Integrated Curriculum

A Group Investigation Project

EDP 603, Fall, 2000

Gina Contardi, Michelle Fall, Gina Flora, Jodi Gandee and Carrie Treadway.

There is a strong push to involve students in their learning, to let them create

their own understanding, to encourage critical thinking, and to increase students’

responsibility in schooling. Integrated curriculum translates this theory into practice.

- Joseph Nowicki

All things are connected

- Chief Seattle


What is the current organization of our schools?

A school district has the ability to organize the lives of teachers just as it organizes the lives of the students. Teachers continue to dwell within the realm of their respected departments and subject areas. The added weight of tracking only solidifies the detachment that teachers and students often feel about their work. Recognizing some of the discontent, educational reform has taken center stage throughout the past decade and its magnitude is documented in a variety of educational literature. Teachers, school board members and administrators are continuously urged to rethink their existing school structure. In many cases teachers are willing to accept change and many are interested in issues concerning reform in hopes of creating a curriculum that meets the demands of the informational overload. A foundation such as this has allowed integrated curriculum to emerge with a considerable amount of support.

Why do schools adopt integrated curriculum?

As educators, we are constantly searching for new ways to help students make sense of the multitude of life’s experiences and the bits and pieces of knowledge they gain from a traditionally departmentalized curriculum. Students today continue to move from one discipline to the next forcing the information to be disconnected to any thing that resembles real life situations. To lighten some of the fragmentation our students and teachers experience, holistic and integrated curriculums are being proposed and adopted by many school districts. A major driving force behind integrated teaching and learning is the belief that when themes, subjects, or projects are combined students begin to see meaningful connections between the subject matter. Material then serves as a vehicle for learning rather than simply pieces of information. In addition to this, repetition of material from one subject to the next is essentially eliminated.

What is integrated curriculum?

It is important to understand that curriculum integration is an idea that has a strong historical background. Disciplines were created in an attempt to organize the world around them; sometimes this was motivated by political means (Beane 1991). Educational reform has roots dating as far back as the progressive era. The philosophy behind educational reform during the progressive era centered around an emphasis on student creativity, applicable outcomes, "natural" learning, and student experience (Rousmaniere, 1999). This belief system has been the fundamental base for integrated curriculum. Supporters of the progressive educational reform believed that the different disciplines prevented students from making connections between the different subjects. Therefore, the relevance of the material decreased (Taylor, 1995).

Components of Integrated Curriculum


A Closer Look at Both Sides of the Debate

What do the proponents of integrated curriculum say?

As professionals in the education field, we recognize that teaching has become increasingly more complex. Because of the considerable amount of educational restructuring, numerous innovations have surfaced, including integrated curriculum. An integrated approach to teaching supports that when themes or projects are combined, students are able to make meaningful and relevant connections between the different disciplines. In addition to creating a more profound understanding of the material, repetition between the subjects decreases. Integrated curriculum supports a belief that an individual’s direct experience is crucial to purposeful learning. Therefore, an integrated curriculum is a viable way to enable meaningful learning to become a reality. The ideas and belief system that comprise an integrated curriculum tend to shift from the traditional structure of schools. Integrated curriculum supports that universal truth is not a possibility. Instead, many different possibilities exist and there are a variety of ways to reach a desired outcome, such an approach adopts a post-modern attitude.

Supporters of integrated curriculum have placed a greater amount of emphasis on the fact that student experience is essential for meaningful learning to occur. Integrated curriculum seems to be the best vehicle for empowering students, parents, and teachers (Vars, 1991). Yet, many schools are structured where students move from one subject area to the next, information is disconnected and the ability to make material relevant to the lives of the students is lost. Progressives were opposed to the "factory-like efficiency" model, on which schools depended. Progressives believed that school learning was so unlike the real world that it had little or no meaning to the average child, (Ellis and Fouts 1997). Such speculation about the very nature of education is foundational to integrated curricular efforts.

What are the strongest arguments supporting integrated curriculum?

