Curriculum Integration And How It Affects Critical Thinking

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Teaching students to become critical thinkers and to develop the skills necessary to excel in today's society has become an important focus of education. Using an integrated curriculum is an effective way to promote critical thinking in students and engage their learning in a classroom setting. A curriculum that brings together content from different disciplines in a meaningful way to focus upon issues and areas relevant to students' lives is referred to as an integrated curriculum or an interdisciplinary curriculum. Curriculum integration is not simply a multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. The integrated curriculum's focus must be on meeting the needs of students and should be centered on themes that address concerns, questions, and issues that students have about their own lives and the world. "Curriculum integration involves not only helping students make connections across content areas, but also promoting democracy in the classroom by letting students determine to a large extent what they want to study (Paterson, 2003, p. 10)."

The significance of the topic lies in the considerable qualitative gains made by students when using an integrated curriculum. Most research found on the topic of implementing and integrated curriculum was conducted in the early 1990s and many of the newer studies on the subject address integrating two subjects by a single teacher in a self-contained classroom. It is important to understand the benefits of an entirely integrated unit or curriculum where students can make connections among all subjects. Students benefit most from the implementation of an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines multiple subjects rather than two subjects. Most students are developing independence, lack self direction, are very socially motivated, and place a high importance on peer interaction. "As early adolescents try to make sense of the personal issues that absorb them, they readily engage with themes like "Living in the Future" that link their concerns to the larger world through areas like science, social studies, and health (Cushman, 1993, p. 172)." The characteristics of an integrated curriculum, such as cooperative learning and development of problem solving skills help to facilitate this developmental stage. The important qualitative gains made by students using an integrated curriculum are numerous and arguably more important that quantitative measures such as standardized test scores.

Curriculum integration is also reactive to how students learn. The brain searches for patterns between new information and learning occurs faster when information is presented in a meaningful context. Teachers must consider how students learn as a guide for teaching practices. The constructivist view of learning sees the students as the creator of meanings and learning as an active process. A teacher should not try to put information into a student's head and expect them to learn it. The educator should not be a lecturer or knowledge-giver, but a facilitator that helps students try to make sense of the information that is presented. An interdisciplinary approach is analogous with this view of learning and teaching. This theme and its subsequent activities that are used in an integrated curriculum come from the students thoughts and concerns. Students concentrate on using their own skills and knowledge to answer their questions and construct their own meaning. "With its emphasis on real-life themes, contextual application of knowledge, and constructivist learning, the curriculum integration approach is particularly well suited to help students integrate learning experiences into their developing schemes of meaning (Beane, 1995, p. 618)."

Integrated curriculum has been referred to by many different names; interdisciplinary teaching, thematic teaching, and synergistic teaching. When defining what integrated curriculum is, it is also necessary to look at related terms. Depending on what level of education the definition may vary. For this research, the definition has been focused on the K-12 integrated curriculum. A fundamental definition is offered by Humphreys, Post & Ellis (1981) when he states, "And integrated study is one in which children broadly explore knowledge in various subjects related to certain aspects of their environment (Humphreys, Post, & Ellis, 1981, p. 11)." Many supporters of integrated curriculum believe that schools must look at education as a process for learning life skills that go beyond the education in the classroom. In general, all of the definitions of integrated curriculum or interdisciplinary curriculum include (Lake, 1994):

A combination of subjects

Sources that go beyond textbooks

Thematic units as organizing principles

An emphasis on projects

Relationships among concepts

Flexible schedules

Flexible student groupings.

Teachers and parents often think of integrated curriculum as two teachers "team teaching" to help students make connections between subjects. However, this is only a beginning to the integration process. A fully integrated curriculum combines disciplines in a dynamic manner that makes the knowledge of one subject inseparable from that of another subject, with division occurring only in the teaching of sophisticated content or vocabulary.

Definitions of Terms

Integrated curriculum Priorities that overlap multiple disciplines that are examined for common skills, concepts, and attitudes.

