The time has come to push the middle school concept substantially beyond structural concerns and school climate issues and establish a balance among the academic, physical, and social needs of middle level students. To achieve this balance, NMSA emphasizes the crucial need to change the way we currently think about curriculum and to redefine the middle level curriculum in forms that:
- are academically challenging and exploratory.
- are relevant to students’ concerns.
- hold high expectations for all students to succeed.
- meet the developmental needs of young adolescents.
NMSA recognizes that to achieve this vision of curriculum, we must encourage middle level educators to push themselves beyond the conventional, separate subject format and to expand their use of integrated curriculum formats. Ranging from intra-team planning of interdisciplinary units at a basic level to more advanced implementation of full-scale, integrative programs in democratic classrooms (Beane, 1992, 1997). Such formats offer a correspondingly wide range of benefits for students and the potential to vitalize the tenets of middle level education philosophy, as presented both by NMSA (This We Believe) and the Carnegie Corporation (Turning Points 2000). These benefits include and exceed national, state, and local standards.
This philosophy-backed by significant research into neurological function, learning theory, social development, and curriculum design-underscores the importance of four types of relationships that affect how young adolescents learn:
- relationships between the learner and the content.
- relationships between the learner and the teacher.
- relationships among the learners.
- and relationships within the content itself.
As the quality of these relationships improves-individually and collectively-students’ success in mastering skills and concepts and more complex levels of thinking also improves. NMSA recognizes that integrated curriculum formats, particularly in the more sophisticated forms, address and promote these four types of relationships more effectively than does the conventional, separate-subject curriculum.
Because integrated curriculum strategies focus directly and purposefully on all four of these crucial relationships simultaneously, such strategies foster student success on many levels. The greater the degree of integration, the greater the benefits. Students participating in fully integrative programs tend to exhibit high levels of commitment, energy and performance, while assuming greater responsibility for their learning and their actions.
These positive traits become apparent because, in addition to the important relationships that are fostered, integrated learning strategies require the use of a wide range of assessment tools. Performance on standardized tests is, of course, one indicator of student achievement; and students in integrated curricula generally do as well or better on standardized tests than students in conventional curricula. Thus, NMSA sees no inherent conflict between the mastery of standards and integrated curriculum practices. We reject the assertion that high-stakes testing requires a standardized, traditional curriculum based on discrete subject areas. In fact, we maintain that properly constructed and implemented integrated curricula can improve test scores because the emphasis on the four sets of relationships increases students’ motivation to learn. This, in turn, enhances their abilities to master concepts, including those that may appear on standardized tests.
However, equally valid measures of achievement are the many products and presentations created by students engaged in the integrated exploration of real-world issues. For example, student solutions to real-world problems and answers to real-world questions often include service projects that benefit people well beyond the classroom.
Furthermore, such projects regularly involve speaking to adult audiences. Neither the projects created to help others nor the public speaking skills developed by the students are assessed on any standardized test; yet, most would agree that these are valid and valuable aspects of everyone’s preparation for adulthood. At the very least, because the students’ work in integrated curricula is grounded in real-world presentations and applications, those students face a level of expectation for achievement commensurate with that of the adult world. Such expectations encourage students to rise to higher levels of achievement and provide them with a greater sense of satisfaction and pride when they accomplish their goals. This pride in accomplishment and sense of ownership are most apparent in the reflective, self-assessment documentation that is imperative to integrative curricula. Students do not merely meet standards, they surpass those standards while gaining confidence and life-skills that no standardized test can ever measure.
How, then, can educators and parents initiate the implementation of integrated curriculum strategies? Again, NMSA recognizes that no single strategy fits the needs of all; that schools and local communities each have their own unique sets of goals and requirements as well as different circumstances with respect to resources and facilities. NMSA recommends that schools adopt and adapt the philosophy of integrated curriculum to suit their own situations. Consequently, there can be no single prescribed method for implementing the philosophy of integrated curricula.
However, the process often begins with developing understanding and support for integrated curriculum, without which, substantive change is unlikely. This understanding and support is best garnered through materials such as those recommended here, coupled with visits to schools successfully implementing various levels of integrated curriculum strategies. As the advantages of integrated curricula are readily apparent in their application, educators and parents who study this philosophy will undoubtedly want these benefits for their students. Such interest will motivate discussions concerning the level of implementation that might best suit the particular school.
Forms of Integrated Curricula
At the most basic level of implementation, this might involve a few individual teachers or a small team of teachers who begin to collaborate. Examining their respective curricular requirements, these teachers select those concepts they teach that complement those being taught by other teachers. Together, they design new units of instruction that encourage students to see connections and to apply learning in one subject area to that learning in other subject areas.
