Friday, 3 March 2017

Looking for the theory behind an integrated curriculum

“It’s not about doing something differently, it about doing something really different…” (James Beane, 1998)

Integrated teaching didn't just happen over night.  Theorists have studied the effectiveness and the ins and outs of developing an integrated program - my problem was finding out which theorists were 'right' and which could support the why and how an integrated curriculum was needed particularly at a school like ours, where an established single silo curriculum already existed.

I wanted to research theories of integrated teaching and learning in New Zealand, to see what was happening out there and I came across two schools whose models of integration that appealed to me because of it's straightforward and logical approaches:
Both referred to the studies of James Beane whose research developed an interdisciplinary pedagogical approach and identified that curriculum integration occured when students experienced and understood connections. The concept of curriculum integration offered by James Beane (1998) involves four major aspects:

  • The integration of experiences uses both past and new experiences to help students understand and solve new problems.
  • Social integration is based on personal and social issues that can be identified in, and developed from, the students’ world. Social integration assists students to apply new ideas and understandings to their daily lives and to the lives of others.
  • The integration of knowledge involves being aware of the ‘big picture’ of learning. When knowledge and skills are connected, rather than fragmented, students begin to see situations as real to themselves and the world they live in.
  • Integration as a curriculum design occurs when students and teachers explore, gather, process, refine and present information about topics they wish to investigate without being constrained to a specific learning area

These four aspects all develop a sense of student centered teaching and learning, where students take ownership of their learning, rather than the teacher leading the learning.  

As an aside, the St Cuthbert's approach to integrated teaching and learning acknowledges the idea of 'problem based learning' as an approach that students could take towards learning, an approach adapted by Brown and Nolan (1989)

This approach acknowledges the complexity of real-life issues today’s students are grappling with, and has built-in flexibility that enables students to apply one or all these types of integration on their learning journey.

Teachers and schools fear that an integrated programme will mean disciplines disappear but Beane argues that the disciplines of knowledge are more likely to find legitimacy than they have now in the curriculum.  I have been interested in finding out more about how to emphasis this to our teachers and have evidence to show that an integrated curriculum could be an effective way to engage our students.

I wanted to find out if Beane's approach was a common one in other schools or whether there were other approaches schools used instead.

Sally Boyd and Rose Hipkins (2012)  NZCER study of 'Student inquiry and curriculum integration' found that schools were using a wide range of different approaches to inquiry and integrated-inquiry.  They found that most schools used a common generic student inquiry cycle, where learning was viewed as a process with different stages or steps that students are guided through.

It is important to understand that when students have been conducting an inquiry in their classrooms they are often using a single cell or one subject approach.  Inquiry approaches can be used to support learning within a single subject or learning area, or they can be combined with integrated approaches to the curriculum. Boyd and Rose (2012) identified 5 different approaches which have a mix of aspects that schools had chosen and/or adapted to suit their needs.

One approach which I felt suited our school was the thematic approach.  Because subject content is the starting point for planning, the thematic approach is described as subject-centred. Teachers identify the curriculum content focus and plan how connections will be made.  

On reflection, this approach seemed like the best place for us to start.  It allowed for subject teachers to relate to a theme that they could connect to and therefore base their planning around.  The downside was, it was very teacher focussed and centred.  There are other approaches which I am interested in finding out more about are provided on a diagram based around different approaches to integrated curriculums that schools have adopted outside of the traditional thematic approach.  These approaches are ones that I hope to investigate (and possibly trial) more about.  Please watch this space!

Beane, J. (1996). Curriculum integration. Designing the core of democratic education. New York and London: Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Brown, M.T. & Nolan, C.J.P. (1989).

Brown, M.T. & Nolan, C.J.P. (1989). Getting it Together: Explorations in CurriculumIntegration, Out of Class Activities and Computer Applications. Massey University, Palmerston North.


  1. Hi Dot,

    Really appreciate you sharing about your inquiry. It's very inspiring hearing about the way you have encouraged teachers to plan across the curriculum to support the transition of your students. I would be interested for you to share how you do this for Year 7/8 teachers to support transition of Year 8 students to Year 9.

  2. Ashley Schellingerhout25 August 2017 at 14:50

    Hi Dot,

    thank you for sharing your inquiry for us.
    The change between year 7/8 and year 9 is HUGE, and definitely a new world for students.
    I'd love to see this attempted with other learning areas, possibly maths/science would be a good connection.



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