Integrated Curriculum Design

15 Nov

When we think about Curriculum we think about traditional syllabus and subjects.

But a curriculum is the whole big picture of the learning experience – the total of all that is learnt in schools. The Curriculum is not only the subjects and topics to be learnt, it also the planned outcomes or aims / objectives, it is the structure and range of practical learning activities and assessment or evaluation procedures.

So when we think about Curriculum Design, we have to think about the whole learning process – not just the subjects and content to be learnt.

When we talk about an Integrated Curriculum, it is the idea of a unity between forms of knowledge and their disciplines.

Traditional curriculum design is very much subject centred where we have our subjects as Maths, English, Science. Then we may have the humanities subjects as History, Geography, Politics. Then the Languages, the arts subjects as Music, Drama, Art. Then at the lower end we may have the technical arts as Woodwork and Metalwork. Each one of these areas has its own assessment criteria, practical activities, aims or objectives, assessment types.

We often find however that subjects do overlap each other in certain areas as content or concepts. For example, Science shares many aspects in common with Chemistry and Biology. While History shares many aspects in common with politics and some aspects with Geography. Because there is so much content and concepts to cover in only a 50 minute lesson, it makes sense to group areas together to try to share the concepts so that students can get greater time and different fields to understand those concepts.

For example, History deals with not only the past but concepts as democracy, freedom, civil rights. A History teacher needs more that 50 minutes three times a week to try to cover not only the content but to try to explore these indepth concepts. Teaching the historical context does not help students to fully understand these concepts. If students are not fully grasping the concepts, are they understanding the subject and its historical context?

So what can we do about this?

Many education departments have introduced the idea of an ‘Integrated Curriculum’ where forms of knowledge and their respective disciplines are united together.

The benefits of Integrated Curriculums include not only looking at concepts for an indepth understanding, but of also providing a meaningful learning experience for students through using real life examples. By uniting knowleddge, teachers can help students to make connections among disciplines through solving real life problems together. By making education not only relevant but engaging, it keeps students interested in the learning process.

Some teachers have tried various forms of integrated curriculum where teachers from different subjects have worked together on a single probject. For example if looking at the Pyramids of Egypt, a group of maths students might come in and do the measurements of what a Pyramid might look like in size and structure. While another group of history students might contribute by providing evidence of how the Pyramids were built. Another group of science or geology students might contribute with an understanding of the materials and their strengths used to build it. While geography students may contribute through talking about the weather and conditions of Egypt.

However this has been criticised as it is not an integrated curriculum experience as subjects still retain their traditional subject area and its not an on-going learning experience. Another criticism is that while it is great for teachers to work together, different philosophies of teaching and what is to be learnt may lead to confusion among students if the teachers do not fully co-operate on planning the learning and its experiences.

In Australia, the state governments have introduced various forms of ‘Integrated Curriculum’ designs where areas as the Humanities of History, Geography and Politics are grouped together, while the Sciences of Chemistry and Biology are grouped together, the Arts etc.
In NSW we have the HSIE or Human Society in its Environment, while in Queensland there is the SOSE or Studies of Society and Environment.

However critics argue that it is not an Integrated Curriculum Design but a Multidisciplinary Curriculum Design where subjects remain independent of each other and not integrated at all. For example, Tony Dowden labels curriculum integration as a generic term for all forms of curricula that others have labelled or called integrated. So where curriculum design remains subject centred would be little more than curriculum integration as opposed to integrated curriculums.

Other Critics of these types of ‘integrated curriculum’ believe that the traditional subject centred design is not learner centred as there is nothing to make teachers or subjects collaborate together to make learning experiences more meaningful.

On the other side of the argument, critics complain that the focus of the subjects is not on content but on the concepts. Attempts to integrate and merge subjects was met with harsh criticism when in 2007, the Prime Minister John Howard was critical of the SOSE Curriculum in Victoria for dumbing down the content and Victoria restored a NSW type curriculum shortly after.

Other possibilities?

Franzie Loepp suggests other models of integrated curriculum.

One model is the Interdisciplinary model where schools group traditional subjects into blocks of time. A number of teachers would be given a group of students and teach the group of students in a topic. The problem here is that subjects still retain their independence and unless teachers collaborate, team teaching may result in misunderstandings and different teaching philosophies colliding.

We still have to remember that in an integrated curriculum model that learning experiences, assessment must meet the state or national based outcomes, aims and objectives.

What is also important is that there is no division of subject areas.

A second possibility is that of a problem based model where students work together to solve a real life problem. Franzie Loepp believes that in this type of model, that ideally teachers would place technology at the core of the curriculum. Students would not look at just one aspect but use the real life problem to look at all aspects of the problem.

The advantages of using the Problem Based model is that it offers great potential for looking at and using relevant and highly engaging problems. For example, Climate Change where students would work together to look at all aspects as changes in weather, reduction or increase of temperature or rainfall. However a disadvantage could be that it may not meet state frameworks or national standards in a particular grade level.

Another possibility is a theme based curriculum where students identify with a given discipline or theme. A theme can be for example life in the Australian outback or understanding a culture where students look at all aspects of the culture. Some advantages of using a theme based model include that it is easier to connect the curriculum with national standards and state frameworks. Another advantage is that it is easier for students to make connections among objectives from various disciplines.

However one of the problems of a theme based is that there could be a tendency for a theme to have little relationship with a specific discipline and lead to irrelevant learning.

Whatever choice we decide that is best for our students, we have to make sure that we see curriculum design, topics, assessment, learning choices as a whole process where every component depends on another component.

But viewers can read the blog on Wiggins and Mctighe’s ‘Understanding by Design’ for further information.

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