There are two strong arguments supporting an integrated curriculum. First, there is simply too much information to be covered in the traditional structure of a forty or fifty minute class period. Secondly, most subjects are taught to students in isolation from other related information. Advocates of an interdisciplinary curriculum believe that individuals learn best when encountering ideas that are connected to one another. A strong belief system exists supporting that "all things are connected." As the lecture-based, didactic, or modernistic, curriculum stands, it tends to ignore the needs and capabilities of our post-modern students by having a departmentalized approach. Integrated curriculum relieves disconnection. The nature of interdisciplinary curriculum is viewed as a means to enhance student motivation by providing students with a curriculum centered on student-based, and often student selected, themes. By placing the student at the center, the various activities and actual learning seem to prevail over the various disciplines.

Proponents of the progressive educational reform believed that the different disciplines prevented students from making connections between the different subjects. Therefore, relevance and purpose decreased drastically. Integrated curriculum seems to be a prime vehicle for empowering students, parents, and teachers. Yet, many schools continue to be structured where students transition from one subject to the next whether by bell or teacher direction, information is disconnected and the ability to make material relevant to the lives of the students is lost. By implementing an integrated curriculum, educators are encouraged to tap into the questions and meaning that the students themselves create, rather than design "connections" along the lines of separate disciplines. Teachers help students to see the connections and relevance between the subjects.

How does an integrated curriculum impact our students?

Integrated curriculum adopts a student-centered approach, by nature of its definition, it moves further away from the modernist viewpoint. With an integrated curriculum, a "right" way to complete a task does not exist. Students are free to reach conclusions on their own and they are provided with many different perspectives, affording students the opportunity to question the conclusions of their teachers. A table diagramming the perspectives of the modernist and the post-modernist is listed below.




Modernist Teaching Post-Modernist Teaching_

  • Didactic and dogmatic approach to


  • Inhibits student observations, values or conclusions different from their own, the textbook or other authorities
  • Strives to have students master what is prescribed to them
  • Supports two ways of knowing and doing things: the right way and the wrong way
  • Dialectical Manner in presenting knowledge
  • Open to new ideas and procedures
  • Presents multiple views and expects students to formulate their own meanings
  • Rewards creative, divergent behavior and thinking of students
  • No rigid disciplines exist


    Modernist Student Post-Modernist Student

    • Never questions points of confusion in the values, assumptions, logic and observations of the teacher or authorities
    • Believes that confusion comes from own intellectual inadequacy
    • Rejects own experience and feelings in favor of converging ideas of authoritative sources such as teachers, textbooks and experts
    • Accepts content as truth
    • Never goes beyond the information given
  • Questions the values, assumptions, observations and conclusions of authorities
  • Selects and modifies ideas of teachers to formulate their own meanings consistent with their experiences and needs
  • Acquires basic content through such activities as inquiry and creative thinking
  • Uses fluency, flexibility, and elaboration to develop original ideas and concepts
  • Implements higher levels of thinking


    What do the critics say?

    The benefits for integrated curriculum are rather intriguing and possible quite accurate. However, the claims and their ultimate outcome are difficult to measure. Critics of integrated curriculum have formulated several arguments against the idea. First, it is sometimes appropriate for information to be taught within the content area. Some concepts run the risk of becoming confused when connected to unrelated subject matter. Secondly, most teachers have always been a part of a somewhat modernist method of teaching. Therefore, implementing integrated curriculum becomes increasingly more difficult. Third, critics claim that many teachers may lack knowledge and skills of the various disciplines. Finally, a key criticism of integrated curriculum is assessment. Schools continue to struggle with effective methods to assess student achievement in regard to higher level thinking and deeper understanding. In order for integrated curriculum to replace traditional teaching styles, the entire structure of the school needs to change. For example, block scheduling and teamming will need to be implemented. Frankly, this is a change that many modernist teachers are not willing to accept.

    A Closer Look at Integrated Curriculum

    How does integrated curriculum affect teacher expectation and motivation?

    When exploring integrated curriculum, the development of teaching strategies is the most creative part of the process. After all, this is often a specialty area for many teachers in the profession. In researching integrated curriculum some common ideas and themes for developing teaching strategies surfaced. Curriculum integration tends to focus on a theme or popular issue. This often helps to break down the barriers that exist between the disciplines. Using a class or team project is a highly popular way to integrate curriculum. The projects are somehow connected throughout the disciplines and as students complete various stages of the projects, the presence of the different subjects becomes less evident. Key qualities in using projects include authenticity, relevance, and direct involvement. Instructional techniques such as differentiated instruction, constructivism and cooperative

    learning are often components of an integrated curriculum, (Montgomery, 1999).

