number of case studies be generalized to the entire population of U.S.middle schools to the extent that it is time to throw away the traditional models and adopt the CImodel?Conclusion After reviewing all of the sources mentioned in this article and some additional generalreading, one thing has become clear in the debate over curriculum integration in the middleschool--it is unlikely that this debate will ever be resolved in favor of one model or another andprobable that, far into the future, U.S. middle schools will continue to draw from a number ofcurricular models in developing and delivering instruction. While both extremes of this debate,those who believe CI is the only means of curriculum development for the middle school andthose who are unreservedly opposed to it, are likely to be dissatisfied with this outcome, for therest of us, what is right and what is comfortable lies somewhere in the middle, along thespectrum of integration that is disliked by Beane but probably more realistic for the majority ofstakeholders in middle grades education. There is no doubt, based on countless studies of alllevels of education, that some level of integration in curriculum and instruction generallyimproves both academic outcomes (as measured by typical means of assessment such asstandardized tests) and student outcomes such as improved motivation and engagement in theclassroom. Therefore, integration of curriculum and collaboration, both among teachers andbetween teachers and students, should be encouraged to the extent that any school is able toaccomplish with the hope that integration might continue to develop and deepen over time asmore teachers and students experience this model of curriculum. To adopt an “all or none” approach to integration is not only unrealistic but alsoundermines any real hope for middle school improvement along these lines. Despite the strongrhetoric used by the proponents of the CI model in some of their writings, I believe that, in theend, the majority of them have accepted this reality. James Beane, in the final chapter ofCurriculum Integration, admits that while he will continue to take a unwavering stand on whathe feels to be the meaning of CI, goes on to say “curriculum integration does not involve a recipeGriswold 11 Curriculum Integration
  12. 12. or packaged program. In the end it is not an „ideal state‟ to be achieved but rather an idea that isconstantly struggled over by those who work with it” (p. 101). Therefore, the CI model is, forme, something to work toward and should continue to be the subject of research, developmentand refinement to be implemented as one is able in whatever way will best meet the needs of thestudents for which the curriculum is intended.Griswold 12 Curriculum Integration
  13. 13. ReferencesBeane, J. A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press. Retrieved from: Year Study. (1942). Adventures in American Education, vol. I. Retrieved from, P. (1996). Arguing integrated curriculum. Education Digest, 62(3), 16.Hartzler, D. S. (2000). A meta-analysis of studies conducted on integrated curriculum programs and their effects on student achievement. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 9967119)Knowles, T., & Brown, D. F. (2007). What every middle school teacher should know. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Mertens, S. B., & Flowers, N. (2003). Middle school practices improve student achievement in high poverty schools. Middle School Journal, 35, 33-43.NMSA (2002) Position statement on curriculum integration. Retrieved from: lt.aspx.Griswold 13 Curriculum Integration