Interdisciplinary teaching A curriculum organization which cuts across subject-matter lines to focus upon comprehensive life problems or broad based areas of study that brings together the various segments of curriculum into meaningful association.

Thematic teaching Uses a theme as a base for instruction of many disciplines. This type of teaching is motivating for students and helps them see connections between ideas. Theme must be carefully and thoughtfully selected to be meaningful, with relevant and rigorous content.

Correlated curriculum Curriculum which implements certain vocabulary, concepts, and skills that are reinforced in multiple subject areas.

Conventional curriculum Curriculum in which clear boundaries exist between subject areas and there is little to no effort to bring coherence to the curriculum.

Immersed curriculum The learner integrates by viewing all learning through the perspective of one area of interest. With this style integration takes place within the learner. However, this may narrow the focus of the learner.

Shared curriculum Commonly referred to as "team teaching" where two disciplines focus on shared concepts, skills or attitudes. With only two teachers involved there is less difficulty collaborating.

Threaded curriculum Thinking skills, social skills, multiple intelligences, and study skills are "threaded" throughout the disciplines allowing students to learn how they are learning, facilitating future transfer of learning. The disciplines still remain separate however.

Statement of the Problem

In light of these obvious advantages there are several questions that arise when discussing integrated curriculum. These questions focus on the effectiveness of this type of curriculum, such as what are the characteristics of an integrated curriculum that promotes critical thinking in students? How significant are the qualitative gains made by students using an integrated curriculum? What factors have kept learning institutions from implementing system wide transfer to an integrated curriculum? The subject of curriculum integration has been under discussion for quite some time. Teachers often see it as part of the solution to the problem of running out of time when attempting to fit multiple subjects into the hours of a school day. Integrated curriculum is a move away from the memorization and recitation of isolated facts and figures to more meaningful concepts and the connections between concepts. As our world moves towards global connectivity with our economy and international relations, the ability to make connections and to solve problems by looking at multiple perspectives will be an essential tool for success in the students' future. "An enduring argument for integration is that it represents a way to avoid the fragmented and irrelevant acquisition of isolated facts, transforming knowledge into personally useful tools for learning new information (Lipson, Valencia, Wixson, & Peters, 1993, p. 261).


An Integrated Curriculum

Implementation of an integrated curriculum offers many benefits for students and teachers alike. The curriculum design is centered on themes that address adolescent's concerns and the activities that are generated from this type of approach to teaching and learning are constructed to promote thinking skills and increase students' interests in learning. Success of an integrated curriculum can been established by research and the classroom records of the teachers who have put the method into action. The majority of research supports the use of an interdisciplinary curriculum to promote critical thinking and to prepare children for lifelong learning.

Those who support the use of an integrated curriculum believe in its power to provide students with a more meaningful learning experience and address the needs of young adolescent students. Dr. James Beane is one of the leading advocators and practitioners of curriculum integration. Beane has committed the majority of his professional life to the study of early adolescents and how educators can meet their needs in the classroom.

Beane (1991) describes a typical school curriculum as one that presents an endless array of unconnected facts that might be connected or lead to a whole picture, but students must take this by faith. He compares this type of curriculum to working on a jigsaw puzzle without a picture (Beane, 1991). An integrated curriculum presents students with a complete picture, because they can take skills and knowledge from different areas to solve the problems before them. In the real world experiences, we follow a similar approach to problem solving, using all the existing sources that we have.

Another supporter for curriculum integration is the National Middle School Association. The NMSA's mission statement states that they are dedicated to improving the educational experiences of young adolescents by providing vision, knowledge, and resources to all who serve them in order to develop healthy, productive, and ethical citizens. The association promotes learning experiences that are organized around real-life issues and problems significant both to young people and adults. They believe that a student's learning environment should support a meaningful curriculum that encourages them to think critically and problem solve and these are just two of the benefits of the interdisciplinary curriculum design. The NMSA's position paper states what they believe to be the characteristics of an efficient school. One of the This We Believe characteristics of an effective school is to have a curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory (NMSA, 2002). Educators must do away with teaching separate disciplines in order to meet these objectives. In an integrated curriculum: there is an emphasis on higher-order thinking processes, cooperative learning, and thoughtful consideration of human values, rather than the details of separate subjects.

