Does curriculum integraton work in middle school classrooms

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Research into Middle Schooling indicates that schooling has traditionally been disconnected from students' lives, with learning based around texts and lecturing (Brady & Kennedy 2007; Smith 2002). However, student disengagement within the Middle Years has caused educators to rethink current Middle Schooling curriculum and pedagogies to incorporate students' interests, skills and knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez 1992).

Curriculum integration is one teaching strategy that is increasingly being implemented within the curriculum of Middle Schools in Australia (Brady & Kennedy 2007). The idea of curriculum integration is highly contested, with many research papers and books being published (such as Brady & Kennedy 2007; Brophy & Alleman 1991; Pendergast & Bahr 2005; Venville & Dawson 2004) containing differing views regarding what this teaching approach entails and whether or not it is worthwhile. Although not all people agree as to what curriculum integration is, it seems as though most tend to agree that some form of integration is important. By enabling students to see connections between things they are taught in school, students are able to identify relationships between knowledge taught in different areas and look at the bigger picture (Brady & Kennedy 2007; Pendergast & Bahr 2005; Venville & Dawson 2004).

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Within Middle Schools in Australia, research shows that schools have conventionally used a subject-based approach to educate adolescents (Beane 1991, 1995; Brady & Kennedy 2007; Venville & Dawson 2004). However, the emerging Middle Schooling Philosophy has brought with it the idea of curriculum integration, moving away from specific subject-areas and fragmented information towards a more holistic view of knowledge (Beane 1991, 1995; Pendergast & Bahr 2005).

The idea behind curriculum integration is that teachers negotiate a curriculum with their students, by finding out students' concerns regarding life and the world, and then base the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment around the common themes identified (Brady & Kennedy 2007; Pendergast & Bahr 2005). Involving students in negotiated curriculum gives them ownership in their learning, engages their interest and increases their levels of achievement. Therefore, this works towards resolving the Middle Years slump attributed to adolescence (Pendergast & Bahr 2005; Venville & Dawson 2004).

Instead of using specific subjects to teach students necessary knowledge, curriculum integration revolves around activities and projects that call forth appropriate knowledge in the context it is required. Therefore, teachers will need broad understandings, instead of specific subject-related knowledge, in order to implement an integrated curriculum (Beane 1991, 1995). According to George (1996) and Venville and Dawson (2004), this is a problem associated with curriculum integration, since teachers study single subjects in their teaching degrees at university. In order to successfully move towards the proposed integrated curriculum of Middle Schools, surely it follows that the education of teachers will also need to be revised and reorganised?

In addition, the curriculum should be connected to the real world; pedagogy must be flexible and creative; and assessment relevant and authentic (Pendergast & Bahr 2005; Venville & Dawson 2004). Pendergast and Bahr (2005) also investigated what should be incorporated into the middle school curriculum, identifying the need to relate content learned to the real world, thus making education more relevant to students' lives. Students need to see meaning to what is being taught in order for learning to be successful, and this can be achieved through curriculum integration where the relevance and use of certain information in different contexts can be made explicit (Venville & Dawson 2004).

All students want to learn; students become disengaged when learning is seen as irrelevant and useless (Smyth & McInerney 2007). Venville and Dawson (2004) reported that by making learning fun, interesting and applicable to the lives of the students, then students will have a reason to stay in school. According to Smyth and McInerney (2007), students have lost interest in learning because the curriculum is not individualised. This should be the fundamental goal of every teacher, through curriculum negotiation with students; finding out students' interests and incorporating these into the work to be taught. Involving students in curriculum negotiation gives them ownership over their learning, resulting in increased engagement and achievement (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing & Le Cornu 2007; Pendergast & Bahr 2005).

The idea of curriculum integration appears to be a good one, in terms of implementing it into Middle School classrooms so as to aid in the learning of Middle School students. However, the issue lies in whether or not this concept works in practice when implemented in the Middle School classroom. From observation of several experienced Middle Years teachers, it became clear that implementing an integrated curriculum within the classroom was not something that was done very often. Interviews conducted with other experienced Middle Years teachers also revealed the same result: that this approach was not often used. So why are these Middle Years teachers not implementing the approach that literature repeatedly describes as being so valuable?

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Firstly, one major problem is the understanding teachers have concerning what exactly curriculum integration is and what the concept entails in terms of practice. Although some teachers that were interviewed (Middle Years Interview 2007) did not know what the meaning of curriculum integration was, the majority thought it referred to incorporating different disciplines into the one topic when constructing and teaching a unit of work. According to Beane (1995), this type of integration was considered to be more of an interdisciplinary approach, which continued to keep subjects as separate disciplines whilst trying to tie them together around a common theme. Hence, in his opinion, this method could be considered as a fake approach to curriculum integration, since the true version "revolves around projects and activities rather than subjects" (Beane, 1995).

