A Lingering Question for Middle School: What Is the Fate of Integrated Curriculum? (Issue in Education)

Article excerpt

How can middle level educators support and defend integrated curriculum when faced with the demands of the standards-based reform movement? Before a response to this thought-provoking question can be proposed, a brief glimpse at the history of and long-standing interest in integrated curriculum might be helpful.

Interest in Integrated Curriculum

Integrated curriculum captured the attention of educators long before the advent of the middle school concept. As junior high schools moved away from a subject-centered curriculum, other curricular options emerged (Toefler, 1997). In the 1930s, for example, the progressive movement advocated a problem-centered, core curriculum centering on themes drawn from social issues (Beane, 1993). In the 1960s, curriculum models became more responsive to middle level students' developmental characteristics, and thus targeted unifying themes. The interdisciplinary concept model described by Jacobs (1989) is a way to systematically connect discipline perspectives when investigating a problem or theme. Beane's multidimensional model (1993) centered on thematic units that drew from the intersecting concerns of young adolescents and issues in the larger world. Many educators concur with Beane's position that "curriculum is a central and crucial factor in the life of a school" (p. 1).

Focus on Integrated Curriculum

In order to help young adolescents make sense out of their life experiences and connect school experiences to their daily lives outside of school, curriculum needs to be integrative (National Middle School Association, 1995). A truly integrated curriculum enables teachers and their students to make connections between their school learning experiences and real life (Caskey, 1996), while the separate subject approach leaves students with a disconnected view of knowledge that "fails to reflect the way that real people attack problems in the real world" (Daniels & Bizar, 1998, p. 20). Certainly, relevance is the touchstone of integrated curriculum.

Support for the Integrated Curriculum Approach

A substantial body of theory and research supports the integrated curriculum design. Curriculum theorists (e.g., Beane, 1990; Jacobs, 1989; Vars, 1997) advocate for integrated curriculum models because they center on the problems and interests of young adolescent learners. Perkins (1989) asserts that integrated curricular themes serve as a valuable lens for understanding student thinking. Other scholars and practitioners (e.g., Daniels & Bizar, 1998; Five & Dionisio, 1996; Pate, 2001; Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 1998) detail exemplars of integrated curriculum.

The research base on the effectiveness of integrated curriculum for student achievement is expanding. Vars and Beane (2000) found from a review of research evidence that students engaged in interdisciplinary or integrated programs do as well academically, and frequently better, than those in traditional separate subject programs. Drake (1998) presents numerous findings from both quantitative and qualitative studies that substantiate the effects of integrated curriculum. In addition, integrated curriculum has been shown to increase student motivation, elicit higher order thinking, and build stronger interpersonal skills (Vars, 1997); Davies (1992) reported improved rates of student involvement, based on five years of student evaluation data. Clearly, research and a strong theoretical base validate the use of integrated curriculum.

Why Does Acceptance of Integrated Curriculum Models Remain So Elusive?

Integrating curriculum requires complex change, which may make teachers, school administrators, and parents uncomfortable. Hargreaves, Earl, Moore, and Manning (2001) point out that "integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum is one of the most ambitious yet also contentious aspects of educational reform, as it seeks to connect classroom learning to the lives and understandings of all students" (p. …