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ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

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Meeting Standards Through Integrated Curriculum

by Susan M. Drake and Rebecca C. Burns

Table of Contents


How can we ensure maximum student achievement?
How can we be sure that there is truly no child left behind?
How can evaluation procedures inform us that the students are learning what we want them to learn?
How do we compare with other schools, jurisdictions, states/provinces, and countries?
How can we ensure that teachers are teaching what they are supposed to be teaching?

These questions dominate educational conversations in the 21st century. Educators are working in an era of accountability. They must show evidence that the students under their care are achieving in ways that ultimately lead to productive citizenship. They need to level the playing field so that every child has an equal opportunity to learn and to succeed. In addition, educators may experience extreme pressure to compete with other educators from within their systems and beyond to the global community in efforts to raise student achievement.

Standards-based education has been part of the answer to questions such as these. Specific content standards now indicate what students must know and do at each grade level. In many cases, educators have aligned these standards with evaluation procedures—local assessments and standardized tests. The stakes, however, are high. Educational funding and teachers' reputations are on the line.

Two points complicate the issue: written standards are not necessarily well developed, and testing does not necessarily align with standards. Many teachers are frustrated and feel like they are teaching in a pressure cooker. The demands for teachers to cover the standards and for students to perform well on standardized measures are overwhelming. It is enough to take the joy out of teaching. Not coincidentally, teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented droves.

Lost in the conversations about accountability are questions like these that are dearest to teachers' hearts:

  • How do students learn best?
  • How do different teaching strategies affect learning?
  • Under what conditions are students motivated to learn?
  • How can we plan learning experiences to optimize learning?
Educators know that when they simply cover required standards, the students are not necessarily motivated to learn. Lessons can be dull and tedious for both teachers and students. There is no time or space to set a lesson in a relevant context. Teachers sometimes dismiss proven instructional strategies that engage students because they feel such strategies are impossible to implement in the climate of high-stakes testing.

Integrated, or interdisciplinary, curriculum—we use the terms interchangeably in this book—has a history of being vibrant and relevant. Yet the advent of standards-based education with its emphasis on disciplines has largely displaced integrated curriculum. Even determined advocates despair that developing integrated curriculum is possible in the current educational environment (Weilbacher, 2001).

This simply is not true. As teachers become more familiar with standards-based curriculum, they are able to begin to integrate areas of the curriculum and are enthusiastic about doing so. These teachers realize that standards are not simply individual tasks that students must perform separately in each discipline. Teachers can chunk the standards together into meaningful clusters both within and across disciplines. Once teachers understand how standards are connected, their perception of interdisciplinary curriculum shifts dramatically. What they once saw as an impossible venture becomes an attractive alternative. Some teachers see it as the only way to teach and to cover the standards.

An interdisciplinary approach to standards facilitates the possibility of more creative teaching. The problem is that creative, innovative lessons do not necessarily lead to increased student achievement. Standards can come to the rescue in this predicament. Using standards as the guide, the lessons can be both purposeful and relevant. One of the secrets of the successful integration of relevance and accountability is to work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

The time seems right for revisiting integrated curriculum. Popular in the late 1980s and early '90s as a method to increase motivation, it almost disappeared with the advent of the standards movement. Yet renewed interest is apparent. As Jackie Delong, a supervisory officer from the Grand Erie Board of Education in Ontario, says, “Teachers are now familiar with the new curriculum and ready to make connections.”

Many educators are seeing the potential of integration. The Michigan Department of Education and DaimlerChrysler supported a five-year project in nearly 700 schools across 70 school districts to develop integrated curriculum (Warner & Heinz, 2002). Ontario has developed a policy document called the Ontario Curriculum Grades 11 and 12 Interdisciplinary Studies (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2002). Students can acquire a high school credit in interdisciplinary studies, a course that focuses on interdisciplinary knowledge and skills such as understanding multiple perspectives, processing information using a variety of research strategies and technologies, and analyzing and describing the impact of interdisciplinary approaches on society and solutions to real-life situations.