So although the first problem is that curriculum integration depends on how it is defined, the second problem is that if curriculum integration is considered in terms of the interdisciplinary approach then it is not always possible to integrate work between different disciplines (Middle Years Interview 2007). Subjects do not always fit together and finding a common or unifying theme across disciplines can be difficult. However, it is certainly possible to integrate a number of topics across different subjects; the key is not forcing a connection. If subjects do not seem to have any common themes between them, within which integration may occur, then they need to be left separate. Imposing a theme across subjects when there really is no connection can result in an artificial approach to learning (Brophy & Alleman 1991; Venville & Dawson 2004), and students are generally quite astute at identifying when something is not genuine (Middle Years Interview 2007).

Some subjects are able to integrate certain aspects very easily, such as science and maths (Venville & Dawson 2004; Wells 2004). As observed many times during the practicum within Middle Years science classrooms, students are often required to record their results from an experiment in a table and then graph their results to identify possible relationships and trends in the data obtained. Without an obvious decision to engage another subject area, students are required to utilise their mathematical knowledge of drawing, manipulating and reading graphs in a different environment (Wells 2004). Thus in this case, integration occurs naturally and students feel more at ease applying their mathematical understanding in the new context because it was not a forced connection but rather a genuine learning experience (Venville & Dawson 2004).

The major strength of applying an integrated curriculum in a Middle Years context is that ideas from different disciplines can be reinforced in a common topic or theme so that students find it easier to learn (Middle Years Interview 2007). When ideas across subjects seem to fit together, then it makes sense to teach them together so that students can understand the bigger picture. This is the other main strength of implementing curriculum integration in the Middle Years; students are able to see that in the real world things do not stand alone in separate subjects or areas of knowledge, but rather interact with each other (Middle Years Interview 2007). Thus, teaching common topics across disciplines will both reinforce key ideas and also give students a genuine life experience that demonstrates how the things we learn are connected and interrelated, rather than compartmentalised (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing & Le Cornu 2007).

Another major problem with implementing curriculum integration, however, is the time factor (Brophy & Alleman 1991; Middle Years Interview 2007). In order to set up such a system within the existing curricula of Middle Schools, it would require lots of planning among teachers of different disciplines to identify common themes and then try to coordinate the school year so that the common themes are taught at the same time (Middle Years Interview 2007). This process would be very time consuming and hence is often not feasible because teachers are already under immense pressure to organise their own classes and content let alone trying to organise it so that they teach a certain topic at a certain time that suits different subjects (Middle Years Interview 2007).

An additional dilemma is that some teachers feel that if a common theme is to be taught across different disciplines then they will be sacrificing or compromising their subject in order to fit with the topics being taught (Middle Years Interview 2007). This feeling arises because teachers and schools are extremely imbedded in a system of separate, compartmentalised subjects, which means that this traditional school culture would need to be revolutionised in order to properly implement an integrated curriculum in the sense that Beane (1995) describes.

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Curriculum integration also involves teachers negotiating the curriculum with their students to find out what they are interested in and want to learn. The problem with this is that negotiating the curriculum is difficult because not all students want to learn the same thing, some students do not know what they want to learn and some do not really care what they learn (Middle Years Interview 2007). Thus, this means that there will always be students who are not pleased with the outcome and so are not motivated to learn, which seems to defeat the purpose of implementing a negotiated curriculum in the first place (Pendergast & Bahr 2005).

One strategy that the interviewed Middle Years teachers (2007) apply in an attempt to utilise the negotiated curriculum approach is to give students options within a certain task, such as choosing to present research as an essay, oral presentation or poster. This way, students are still able to negotiate an aspect within what they are learning, but what they are learning is pre-organised (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing & Le Cornu 2007). This type of negotiation could be considered a directed negotiated curriculum, where students get the chance to negotiate aspects within a directed area. Students can still feel a sense of ownership in their learning because they are given some choices as to what they can research or how they can present their findings (Groundwater-Smith, Ewing & Le Cornu 2007; Middle Years Interview 2007).

