The form and function of this project has changed radically over the course of its development. However, the essence of the project, a proposal for reorganizing curriculum in a meaningful manner, has remained. Throughout the course of my M.Ed.. Program, I have come to clearly understand middle school philosophy (NMSA, 2003). The middle school movement is aimed specifically at young adolescents aged 10-15 years old. It espouses a different approach to educating its students than the junior high model that I was exposed to as a young adolescent. It has been very instructive to share my project and my ideas with colleagues who do not teach in a middle school. Though there are more Alberta jurisdictions migrating to the middle school philosophy, the vast majority of teachers in our province teach in a more traditional junior high with a grade 7-9 configuration. The more I spoke about my ideas with classmates in the M.ed.. program, the more I realized that many educators do not recognize how unique middle school philosophy truly is.
It is the gulf between the way things are and the way things could be that is frustrating. In some ways, my project attempts to acknowledge the gulf between true middle school philosophy and the predominant pedagogical zeitgeist. Initially, I could not envision truly integrative learning taking place within a mainstream classroom. However, I reached two important understandings during April, 2004.
The first revelation came when I received my project proposal back from Dr. Nancy Melnychuk. Dr. Melnychuk pointed out that much of my writing seemed critical of the existing education system in Alberta. And she was correct. Much of what I have read about middle school philosophy is connected to the National Middle School Association, a massive and highly influential organization. I had taken up the NMSA mantra that middle schools were inherently better than the traditional education situation. Though I continue to believe in the validity of middle school philosophy, I am highly cognizant of the realities of being a teacher and administrator in our province. In many ways, the tone of my website has changed from “militant” to “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
My second, most crucial epiphany came following a presentation of my research at the Alberta Middle School Association annual conference, I spoke with Valerie Blair from the Calgary Board of Education. She commented that my work was similar to the notion of “essential questions” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). Though I had flirted with the similarities between Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) and integrated curriculum (Beane, 1990, 1993), I had never truly examined the parallels. Perhaps the most important aspect of this connection was the fact that I began to see the possibilities for integrative learning experiences taking place in all classrooms, not just middle school classrooms.
My initial thoughts and research tended to focus on programs that would integrate the arts into the regular classroom. However, the more I examined these programs, the more I realized that they tended to be isolated pockets. Milton Williams Middle School in Calgary, Alberta was one of the few places in Alberta that seemed to really achieve “arts integration” on some level. At that point in my thinking about curriculum, it seemed that the only way we could really meet the needs of young adolescents was to offer programs of choice or specialized programming. However, the longer I worked as a middle school administrator, the more it became apparent that there are very few places that can truly offer whole-scale programs of choice. Moreover, the majority of students attend a traditional classroom where curriculum is presented in a logical, textbook-driven manner. It is efficient, it has worked for a number of years, and Alberta’s education system seems to foster high student achievement in reading, mathematics and science (http://www.education.gov.ab.ca/news/2004/December/nr-IntlTests.asp, 2004).
The notion of backwards design seems to be widely accepted for teachers at all levels of education. Consequently, it has been exciting to examine the fit between integrated curriculum theory (Beane, 1990, 1993; Brazee & Capelluti, 1995; Pate, Homestead & McGinnis, 1997; Stevenson & Carr, 1993). In reviewing the work of these scholars, it is clear that they focus their work on big problems. Moreover, their approach explicitly involves students in the planning process. It is significant that the essence of backwards design is to arrange curriculum around essential questions. The work of Wiggins & McTighe (1998) provides powerful insights about the planning process.
It is exciting to note that the two approaches can be combined. Is there any reason why students cannot be involved in setting topics that they want to explore, if teachers undertaken a thoughtful analysis of the government-mandated curriculum? Perhaps by establishing a series of “essential questions” that pertain to the existing curriculum, teachers could involve their students in planning a more meaningful path to true understanding.
My greatest wish for this website is that it will be of use to practicing educators. This fundamental goal has shaped the development and organization of my end product. Where my initial impulse was to develop something that would sell the notion of curriculum integration, it is very clear to me that the “pure” integrated or integrative curriculum happens only in very rare and special circumstances. For the majority of practicing teachers, it is simply not possible to properly implement curriculum integration. Moreover, broad-based curriculum reform is highly unlikely in the current political landscape. I realize that my work is not likely to change the way that the majority of people perceive education. As such, I hope to help users of the website to:
- better understand middle school philosophy
- help clarify curriculum integration
- help users see the parallels between integration and backwards design
- help teachers develop essential questions
- encourage and help teachers break down the barriers between subject areas
- provide resources and ideas for practicing teachers
- encourage all education stakeholders to question the current linear approach to curriculum
- create possibilities for better learning experiences for students