An integrated curriculum organizes instruction into units that focus on a certain theme. Students are required to use skills in all subject areas as they learn about each unit. Such integrated curricula avoids labeling anything as ‘math’ or ‘English,’ and instead tries to create a learning environment that is more reflective of what students will experience in their professional and personal lives. As a result, integrated curricula offer many opportunities for deep learning as students use their knowledge to form connections and solve real-world problems. In addition, utilizing an integrated curriculum has been shown to help students discover what they are passionate about, further motivating them to take ownership of their own education.
The Principles of Integrated Curricula
The defining characteristic of an integrated curriculum is the organization of units around broad concepts. For example, students may spend one unit learning about weather. This could include meteorological experiments concentrated on rainfall, air pressure or wind speed, along with readings about extreme weather and studies of the sociological and political effects of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. The key is to use the theme to explore deeper concepts such as cause and effect, systems, and patterns. In exploring the different facets of the theme, students develop skills in the traditional subject areas such as math and reading but in an integrated manner. This provides a more enriching educational environment, as students are required to solve problems in a more organic way because the questions they must answer are tied to actual world events.
Perhaps the most beneficial outcome of integrated curricula is the deep learning that has been shown to occur. Using educational strategies that focus on the relationships between different fields of knowledge demonstrates to students how their skills are transferable. One principle of deep learning is the acquisition of these kinds of transferable skills. As a result, students no longer view math, reading, and writing as separate areas of expertise, but rather as tools that can all be used simultaneously to investigate phenomena in the world. Integrated curricula are good for helping students understand the underlying ways in which information is connected.
Many times, using an integrated curriculum will help students discover their passions. Since learning is organized around thematic units, there are plenty of opportunities for students to engage in projects as part of their instruction. These projects often include activities that are reflective of possible careers. To continue with the weather example, some students may find they are passionate about meteorology. The earlier students discover what they are passionate about, the more determined they will be to excel in school in order to pursue their interests. This is one of the most important benefits of integrated curricula, because it encourages students to become invested in the outcomes of their own education. When there is a clear goal to work toward, student engagement is much easier to maintain.
There are many benefits to implementing a successfully integrated curriculum. However, a truly integrated curriculum is difficult to achieve and maintain unless the entire school is on board. Fortunately, there are ways for teachers of individual subject areas to embrace the core tenets of an integrated curriculum in their own individual classrooms. Instead of focusing your lessons on teaching students a particular skill, devise lesson plans that revolve around a problem or theme and then teach the skills that are necessary to solve or explore it. For example, instead of teaching a unit on the Pythagorean Theorem, integrate your curriculum to teach about how to figure out the heights of buildings using triangulation. In this way, students still learn the skills, but have a meaningful context for doing so.