Approaches to Curriculum Integration

There are different ways to successfully integrating the curriculum in the school setting. It can be implemented by teachers agreeing to teach related topics in different classrooms, one teacher integrating the subjects she is responsible for teaching in her classroom, or a school adopting a fully integrated curriculum. Some research suggests that subject integration should be started by a small group of teachers with the same initiative, instead of rethinking an entire school completely.

When teachers who focus on different subject areas decide to integrate the curriculum, they must discuss what they will be teaching in their classrooms and then attempt to find meaningful connections between the main topics taught in each class. The teachers then correlate the times in which they will be covering the connected material so that it coincides. An individual teacher can do his or her own part in integrating subjects in his or her own classroom. With this interdisciplinary approach to teaching, the teacher uses activities and lessons that unite the subjects that they are in charge of teaching, instead of spending a certain amount of time on each subject. There are many cross connections that can be found throughout the curriculum. Some subjects can be easily integrated, such as social studies and language arts. Students are taught in a way that promotes the use of thinking skills with lessons that mimic real-world situations, as long as the crossing of disciplines is organized around a concept that is of interest to adolescents.

The teacher must cross subject areas by creating curriculum based on a theme that that concerns the students and can be connected to real world issues. These issues should be ones that adolescents have about themselves and the world around them. By integrating these issues the student connects with subjects that are widely shared by people in the larger world. An example of this type of theme would be a unit on Wellness. Students would investigate their personal lives and the larger world as they study environmental issues, nutrition, disease, stress, and health regulations. This type of theme gives educators the opportunity to engage students' knowledge and skill in the search for self and social meaning (Beane, 1991).

Teachers at Marquette Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin applied this type of unit to their normal curriculum. The middle school teachers started planning for the unit by asking students to write questions they had about themselves and their world. Students then selected the theme "Living in the Future" and teachers developed activities around this theme. Several positive changes occurred by putting into practice the new curriculum. It compelled teachers to work closely with students and gave students a powerful voice. The students' main focus was to use their skills and knowledge to search for answers to their questions. The goal of the unit was for students to explore these questions, not to prepare for tests. However, the curriculum taught content on top of thinking skills. The educators at this school, who truly want curriculum integration, had to step up and make the vision a reality and did so with positive results (James, 1992).

Fully integrated schools often use the thematic approach to integrating the curriculum. NMSA believes that students who participate in fully integrated programs tend to have high levels of commitment and assume greater responsibility for their learning and that the greater the degree of integration, the greater the benefits (NMSA, 2002). Some schools have used thematic teaching and curriculum integration to completely makeover the way the curriculum is taught. The curriculum is fully integrated, organized around themes, with many hand-on activities. Instruction is planned to accommodate individual interests and abilities. Students are grouped into heterogeneous classes by their learning levels instead of by their age, and they stay with the same group of students and the same teacher for two years. The teacher is a facilitator, rather than an instructor. Students work in groups to do activity-based, learning projects and move on to more difficult work when they are ready. There is no limit to the level of work they can do and this design emphasizes perseverance, responsibility, and other life skills (Thematic Teaching, 2005).

There have been many research studies on schools that have decided to have a fully integrated curriculum or adopt a program that integrates subjects. These studies report that overall, students in the integrated programs did as well or better than students in separate-subject programs. Assessment of learning is authentic, continuous, and based on individual growth and performance. Parent involvement is recognized as essential for creating a nurturing school environment; therefore, many parents work in the classroom and throughout the school (Thematic Teaching, 2005). Also, the teachers who plan and teach together had the same expectations across a subject area, which was a factor in the overall performance of the students (Lake, 1994).