    Supporters of an integrated curriculum believe that interdisciplinary education offers heightened levels for mastery of the content and real-world applications, which inevitably increases the opportunity for deeper levels of learning. Teachers are given the opportunity to learn about areas of interest, but where the teacher has little expertise. Furthermore, teachers, like students, are given the opportunity to grow, to reflect and they are exposed to the richness that different perspectives offer. However, even if teachers share a vision of an integrated curriculum, the effort will not be successful without the substantial administrative and financial support.

    How does an integrated curriculum help to promote the development of culture and community within the classroom?

    The teachers of the integrated curriculum view their course as an opportunity for students to gain a deeper understanding of our society, the history and their ability to recognize and appreciate diversity is expanded. "It is simply not enough for our students to read a variety of works; students need to discover the connections between them," (Montgomery, 1999). Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret and evaluate material. They draw upon their own experience and interactions to make meaning of the information they are provided. For example, using the Social Studies/Language Arts combination for an integrated curriculum, students develop a respect for diversity in language use, patterns and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups and geographic regions. In many cases, integrated curriculum has been successful in making students more aware of the content area connections, challenging the academic performance of students and providing a learning environment more responsive to academic and social needs.

    "Why do we have to know this?"

    This is an age-old question asked by so many students. Through the implementation of integrated curriculum, teachers help kids see the connections and relevance between subjects. Integrated curriculum is a student-centered approach to teaching. In teaching with an interdisciplinary approach, students are often given a choice, making the subject inherently more meaningful. As Ormrod clearly points out, this in turn, increases the learners’ intrinsic motivation. Therefore, the self-efficacy is further developed.

    How does interdisciplinary instruction effect student motivation?

    Omrod defines intrinsic motivation by the source of information lies within the individual and task: The individual finds the task enjoyable or worthwhile in and of itself (Omrod 1999). Students are intrinsically motivated by interdisciplinary instruction. Student motivation and achievement are significantly enhanced by measures that counter fragmentation and attempt to make learning a more connect experience (Perkins, 1996).

    Guthrie, Wigfield, and Von Secker did a study on the use of integrated instruction and student motivation. The researchers surveyed third and fifth grade students in the area of reading and their motivation to read. These two grade levels were chosen because the lack of reading motivation begins at these grade levels. Students were given instruction through CORI (Concept Oriented Reading Instruction) and through traditional methods such as following the teacher’s manuals, tests, and worksheets. The students who received the CORI instruction, which included integrating language arts, reading, and science, showed a higher curiosity to read than those students who received traditional instruction did. The students were given the opportunity to integrate these subjects and apply them to real-world experiences. These experiences lead to an increase in intrinsic motivation (Guthrie, 2000).

    How does the interdisciplinary/integrated curriculum support Bandura’s Social Learning Theory?

    The concept of implementing an integrated curriculum, or running an interdisciplinary classroom as some may call it, is positively correlated with Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning. In an interdisciplinary classroom, students work together in a collaborative manner to solve problems, construct knowledge, and make connections between existing curriculum. An interdisciplinary classroom is an environment in which cooperative learning is the basis of instruction. In cooperative learning settings, students work in small groups to achieve a common goal. Justification for cooperative learning can be found in a number of theoretical perspectives. For example, when looking at the behaviorist perspective, one can easily connect the rewards of group success in a cooperative learning environment to the notion of group contingency. From the standpoint of the social learning theory, as Ormrod points out, students are likely to have higher self-efficacy for performing a task when they know that they will have the help of other group members. Furthermore, students can model effective learning and problem-solving strategies for one another (Good et al.,1992).

    An interdisciplinary classroom, or the use of an integrated curriculum affords students the opportunity to work collaboratively while making real-world connections with a variety of disciplines. In the same manner, Bandura’s social cognitive theory gives a perspective on how both environmental and cognitive factors interact to influence human learning and behavior (Ormrod, 1999). The social learning theory focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context. As Ormrod states, "It considers how people learn from one another, encompassing such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling" (Ormrod, 1999). Several general principles underlie the social learning theory, but there are some key ideas that have shaped the evolution of the social learning perspective. One main factor is that of people learning by observing the behaviors of others and the outcomes of those behaviors. Social learning theorists propose that most learning does not take place through trial error, but instead through watching the behavior of other individuals. (Ormrod, 1992).

