"The problem with middle school curriculum is that we ask students to give answers to questions they do not ask" (Brazee, 1997, p. 187).
Powell & Van Zandt Allen (2001) propose that three general epistemologies guide how subject matter is organized and delivered to students. The first is "subject-centered", which "tends to privilege content over the needs of the students" (p. 117). They also suggest that this approach causes students to learn knowledge out of context.
The second epistemology they identify is interdisciplinary. "In general terms interdisciplinary refers to the bringing together of varying knowledge structures in an effort to help students see connections between these structures" (Powell & Van Zandt Allen, 2001, p. 118). The final epistemology they identify is integrative. Here, knowledge is viewed as nonlinear and can "be called contextualized and situated because the learning is contextualized by a theme or issue, and is situated in the world in which students live out their daily lives" (p. 118).
Models of Curriculum Integration
Advisory programs, exploratory courses and interdisciplinary teacher teams are responses to the needs of young adolescents. However, Brazee and Capelluti (1995) propose that in the end, curriculum affects everything that happens in a school. For middle schools to be truly responsive to middle level learners, the curriculum must also be responsive to the unique characteristics of young adolescents.
Implementing curriculum integration is a daunting task. Aside from the variety of definitions of integration, actually implementing an integrated approach to existing curriculum is challenging. For example, interdisciplinary teams may be required to include or develop an interdisciplinary unit; therefore the curricular fit can be contrived or unnatural. Another common error is attempting to adopt James Beane's (1997) vision of integrative curriculum on top of the existing curriculum. Neither approach demonstrates a true understanding of true integration. To assist middle level educators to determine the degree to which integration occurs in their school, Brazee & Capelluti (1995) use a five-point continuum:
Point 1 - Conventional middle school curriculum
Here, curriculum is delivered in separate subjects. Interdisciplinary or thematic instruction is possible in traditional middle schools. However, it tends to be infrequent and is denigrated as being "extra" to the regular curriculum.
Point 2 - Multidisciplinary/Interdisciplinary curriculum
Many middle schools take this approach to integration. Often, integration occurs through a major event or unit. For example, a team might create a Renaissance Festival or a Brazilian Carnival through all of the subject areas. In multidisciplinary curriculum, each subject area/discipline contributes to the unit. In interdisciplinary curriculum, a central theme or problem is addressed with less reference to actual subject areas. Unfortunately, this type of integration is also seen as an add-on to the regular curriculum. Consequently, teachers are often concerned about the amount of time these projects take.
Point 3 - Integrated curriculum
An integrated approach to curriculum requires the dissolving of subject area boundaries. Often, it necessitates using a block of time to ensure that prolonged and meaningful thought can be given to a topic. The emphasis is on solving a problem or addressing an essential question. This type of approach requires a fundamental shift in thinking about curriculum. Students are asked to pose their own questions. Brazee and Capelluti suggest that this increased student ownership means that students regard this work as serious business.
Point 4 - Integrative curriculum
This approach is a step beyond the previous level due to the active involvement of students in planning curriculum. Cooperative planning between young adults and their teachers makes this approach to curriculum powerful and practical. There is no artificial division of knowledge into subject areas. Students are the prime developers of curriculum because they answer questions about what is most important to THEM. As such, integration is not an "add-on" to the regular curriculum. The teacher's role is that of facilitator rather than instructor. Essentially, an integrative approach is truly democratic and egalitarian, for it places students and teachers on equal footing as partners in learning.
Point 5 - Beyond integrative curriculum
Currently, this approach is extremely rare at the K-12 level, for it is essentially self-directed learning. A good comparison would be to examine the work that happens in a museum or a laboratory. Interested individuals pursue topics of interest and relevance with a genuine say in how they approach the topic. While this approach is not common, the authors believe that it will become more widespread as more students are exposed to integrative curriculum. As students experience the power of increased ownership over their learning, they will begin to demand this type of approach to curriculum.
Using the notion of a continuum, one can see the degree to which integration (examining a problem rather than targeting specific curriculum outcomes or goals) occurs:
Teacher-directed Student Choice Collaborative Student independence
Traditional/linear Multidisciplinary Integrated Integrative