Integrated curriculum helps build a love of learning

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant member publication: 4 pillars of principled curriculum design

Marie Harris, SSAT lead practitioner, Solace yoga teacher and charity co-ordinator, ACE Academy, shows how a varied curriculum across several different topics can provide the building blocks for KS4

‘Since we cannot know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.’ John Holt, educator and school reformer.

Starting secondary school is a very stressful time for 11-year-old students. Everything is new:

  1. New school: how will I find my way around between lessons?
  2. New teachers: I may not like them, they may not like me.
  3. New peer groups: where are my friends? I was happy with them and now everyone is different.
  4. New subjects: different teachers all day, different rooms – it’s so hard.

If you don’t get them relaxed and interested from the first day, you can lose them.

Should an integrated curriculum be offered to year 7 and 8 students? If you are in favour of an integrated curriculum, you will believe a day of targeted accelerated learning can be more specific and lead to higher attainment than teaching four separate lessons can.

Whatever your school chooses to call this, it can provide a varied curriculum across several different topics, addressing all school KS3 needs and starting the building blocks for KS4. Students get set groups and rooms with consistent teachers with whom they can build mutually beneficial relationships and an understanding of needs. The setting is then more like primary, although the work is clearly secondary level, enabling the students to settle far quicker with less upheaval and unsettling change. This is particularly good for PP and SEN students; it integrates your SEN students into the whole secondary experience while meeting their needs and requirements through differentiation, not isolation.

In teaching an integrated curriculum rather than one specialist subject, it is vital that the teachers engaged are highly motivated. The curriculum is designed to build a foundation of knowledge across a wide range of subjects, eg RE, maths, English, history and more. Each subject is woven into every lesson and to reinforce and build skills in a subliminal manner. Learning becomes a habit, but also fun. This foundation is then built upon for GCSE courses as students progress through the school.

The curriculum is designed to build a foundation of knowledge across a wide range of subjects… Learning becomes fun

Teaching can also be great fun. For example I created role play lessons, with RE as a main focus – enacting weddings and funerals from all faiths. Students picked roles and then performed to the whole school. This demonstrated their understanding of each faith and their ’journey of life’. It also helps break down any misunderstanding of faiths and builds tolerance and understanding. While doing this we were addressing literacy, drama, RE, history, culture and British values; a good example of subliminal learning through fun delivery of lessons.

Other examples include integrating history and geography in a ’detective agency’ using a game of football to help students relate to feudal society; and this week, with Ofsted in school, information on Montserrat came in from helicopter pilots, and the students had to collect and coordinate it. All were involved and focused and couldn’t wait to collect and share the information – learning while having fun and developing. The Ofsted inspectors singled out this lesson in their feedback report.

In essence, it involves teaching a set of principles and skills which, if understood and used, help learners learn more effectively and so become learners for life. At its heart is the belief that learning is learnable.

At the heart of this integrated curriculum approach is the belief that learning is learnable.

Two of the ways to integrate the curriculum:

Multidisciplinary Integration: teachers who use this method focus primarily on the disciplines. They use a central theme, and standards from each subject are selected to support the theme. For example, a unit focused on growth that met standards in maths, language, arts, and science would be multidisciplinary.

Interdisciplinary Integration: The interdisciplinary approach supports standards from different subcategories in one subject area. For example, a unit that integrated reading, writing, and oral communication would be interdisciplinary. Another example might be a unit that integrated history and geography.

Teaching with an integrated curriculum has many benefits. Cross-curricular learning is a powerful way to generate creative thinking (Barnes, 2012).

In cross-curricular work the intention is to progress learning at all levels. So it aims to assess attitudes towards and progress in understanding onesself, understanding others, understanding essential local issues to the community, and understanding global issues.

Detailed research, discussions with colleagues and much reading has taught me that integration delivers:

  • a smooth move from learning at primary school to learning at secondary school
  • a focus on basic skills, content, and higher-level thinking
  • a deeper understanding of content
  • active participation in relevant real-life experiences
  • a better understanding for teachers of students’ learning preferences and strengths
  • students’ self-motivation and self-confidence to succeed
  • some of the habits students should develop, such as reflecting on their learning so as to improve next time.

The one downside is that having staff members teaching outside their area of expertise can lead to staff feeling negative as they are not teaching with the same degree of confidence as in their chosen subject area. So strong leadership of the integrated curriculum is vital, as is an understanding of these concerns.

After teaching in this way for 11 years, and still receiving positive student and Ofsted feedback, I firmly believe that an integrated curriculum for years 7 and 8 has a great deal to offer. With continuing development and support, it will further aid our students in learning essential life skills.

Some students agree strongly:

  • Beth, a sixth form student: ‘I still remember my integrated lessons. I miss them, they were the best, helping me feel settled. I bonded with both the teacher and students and loved the work, it was the most exciting time and set me on my path of learning, I will never forget those lessons’.
  • Balwant, a year 8 student: ‘All subjects are combined together, it helps reinforce work done previously while promoting and enhancing further learning and understanding.’
  • Elise, who has currently begun her GCSEs, feels that her integrated learning has helped her greatly with her history work as she knows so much more than she expected to. She is using her prior building blocks and comfort with learning to help her progress.
  • Josh, a year 7 student currently undertaking learning in this way: ‘Doing my homework from this area was great, I got to spend time with my dad making a volcano and I didn’t have to do any writing or work, it was the best.’

Job done: a love of learning being introduced without the student even realising it was happening!

SSAT has been advocating a principled approach to curriculum design for many years, which is demonstrated in the Principled Curriculum Design publication written by Dylan Wiliam as part of SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling series. Download the 4 Pillars of Principled Curriculum Design from the Exchange.

Read on the SSAT blog: Four pillars of principled curriculum design, to articulate and evidence curriculum intent

Marie Harris, ACE Academy

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