Limits to a Truly Integrative Approach
A number of barriers must be overcome in order to implement a full-blown approach to either curriculum integration or backward design. I believe the two main barriers are in time constraints and epistemology.
Some Thoughts About Time
Without a doubt, time is a major concern for all teachers. I have come to realize that I could work all day, every day at my job and never accomplish everything I want to. In order to deliver curriculum in a non-traditional manner, a teacher needs time to think and plan very carefully. I believe that teachers do work hard to ensure they are "doing their job". I further believe that for many teachers, this means "covering the curriculum." For a variety of reasons, I believe that teachers try to stick to tried and true resources, resources that are often developed to be tied to approved resources like textbooks. In many cases, there are prepared packages of materials for teachers to use and these prepared packages make life easier because they lessen the amount of time one needs to plan and prepare. Additionally, using this prepackaged resources can be comforting because they help reassure teachers that they are teaching what they are supposed to teach. This is reality, but it could be so much more.
When I first heard Grant Wiggins speak about backward design, I was struck by the clarity of the concept. Determine what you really want students to know first. What are the big ideas and enduring understandings? It truly does take time to thoughtfully examine the curriculum. It takes experience to determine what students are capable of. An more than anything, it requires time. However, as Linda Lambert (2003) so thoughtfully observed, time is not really the issue for teachers. It is what one does with their time that counts. I believe that if people want to really get to the heart of what they are teaching, they need time to do so. They need time to plan, time to talk about student achievement, time to understand what is happening in the classroom next door. In middle schools, common planning time for interdisciplinary teams should be the first consideration. Moreover, when teams have common planning time, the first thing they should discuss is curriculum. We can do better - we simply need to make curriculum the absolute top priority for school improvement.
Sage, Krynock & Robb (2000) found four key tensions when such an “unorthodox” method of curriculum delivery is implemented. First, there is a tension between constructivist and behavioral learning theory. Students and parents are not used to students having a major role to play in their learning instead of being passive recipients and regurgitators of information. The second tension exists between traditional curriculum values and curriculum integration values. There were major concerns about the effect of integrated problem-based learning on content learning and standardized test scores. The third tension was between curriculum breadth and curriculum depth. In traditional, textbook-based learning, there is pressure to “cover” curriculum (breadth) rather than truly understand it (depth.) Finally, the authors encountered difficulty in resolving the amount of teacher input in designing problems for students. Ultimately, the authors found that “the real tension for teachers is student interests vs. mandated curriculum objectives” (p. 173). The teachers in this study found a real conflict between traditional conceptions of teaching and learning and the actual process of problem-based learning.
Clearly, a "big ideas" approach that explicitly involves students in the planning process is the not the usual or accepted approach to teaching and learning. Carr & Stevenson (1993) identified fear, lack of support, insufficient planning time, difficulty, lack of resources, inflexible scheduling, curriculum expectations, degree of risk, need to address evaluation and classroom control issues as the primary barriers to curriculum integration. Moreover, Powell, Fussell, Troutman, Smith & Skoog (1998) found that teachers who teach in an integrated environment like the one at Brown Barge Middle School in Pensacola, Florida find it incredibly demanding.
Another practical consideration in most educational contexts would be pressures created by standards and standardized testing (Vars, 2001). This pressure is surely evident in the province of Alberta, where students in grade 3, 6, 9 and 12 must complete government mandated achievement examinations.