In Québec, the Ministry of Education's latest reform effort, collectively known as New Directions of Success, has an interdisciplinary perspective. For grades 1 through 6, New Directions of Success defines broad areas of learning such as health and well-being, personal and career planning, environmental awareness, and consumer rights and responsibilities (Québec Education Program, 2001). Identifying these broad areas of learning is “intended to encourage students to make connections between what they learn at school and in their everyday lives, and to provide them with opportunities to develop an understanding of various life contexts and envision possible actions in specific situations” (p. 7).

Other countries are also interested in the interdisciplinary approach. Case studies of integrated science, math, and technology projects in Australia show that such approaches are alive and well (Venville, Wallace, Rennie, & Malone, 1999). Manfred Lang (2003) from Germany currently is working in European countries to implement an integrated approach to science. A key feature of his project is using the collaborative process to decide what is worth knowing. In China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, educators developed integrated science curriculum after they realized that the conventional drill-dominated approach to education did not support understanding, creativity, or social interest (Wang & Su, 2002).

In Taiwan, the new curriculum for grades 1 through 9 replaces the traditional subjects with seven major domains of learning. The domains are language and literature, health and physical education, social studies, arts and humanities, mathematics, nature and technology, and integrated activities. Educators designed this curriculum to avoid confining students to the boundaries of a subject and overlooking their ability to integrate learning. The Ministry of Education stresses that the curriculum is humanitarian and promotes moral character. Students learn basic skills through both reading the textbook and integrating the skills into real life. Educators may develop site-based curricula, but they are still accountable for student learning. A goal of this standards-based curriculum is for students to understand change and real life so that they become responsible and contributing members of society. (See for more information about the reforms in Taiwan.)

Japanese students do well in international testing and indeed provide exemplary models for their North American counterparts. Yet something is dreadfully wrong: students hate going to school (Tolbert, 2001). Problems include bullying, violence, and students refusing to go to school at all. They dislike math and science more intensely as they move through the grades, and they lack the ability to do research or to express an opinion. To address this, the Japanese are turning to integrated curriculum.

The Japanese are streamlining the elementary and high school curricula (Tolbert, 2001). Teachers are to devote the extra instructional time to a general studies course with no textbooks and no standardized instruction. In essence, the general studies course is a mandated two hours of integrated curriculum per week. The goal is to teach students how to study, how to conduct research, and how to become more creative.

In Canada's Learning Through the Arts (LTTA) program, artists from the community collaborate with teachers to develop integrated curriculum using standards. The program held its first international teacher course in Singapore in November 2002. Hosted by the Ministry of Education, the course introduced 80 teachers to the LTTA pedagogical framework through workshops on holistic curriculum and learning styles. The Canadians also collaborate with teachers in Sweden. (See for more information.)

We personally have noticed the attention to integrated curriculum from Asian countries. Rebecca's book Dissolving the Boundaries (1995) was published in Korean. Susan's book Creating Integrated Curriculum: Proven Ways to Increase Student Learning (1998) was published in Chinese. Holistic Learning: A Teacher's Guide to Integrated Studies, coauthored by Susan, is being translated into Thai by the Ministry of Education to be distributed to high schools across Thailand (Miller, Cassie, & Drake, 1990).

This book has three purposes:

  1. to provide educators with approaches to standards-based, integrated curriculum that are both rigorous and relevant;
  2. to offer proven strategies for implementation; and
  3. to validate interdisciplinary curriculum by offering examples of interdisciplinary work that provide data-based evidence of success.
To this end, we offer a generic “formula” for creating an interdisciplinary curriculum and an example of how to implement it in practice. We also describe the work of educators who teach with an integrated approach and successfully address accountability issues such as maximizing student achievement and preparing for standardized testing. Their stories are both illuminating and instructive.


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