Integrated Curriculum: Why it Matters, and Where to Find It

Life is integrated. Why isn’t learning?

Discipline-based learning was popularized in the mid 19th century. Disciplines were locked into place by course and credit structures a century ago. While experts would argue that disciplines have unique epistemologies worth exploring, the drawbacks of a discipline-based approach have long outlasted the benefits. It dampens engagement, narrows learning and damages preparation

Eighty years ago, the National Council of Teachers of English (ironically, a discipline-based organization) encouraged correlation (casual attention to related subjects), fusion of two subjects (often called multidisciplinary learning) and integration (the unification of all subjects and experiences).

Repko (2009) and others have asserted that interdisciplinary instruction fosters advances in cognitive ability and gains in the ability to recognize bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity, acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.

The rise of whole-student outcome frameworks (e.g., Deeper Learning, MyWays, NMEF Student-Centered Learning, and GPS Transferable Skills) makes extended and challenging interdisciplinary essential.

Why do 95% of high schools retain discipline-based structure and staffing decades after the cost has been shown to significantly outweigh the benefit? As Tevya said, “Tradition!” More specifically, it’s due to state graduation requirements, college entrance requirements, discipline-based certification and university education. For decades, school boards adopted discipline-based textbooks and publishers delivered. In the 1990s, state standards were set by discipline-based groups. In high schools, master schedules take on a life of their own and employment contracts lock in department structures.

Ok, ok, disciplines are a monster of our own creation. But how to break out of the box? This post outlines a few integrated schools, networks, resources and models that might be helpful.

12 Integrated Schools

High Tech High is well known for its big integrated projects. The HTH GSE is a great place to learn about integrated learning. Want the movie version? Check out Most Likely to Succeed. (Also see blog/podcast on Making the City the Textt).

Tim Kubik said “Check out @AceLeadership @HealthLeaderHS and other @NM_Center schools. No classes, just authentic projects with industry partners.”

Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran (@pammoran) urged us to check out Albemarle High (@AlbemarleHigh) and this video.

Eagle Rock School (@EagleRockSchool) is a demonstration site and professional development center in beautiful Estes Park Colorado. (Check out this blog/podcast with director of PD Michael Soguero).

Nuvu, in Cambridge Massachusetts, is an innovative school based on a project-based studio model lead by coaches who are leaders in their industry, experts in diverse fields, and passionate thought leaders.

Science Leadership Academy is an inquiry-driven, STEM-focused, project-based school formed as a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and The Franklin Institute. (Check out Inquiry Schools for more).

Building 21 Philadelphia is a non-selective competency-based public high school in Philadelphia supported by a nonprofit launched by three Harvard grad students. Students are supported to design their own pathway to graduation—a pathway defined by B21’s competency-based framework—with a series of dashboards for students and teachers to use to inform their experiences (featured on CompetencyWorks).

E.P.I.C.C. Academy at East Hall High School in Gainesville, Georgia, is a dynamic blend launched by @JohnHardison1 and documented frequently on Getting Smart.

Poland Regional High School, a member of the New England Secondary School Consortium, was an early leader in proficiency-based graduation. NESSC, operated by Great Schools Partnership, is leading the shift in New England to competency-based learning which opens up the potential for integrated projects.

Boston Day and Evening Academy has proficiency-based pathways that allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day. Self-paced alternative ed meets adventure-based leadership training meets blended learning (see our feature).

Kettle Moraine, west of Milwaukee, has some very interesting charter schools including KM Perform, with a performing arts blend, and KM Global, a flex model global studies school (listen to our podcast with superintendent Pat DeKlotz.)

Boise nonprofit One Stone opened a small innovative high school to help young people make the world a better place (see feature, podcast and video).

4 Integrated School Networks

The 200 schools that make up the New Tech Network share an integrated project-based learning model and platform. Most learning takes place in big double classrooms through the collaboration of two teachers working together as a team to co-facilitate a course. By integrating subjects together, the course better reflects the way content and projects work in the world, with many subjects co-mingled. Since most secondary teachers are only specialists in one subject area, New Tech schools pair teachers together to collaboratively design those integrated projects. New Tech Teachers use Echo, a project-based learning platform with a big library of integrated projects.

A recent podcast of ours featured Oso New Tech and their English-World Studies course and innovative Art-Biology mashup. Health and Physical Education and Physics and Algebra 2 are other common combinations.

Matt Bertasso directs Compass Academy in Idaho Falls School District 91. In 2016, Matt led the development of Compass 2.0, a reengineering of course integrations (pictured below). The links between bubbles represent integrated project-based learning experiences.

Big Picture Learning is a national school network that starts with interest-based internships and adds integrated projects and personalized learning.

Similarly, Edvisions high schools support student-centered and project-based learning. Start with a visit to teacher-run Minnesota New Country School (profiled here).

EL Education (@ELeducation) is another project-based school network. The network focus has shifted to developing and supporting open source literacy curriculum. Models of Excellence is a curated, open-source collection of high-quality PreK-12 student work.

Integrated Curriculum

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) support the shift to ‘doing’ science–conducting inquiries and constructing understanding–by embracing crosscutting concepts and practices. It’s not curriculum, but NGSS should lead to more integrated content.

Buck Institute for Education is the Gold Standard for project-based learning. They offer seven integrated units on economics, six on government, and tons of examples across the curriculum.

Global Learning Models has great integrated high school courses linked to #GlobalGoals. Digital Promise also has challenge-based learning resources linked to Global Goals.

Literacy Design Collaborative (@LitDesignCollab) promotes literacy across the curriculum with quality prompts and a collaborative lesson authoring environment.

Big History Project (@BigHistoryPro) is a multidisciplinary history of life on planet earth. It’s great content for a big high school block (see middle and high school case studies).

EduChange (@EduChange) has offered integrated science since 2002.

There’s a lot more out there. What did we miss? Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments section below.

And one last thought–you don’t have to reorganize your whole school. You can start with one integrated unit planned with the teacher across the hall. Just get started!

For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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