The Ideal School Curriculum

Curriculum planning should involve responsive and reflective practices and teachers should remain flexible in their planning. Virtue (2007) believes that teachers should have a generative approach to curriculum at the middle level, which means curriculum, derives in a creative and intuitive way from the ongoing life of the classroom (p.16). It is vital that a teacher has the ability to recognize teachable moments when they occur and implement a curriculum that addresses them. The teachable moment becomes the theme in which an integrated curriculum is designed around. September 11 is one such event that called for a change in curriculum. Questions from students regarding the infamous tragedy were relevant and needed to be addressed. "September 11, 2001, was a critical teachable moment that provided me and my team with an avenue to middle level curriculum that was relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory" (Virtue, p.14).

An integrative curriculum can take advantage of teachable moments or spontaneous events. Taking into account current or monumental events makes the curriculum more meaningful for students. A curriculum that is focused on current events and issues is relevant to students' lives, which engages them in their learning. It also promotes students to think critically as they make connections to understand the world around them.

One way to focus curriculum planning away from subject-specific planning is to use a standards-based common "ways of learning" or a combination of such approaches. Educators should focus on life skills that are emphasized in an integrated curriculum and are common across subject standards. One such set of common "ways of learning" is the School wide Goals for Student Learning compiled by the National Study of School Evaluation and the Alliance for Curriculum Reform. These "ways of learning" are: Learning-to-Learn Skills; Expanding and Integrating Knowledge; Communication Skills; Thinking and Reasoning Skills; Interpersonal Skills and Personal and Social Skills. (Beane & Vars, 2000).

Educator Concerns

An integration curriculum is a potentially powerful design, but only if it is implemented in an appropriate way that promotes progress toward significant educational goals, not as merely a way to cut across disciplines. Advocates for and those opposed to using an integrated curriculum would agree that "integration for integration's sake is ill advised" (Hinde, 2005). Activities should not be "pointless busy work", distort the content, or be beyond the student's knowledge and skill levels. Burton (2001) makes the plea to integrate content from different disciplines only when there is a valid reason for doing so, and only when there are obvious connections and touch points between them.

A complaint about an interdisciplinary curriculum is from a small minority of teachers who believe that students will not be challenged enough in certain content areas if they are crossed with other disciplines. "I don't consider it challenging material," says one math teacher, "to be asked to add up survey figures and make charts in somebody's social studies project" (Cushman, 1993, p. 4). A former fear of some teachers was that they did not feel adequately prepared to teach outside their licensure areas. Middle school teachers should be confident in integrating the two subject areas that they are licensed to teach. In addition, teachers should work in teams and help each other to design and implement the curriculum.

Curriculum integration also takes time. Planning time is needed to select themes explore resources, consult with students about issues and concerns, and coordinate with other teachers. However, the advantages of curriculum integration far outweigh any disadvantages and although implementation initially requires more time and attention, it is well worth the results.

The majority of schools have not put this type of design into action. Those that are hesitant to use the method are worried about addressing state standards and lack confidence in the power of integration. Parker (2007) states that the only thing that students do get out of a segregated curriculum is preparation for "subject-driven state mandated" tests; however, it is possible to teach students the test material through interdisciplinary teaching (p.1).


Research and Design

The purpose of this study is to prove that implementing an integrated curriculum is especially beneficial for middle school students. The intent of the research is to find out the opinions of sixth grade students who will have recently completed an integrated unit on the book and movie topic Anne of Green Gables. Data for this study will be gathered though the use of open-ended question surveys, classroom instruction and lesson planning for the integrated subject unit, and individual interviews conducted on a voluntary basis with a small sample of the sixth grade students. These interviews should provide additional, more in depth information to validate the findings. The findings of this study will hopefully motivate additional educators to try integrating the curriculum by furthering their knowledge of the topic and proving to them the benefits of using curriculum integration even on a small scale, such as the implementation of the single integrated unit in this study that fostered positive results.

