Integrated Learning for the 21st Century School.

One of the really great initiatives I have seen coming out of high schools in the United States is the idea of Integrated Courses. These involve teachers from different departments working together to develop units of work that integrate content from each subject into the one course. The benefit to students is the opportunity for them to contextualise their learning across each subject within the framework of the integrated course topic. In doing so, they develop critical and creative thinking skills, enjoy a more authentic learning experience and have much more control over their learning.

 Veronica Boix Mansilla is the principal investigator at the Interdisciplinary Studies Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. Her research has shown that:

 “In quality interdisciplinary classrooms, students can examine relevant contemporary topics in their full complexity. From globalization to climate change, from the ethics of global health to the digital revolution, the world of today and tomorrow becomes the source of problems for study, and helping students make sense of such problems becomes our goal. In such classrooms, interdisciplinary learning is not an aim in itself but a rigorous tool to help students gain practice in the work of their generation.”

Heidi Hayes Jacobs is president and founder of Curriculum Designers and Curriculum 21 and writes about a need to modernise the curriculum in order to develop 21st century scientists, mathematicians, designers and engineers;

“There is no such thing as a strictly science problem or a simple math problem. If you go to solve a problem in the real world, you have to deal with legal issues, money issues, ethical issues, resources, and applications. Whether it’s addressing the BP oil spill or new job creation in the global economy, our students need to be able to apply a range of skills in viable ways to real interdisciplinary problems.”

“How do we build those bridges and connections to pull it all together? We have to focus on what to cut, what to keep, and what to create. We’re seeing more work now on integrating language literacy, digital literacy, and global literacy that cuts across all subjects. I don’t see a debate anymore about whether to integrate. It’s more strategically, where and when do we have those opportunities?”

Serious questions are being asked of our schools and I think the time is upon us, when we must begin to severely change the way we think about teaching and learning in our schools.

So the first and most obvious challenge is time. When will teachers have the time to plan and prepare these courses? How will this work within the current constraints of the timetable and how will we know how much time students are spending on each subject? These are amongst the many potential barriers to wide-spread integrated courses in Australian schools; however, it is certainly not inconceivable that across a whole school, all students could be taking at least one integrated course each year – Templestowe College is one example of a school that has changed all the rules to fit their version of integrated learning.

Integrated Project Examples from High Tech High

Another possible approach is for individual schools to observe which subjects students are most frequently selecting together – for example, are there a group of students commonly taking:

  • Maths & Chemistry & Biology
  • Engineering & Design & Physics
  • History & Geography & Languages
  • Economics & Maths & Legal Studies

Where patterns are evident, an opportunity arises to offer a course that integrates these three or four subjects into one. Not for all students taking these subjects, just the group (or some of the group) who would have selected all three. For example:

  •  Maths – Chemistry – Biology (The Medical Course)
  • Engineering – Design – Physics (The Aeronautical Course)
  • History – Geography – Languages (The World Course)
  • Economics – Maths – Legal Studies (The Corporate Course)

I have developed an integrated unit for my Year 10 Design and Technology class, dragging in content from, and sharing the course content with, Maths and Geography classes (and there are some other great examples here). We have been able to make the learning more relevant and more interesting for the students and I was impressed with the emotional connections students made with the content, in addition to the critical analysis and creativity they demonstrated. On a whole school level I think Integrated Courses can enable:

  • Greater teacher collaboration
  • Greater opportunities for teachers to develop units based upon their passion or strengths.
  • Less overlap of curriculum content
  • Flexibility in the timing of content delivery and class time.
  • Authentic learning
  • A modernised approach to teaching and learning
  • Opportunity for whole group lectures, tutorials and group work across subject areas.
  • Project based learning – to integrate subjects into a single task or project.
  • Deeper inquiry into each subject area
  • Greater context for student learning
  • Opportunity for talks and collaboration with a more diverse range of professionals

I initially foresee schools offering Integrated Courses as electives, most likely in Stage 5. This provides the most convenient and possibly seamless way to introduce Integrated Courses into existing systems – by timetabling elective periods together or allocating a whole day or half day for the courses to be run. If the courses were to be offered in Stage 6 students would still need to take separate HSC exams, meaning the courses would need to be developed in a way that enabled them to be taken over years 11 and 12.

These are no small feats of planning and large scale teacher change is required in order for Integrated Courses to work – I would love to see schools implement a 9:30am to 4:00pm school day, with staff professional learning and preparation time between 8:00am and 9:30am. This would certainly provide the required time for teachers to collaborate, plan and develop these courses.

If you are teaching Integrated Courses or your school is planning to in the future, I welcome your comments and suggestions. I know that STEM subjects are at the forefront of this movement and are doing a lot of work towards integrating Science, Technology and Maths. Whether you are in this field or not, please share your comments below and I look forward to the conversation.

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