In the Middle Years interview (2007), two teachers said that in order to overcome the constraints associated with implementing an integrated curriculum, they use the strategy of employing real world examples to help students see how knowledge learned in the classroom can be applied outside the classroom in the real world (Burton 2001; Pendergast & Bahr 2005). In this way, students can still see the importance of the content being taught, even though it might not be taught as common themes across different disciplines (Middle Years Interview 2007). Thus, students can gain the motivation to do work because they understand why it is necessary to learn the content, due to the application of the knowledge in a real life context. By making learning fun, interesting and applicable to the lives of the students, then hopefully students will have a reason to remain in school.

Literature (including Brady & Kennedy 2007; Lapp & Flood 1994; Pendergast & Bahr 2005; Venville & Dawson 2004) says that implementing an integrated curriculum is a good idea because of the benefits posed to learners, but I fail to see how it is possible to employ this strategy as easily as the texts seem to make it sound. I do think the idea of integrating the curriculum is worthwhile, because it makes learning easier for students due to the links created across subject areas that enable the boundaries of subjects to be broken down.

However, I do not think it is necessarily possible to implement the idea of integrated curriculum as discussed by Beane (1995); if teachers are to teach a topic and then bring forth knowledge associated with different disciplines only as it is required, then this teaching approach would clearly require a breakdown of traditional schooling and a restructuring of the current curriculum and schooling system. In addition, teachers would surely require broader subject knowledge in order for this approach to be successful (Middle Years Interview 2007). This indicates that teacher's education at university would also need to be restructured and reorganised (George 1996), or that teachers would need on-going education to enable this approach to be successful (Middle Years Interview 2007).

Nevertheless, I do think it is highly possible to implement the synchronised approach or the thematic approach in terms of curriculum integration as discussed by Pendergast and Bahr (2005) and Venville and Dawson (2004). Teaching similar content and processes in separate subjects across the Middle School or linking various Middle School subjects into common themes will help students to realise how topics and the content that they learn within school are related in different areas. In addition, as I have observed on many occasions, this teaches students that certain knowledge is required in a range of situations. This also helps students to understand how to apply content learned in different situations, thus making subject boundaries more fluid than the current segmented discipline boundaries set up in Australian schools.

Although the idea of negotiating the curriculum with students in order to try and engage and interest them in learning seems worthwhile, I'm not sure how this would work within the classroom because of the vast differences between students. Not all students want to learn the same content when they are given the option to choose what they want to learn (Middle Years Interview 2007), so there is always going to be the problem of some students being disengaged because what is being taught is not what they want to learn about. I am also unsure as to how students can come up with what they want to learn because many students do not seem to know what they want to learn or they do not really care because they have lost interest in learning (Middle Years Interview 2007). I assume this is why we should strive to negotiate the curriculum with our students, so that they are given a reason to want to learn and then take ownership over their learning.

One strategy that could be implemented instead of negotiated curriculum is looking out for student responses to certain topics being taught. If students seem to be responding really well to a topic being taught and have a genuine interest in it, then it would make sense to spend more time teaching that particular topic and delving into it in more detail (Venville & Dawson 2004). This approach does work in practice, and the students tend to produce their best work because they are enjoying the content they are learning (Middle Years Interview 2007). From observation of this in the Middle School classroom, I discovered that students do tend to try a lot harder to succeed when they are learning something that they find interesting, as mentioned in Pendergast and Bahr (2005) and Venville and Dawson (2004).

Both research and practice has shown that implementing some form of curriculum integration in Middle Schools offers many benefits to adolescents' education (Beane 1991, 1995; Pendergast & Bahr 2005). The key challenge for teachers will be learning to think of education as a complete package, rather than separate subjects. In order to effectively implement this novel approach to education within Australian Middle Schools, it would require support form the wider school community, especially parents (Venville & Dawson 2004). Negotiating certain aspects of education within the Middle Years classroom is another step in the direction of increasing the motivation of Middle School students, to help keep them engaged in learning by giving them some ownership in their education (Middle Years Interview 2007; Venville & Dawson 2004).

Given that the above research indicates there are some benefits in both curriculum integration and negotiated curriculum, and given that the current school system remains individually compartmentalised, once I go out teaching as an in-service teacher I will try to incorporate some aspects of these approaches into my teaching and my Middle Years classroom. I will strive to apply every lesson's content to the real world by explicitly outlining the value of the knowledge outside the classroom, so that students will see meaning to what is being taught. I will also endeavour to work collaboratively with other teachers to see if it is possible to teach similar themes at the same time to help students to learn the content being taught in different situations. Lastly, I will attempt to be flexible in collaborative negotiations with students on certain aspects of curriculum and assessment because I think it is worthwhile, so as to give students some ownership in their education and help to motivate them to want to learn.