Integrated Learning in the Classroom

A few days ago I was talking to a friend about issues that he felt needed to be addressed in order to “fix education”, as he put it.  His background is in electronics and he knows little about the daily activities of most teachers so his perspective on teaching is somewhat limited. But even so, he did raise an interesting point when he mentioned that “teachers should spend less time compartmentalizing everything and more time tying the disciplines together, making them more real for students.”  My friend was talking about providing an integrated learning approach to education.  As he said this I began to think about my own teaching and the number of examples I provided my students to show relatedness between the content areas, which admittedly could have been higher.

Most elementary teachers have ample opportunities to show an integrated view of learning to their students.  This becomes more difficult at the highly-compartmentalized secondary education level. Not only is this because of the arrangement and sequence of courses, but also because the teachers themselves view their content areas as separate bodies of knowledge with only tangential connections to other subjects.  This may be true most of the time but I think part of the issue stems from not having a deeper understanding of integrated learning and how to implement the idea. 

What follows is a definition of integrated learning along with a few aspects that can provide a practical framework for developing an effective integrated curriculum. Hopefully, the result will be a way to demonstrate to students the importance of each subject they are asked to master.

Definition: Integrative learning is an understanding that students build across the curriculum that starts by making simple connections among ideas and experiences and extends to a point where students synthesize and transfer learning to new and complex situations.  Integrative learning happens when students take previous and new classroom learning and address real-world problems requiring multiple perspectives and multiple areas of knowledge.  Students may study solutions to problems affecting many people that may simultaneously require cultural, scientific, and artistic perspective and knowledge. 

For example, students may be asked to analyze options for the construction of a new dam on a river that is the sole source of water and food for several villagers in a hypothetical country.  On one hand the dam is essential for the financial stability of the country but poses a threat to the survival of hundreds of people and to the environment.  Solving this problem will include a discussion of ethics, which will require knowledge from multiple perspectives to raise sufficient arguments.

There are five main attributes of effective integrated learning:

1.    Connections between relevant experiences and academic knowledge – this suggests meaningful connections among experiences to deepen understanding in a field of study and to widen one’s own point of view. 

2.    Multiple connections across disciplines and perspectives – this includes drawing conclusions by blending examples, facts, and theories from multiple sources.

3.    Effective integrated learning – involves transfer, which is the adaptation and application of skills, abilities, theories, and methods from one situation into another to solve problems or explore issues in an original way.

4.    Integrated communication – the student completes assignments in a language, format, or visual aid that enhances the meaning and demonstrates complex language, expression, and thought. 

5.    Effective integrative learning – involves reflection and self-assessment.  Students demonstrate a sense of self as a learner and build on prior experiences to respond to different contexts.  This includes the opportunity for the students to define a future self in which they draw upon prior experiences gained in diverse contexts and re-evaluate personal goals and achievements.

Implementing integrated approaches to learning and teaching with all five of these attributes is a challenging task indeed.  I believe that it can all start with providing simple examples of people applying skills from different disciplines to solve a problem, such as an engineer designing a building that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing to a community, or a doctor who develops a new treatment based on certain cultural beliefs that turns out to be a cure for a widespread disease. 

Perhaps by taking such examples to heart and by embracing the integrative learning model teachers may encourage students to take stronger ownership of their learning.  Maybe this is the key to “fixing education” as my friend mentioned.  Perhaps there are many more pieces to the puzzle.  In any case, finding the answer will take many minds from many disciplines, including yours, dear reader.

Eric Welker, RAFT Education Specialist & Mentor
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