The site where the research will take place is a middle school in Long Beach, CA. The school was awarded the California Distinguished School Award in recent years as well as the U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon award. The middle school has an ethnically diverse student population that includes 28% Latino, 24% Caucasian, 25% African-American, 13% Asian-American, 9% Filipino, 1% Pacific Islander, and 0% Native American students. The average class size is 33 students per classroom. Staff development is based on the needs of school personnel. New ideas and reinforcement of current teaching strategies are provided during faculty meetings. Topics have included the matching of curriculum with content standards, test data analysis, and reading comprehension. Teachers have also attended workshops on reciprocal teaching, literacy skills, and intervention strategies. Staff members attend workshops and conferences throughout the year presented by district mentor teachers and other speakers. Teachers use instructional strategies that provide a challenging and comprehensive curriculum as well as rich diverse experiences for all children.

Data Collection

The active research will be conducted at the participants' school and the survey and interview data will be collected during the course of one school day. Prior to having students participate in the student surveys and interviews, the researcher will take part in the implementation and instruction of the integrated unit through conversations with, and observations of the social studies and reading teachers. The researcher will also participate in weekly teacher meetings, and lesson planning for instruction of the social studies lessons for the Anne of Green Gables unit. Data collected from my participation in the planning and instruction will yield part of the research findings as well as pre and post project interviews with the teachers.

The chart below outlines the rationale for using the planned methods.

Purposes as related to the study's question

Data Gathering Method

Data Sources


Type of Data Collected

Key Questions, Concepts, and Observation

To determine student attitudes towards the integrated curriculum

Student Interview


Once, after project.

Perception of their performance in their classes during integrated unit

Do students feel they learned subject matter more efficiently? What worked? Why did it work?

To show that implementing integrated curriculum is beneficial for students

Student Survey


Once, after project.

Perception of the integrated curriculum unit

How did the curriculum change how the students learn? Was it positive or negative?

To motivate additional educators to see the benefits of curriculum integration

Teacher Interview


Twice, one before and one after the project.

Teacher perceptions of integrated curriculum both before and after the unit.

Did the teacher see differences in the way the information was presented?

The survey will be used to determine students' attitudes toward the integrated unit and their perception of their performance in their classes during the Anne of Green Gables unit. Participation in the survey will be voluntary and take place in the students' social studies classroom. Students were notified that there would be no rewards or disciplinary actions for participating in the personal interview or for taking the survey. Neither would participation affect his or her social studies grade. The students will also be asked to not write their names on the surveys, ensuring that their answers would be confidential. The survey will consist of a set of questions that covered students' likes/dislikes of participating in the integrated curriculum, whether or not they felt like they benefited by using the new curriculum, and what aspects of using the integrated curriculum were that helped them to learn the subject material better. An example question would be:

Did learning about the series Anne of Green Gables in reading make you more interested in the content taught in your other classes?

The use of the 11 open-ended survey questions will allow the participants to write as much as they wanted and put their thoughts and feelings about integration into their own words.

The student interviews will consist of a set of more in-depth questions over the use of the integrated unit. Some students will be randomly chosen from a group of volunteers to be interviewed. Prior to asking each student the questions, I will assure them that their answers will not affect their social studies grade and that I would be the only person to see their individual responses. The importance of giving truthful answers is so that I will have the most accurate data from each interviewee. A total of 10 students will participate in the personal interviews. An example question for the personal interview would be:

Are you more likely to pay attention in class if you can relate to the material taught or the subject concerns or interests you?

These interviews will be conducted during the sixth grade study period and take place in an empty computer lab to minimize distractions and promote thoughtful and honest answers.

The teacher interviews will consist of a set of questions focusing on the integrated curriculum unit. All three teachers involved will be asked their opinion about curriculum integration before and after they have taught the integrated unit. The teachers will be asked to show how the integrated unit varied from a regular curriculum and if they feel the changes were beneficial to the students. An example question from the teacher interview would be:

Do you believe organizing class material around a central theme like Anne helps learners to better grasp the material presented to them?

The teacher interviews will be conducted in the teachers classroom during that teachers lunch period.

The data from the survey and interviews will serve to examine the consensus of opinion from both the teacher and students involved in an integrated curriculum. The survey will show if the students agree or disagree that they benefited from this form of curriculum and numbers can be obtained with yes or no answers. The student interviews reinforce the data from the survey while the teacher interviews offer a different perspective on the curriculum.