    This idea of learning by watching other peoples’ behaviors is greatly reinforced in a cooperative learning atmosphere produced in the interdisciplinary classroom. Students are engaged in small groups in which they have one or more common goals toward which to work. By integrating the curriculum, teachers can pull heterogeneous groups together which enables the students to gain great social skills. Within the interdisciplinary classroom and the cooperative groups, instruction on group skills seems to increase cooperative and productive group behaviors, such as: listening to others politely and attentively; giving encouragement to others; making sure everyone has an equal chance to participate; refraining from insulting or yelling at others; offering assistance to others; and asking clear, precise questions when one does not understand (Ormrod, 1999).

    There is one other behavior link that connects the use of integrated curriculum and cooperative learning to Bandura’s social learning theory. People are more likely to engage in certain behaviors when they believe they are capable of executing those behaviors successfully- that is, when they have high self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989). With self-efficacy being a more situation specific phenomenon, it is greatly increased when students work in groups. Students often feel a greater level of comfort at approaching a problem, or constructing new knowledge when they can share ideas, knowledge and hypotheses with others.

    While the behavior theories provide great justification for the use of cooperative learning, cognitive theories of development and learning provide further justification. First of all, the same benefits that emerge from class discussions: greater comprehension and integration of the subject matter, recognition of inadequacies or misconceptions in understanding, and increased perspective taking also emerge from cooperative learning activities. Also, when students help one another learn, they create scaffolding for one another’s efforts, and they may co-construct more sophisticated ideas and strategies than any single group member might be able to construct alone (Good et al., 1992).

    How does an integrated curriculum support and promote cooperative learning?

    Ormrod (1999) describes how elaboration of the same information can differ due to the fact that everyone has different knowledge of the world. Cooperative learning works in the same way. Cooperative learning allows a group of students to work closely on a common goal, and while working together, there are many different perspectives and insights brought into the group on the same topic or question at hand. Students are able to share their experiences with each other, allowing them to build their knowledge from the perspectives of others. When teachers integrate subject areas, it allows students with a strong background in a specific field to share that knowledge with their peers. This, in turn, builds self-efficacy. The social learning theory supports that when students are given the chance to show their abilities, a higher level of self-efficacy is achieved. An integrated curriculum also brings together different subject areas so that there is more time in class for working on what needs to be taught as well as learned. Cooperative learning allows all ability levels to show higher academic achievement as well as promoting higher self-efficacy.

    Cooperative learning encompasses much more than simply "group work." Cooperative learning requires that each student is held accountable for a specific aspect of the project, or group task. It is the responsibility of the teacher to structure cooperative activities in such a way that promotes optimal learning conditions. The integrated curriculum is an ideal environment for this learning methodology to thrive. In cooperative groups, different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences of our students is what drives the learning and class activities. Activities are often enriched due to the experiences and perspectives that each student brings to the learning situation. Cooperative learning is a valuable instructional method. Our experiences, culture and society have shaped our minds, and this cannot be disconnected from the learning environment. The cross-curricular instruction of integrated curriculum encourages students to continue to make these relevant connections.


    The integrated curriculum approach is successful in making students more aware of content area connections, challenging students, providing a learning environment supporting academic and social needs, dissolving the boundaries among the disciplines, and fostering stronger student/teacher relationships. Students participating in an integrated curriculum have demonstrated a more positive attitude about themselves and school. Similarly, teachers are provided with a new opportunity to work together, increasing collegiality. They have worked together to provide enhanced learning experiences and a variety of instructional approaches through integrated curriculum. It is our opinion that integrated curriculum is a valuable innovation. Its effectiveness is widely supported. We feel that an interdisciplinary or integrated curriculum is strongly supported by the social learning theory. However, school districts need to evaluate the degree to which this innovation will be effective within the district and within which classrooms integrated curriculum will allow for optimal success.

    Through our research and observation, we have come to view interdisciplinary teams and curriculum as an instrument to enable students, teachers, parents, and the school staff to attain their goals. It is human nature to make connections with the things we know or have personally experienced. More simply stated, we learn at a deeper level when connections are made, not when we are in a fabricated, disconnected structure. When curriculum is integrated, material is connected in the way in which it exists around us and throughout the world.