On a more sophisticated level, teams of teachers actively plan to teach simultaneous classes centered around a common interdisciplinary concept-the American Civil War, for example. Language arts classes can investigate that era of our history through explorations of its own literature, through subsequent literature about the time period, and through its popular culture. Art and music classes can research the arts of that time, while social studies classes can examine the economics and politics of the era, as well as its famous people and battles. At the same time, science classes can focus on scientific exploration and discoveries of that period, along with its technological achievements and their impact. Linked to, and examined through all of these areas, the Civil War and its causes will be more fully and richly understood as students with different interests and talents make personal connections through these varied avenues.
On a still more integrated level, a partnered team of teachers could team-teach a common, unified course. (see Springer, 1994) Given a single space and a larger block of time, these teachers and their students could examine the Civil War from all the perspectives listed above, but do so without the constraint of changing classes periodically. Removing time restrictions allows more flexibility for the teachers to plan and execute their teaching strategies. For the students, this approach also removes the conceptual separations created within the content by the delineation of subject areas. Students see the Civil War as a cohesive topic, not as a fragmented conglomeration of subtopics, or worse, as merely a set of events and dates that have little or nothing to do with their world.
At the most intensive degree of integration, this same partnered team of teachers works collaboratively with the students to plan the curriculum. Their focus of study would most likely shift to a larger theme with real-world implications; a theme determined through a questioning process (see Beane, 1992, 1997; Alexander, 1995; Pate et al., 1997) that relates students’ concerns about themselves to those about their world within a democratic environment, emphasizing consensus building. The students might be exploring conflict, for example, and an examination of the Civil War then becomes one avenue to answering their larger questions about the causes of war or the results of conflict.
Clearly, there are countless intermediate degrees of implementation within the broad spectrum outlined here. Each, according to the intensity of its implementation, will achieve varying degrees of success fostering the four types of relationships-again, with the greatest degree of overall success occurring at the fully integrative level.
Just as clearly, teachers and students often range back and forth along this spectrum, sometimes employing more interdisciplinary strategies, other times using more fully integrative methods. The recommended strategy is to progress as far as possible along the continuum, as often, and for as long as possible. This, however, requires the support of administrators, teachers, and parents. NMSA strongly urges educators and parents to examine further the concept of integrated curriculum strategies. A list of recommended sources is appended here, though many more exist and are available along with help and advice from NMSA.
We further challenge these stakeholders to initiate the following specific actions.
- 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.
- Discuss ways to involve students in various phases of their education, from planning to classroom implementation to assessment.
- 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.
- 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.
Principals and Policymakers:
- 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 and exploration are valued.
- Provide professional development training 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.
- 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.
- Community outreach and education: Inform your community; 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.
NMSA is committed to the concept of integrated curricula as sound teaching practice for meeting the special needs of middle level students. The association encourages all middle level educators to explore the avenues and opportunities outlined here as ways to improve the implementation of the middle school philosophy described in This We Believe.
Alexander, W., Carr, D., & McAvoy, K. (1995). Student oriented curriculum: Asking the right questions. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Arhar, J. M. (1997). The effects of interdisciplinary teaming on students and teachers. In J. L. Irvin (Ed.), What current research says to the middle level practitioner (pp. 49-56). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association. ED 427 847.
Beane, J. A. (1993). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Beane, J. A (Ed.). (1995). Toward a coherent curriculum: 1995 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Beane, J. A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Brazee, E. N., & Capelluti, J. (1995). Dissolving boundaries: Toward an integrative curriculum. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. New York: Carnegie Corporation.
Hopkins, L. T. & et al. (1937). Integration: Its meaning and application. New York: D. Appleton-Century.
Jackson, A. W., & Davis, G. A. (2000), Turning Points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York: Teachers College Press.
National Association for Core Curriculum. (2000). A bibliography of research on the effectiveness of block-time, core, and interdisciplinary team teaching programs. Kent, OH: National Association for Core Curriculum.
National Middle School Association. (1995). This we believe: Developmentally responsive middle level schools. Columbus, OH: author.
Pate, P. E., Homestead, E. R., & McGinnis, K.L. (1997). Making integrated curriculum work: Teachers, students, and the quest for coherent curriculum. New York: Teachers College Press.
Smith, C., Kenney, M., & O’Donnell, M. (1996). Student-directed theme planning. in integrated thematic teaching. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
Springer, M. (1994). Watershed: A successful voyage into integrative learning. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Stevenson, C., & Carr, J. (Eds.). (1993). Integrative studies in the middle grades: Dancing through walls. New York: Teachers College Press.
Vars, G. F. (1996). Effects of interdisciplinary curriculum and instruction. In P. S. Hlebowitsh & W. G. Wraga (Eds.), Annual review of research for school leaders (pp. 147-164). Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals and Scholastic Publishing.
Vars, G. F. (1997). Effects of integrative curriculum and instruction. In J. L. Irvin (Ed.), What current research says to the middle level practitioner (pp. 179-186). Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association. ED 427 847.
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