How can teachers improve student achievement and also teach the skills necessary to prepare students for a complex, global world?
In 2008, the Bluewater District School Board educators began to ask this question. The catalysts were a data analysis of provincial large-scale assessments given in Grades 3 and 6, and board-mandated common assessments in math and literacy across all grades. Bluewater educators strongly believed their students needed higher-order skills to succeed in a global world, but could they improve student achievement in math and literacy at the same time? They decided that integrated curriculum might allow them to pursue both goals.
Bluewater, located in Southwestern Ontario, is comprised of two JK-12 schools, 40 elementary schools, and 11 secondary schools. Many schools are in rural areas with small student populations.
The focus of Ontario’s educational reform is literacy and numeracy, and there is a move to teach literacy in all subject areas. Teachers are also to include character education and environmental awareness in instructional planning. Curriculum guidelines direct teachers to teach cross-disciplinary core concepts – Big Ideas such as change, systems, and interdependence – and higher-order thinking skills such as research, communication, design, problem solving, and critical literacy.
Sowing the Seeds
The Bluewater interdisciplinary journey began with a group of 45 intermediate teachers from 15 schools who met with a small team of system-level staff facilitators for three planning days. This same group continued planning throughout the 2008-2009 school year. Other interdisciplinary planning sessions also took place with all JK to Grade 6 teachers, all JK-8 administrators, and the administrators and all teachers from two high schools.
The teachers worked in teams to collaboratively design interdisciplinary units. The process involved backward design and synthesized Drake’s work on interdisciplinary planning and Cooper’s work on assessment.
Figure 1 shows the steps of the process. [INSERT FIGURE 1 NEAR HERE]
- Curriculum Scan and Cluster: Teachers select (highlight and literally use scissors to cut up) the standards (expectations in Ontario) from the relevant curriculum documents and cluster standards into cross-disciplinary concepts (e.g., the environment, power, sustainability, etc.).
- Curriculum Dissection: The groups choose one cluster of standards. Each standard is dissected according to the Know (what do students need to know?), Do (what do students need to do?) and Be (what values are being taught?).
- Enduring Understanding/Big Question/Unit Questions: The big question is answered throughout the unit. The enduring understanding is the essence – what teachers want students to be able to articulate at the end of the unit. Examples include: “Tomorrow is influenced by decisions made today” and “We can make a difference.”
- Culminating Task: A meaningful culminating task is created with accompanying assessment tools aligned with standards from relevant disciplines. In this task, the students demonstrate the Know, Do, and Be.
- Daily Learning Opportunities and Assessment Tools: Meaningful daily instructional activities accompanied by embedded assessments lead to the enduring understanding and the culminating task. Assessment for learning is stressed. This process insures accountability.
Implementation in the Classroom
A Kindergarten class took part in an environmental unit that included standards from language, math, science, and the arts. The students conducted a study of the recyclable and compostable garbage in their school. The unit centered on the Big Ideas of environmental stewardship and conservation and the higher-order skills of inquiry, problem solving, and communication. The students created environmental posters to convince the staff and student body to recycle and compost the garbage at the school.
In one Grade 6/7 class, students debated the impacts of early settlement on Canada. The students created flip perspective books depicting the different points of view of the First Nations peoples and the early European settlers. The students included their own points of view and made suggestions for the future. The unit integrated language, geography, history, science, and arts standards. The Big Ideas were interrelationships, diversity, and conflict resolution, and the higher-order skills included inquiry, critical thinking, and communication.
A Grade 4 unit integrated language, math, science, and arts standards. The students investigated alternative forms of energy and created an environmental conservation magazine that was presented at a whole school environmental summit involving students, parents, and the greater community. The unit centered on the Big Ideas of energy and sustainability. The higher-order skills were inquiry, design, problem solving, presentation, and communication.
Teacher and Administrator Perceptions
A Brock University team of researchers explored teacher and administrator perceptions of the impact of interdisciplinary approaches on classroom practice. Qualitative interviews were completed with 26 educators across 16 schools. The following themes emerged.
Increased student engagement emerged as the strongest theme. One teacher commented: “Kids have fun, lots of laughter, lots of learning.” Another: “Student excitement with this new approach is great. It’s different for them, and it’s almost like a breath of fresh air rather than the old conventional textbooks.” For another: “Engagement is huge.”
Student excitement with this new approach is great. It’s different for them, and it’s almost like a breath of fresh air rather than the old conventional textbooks.
Administrators remarked on both student and teacher engagement. From one:
Teachers get so excited when they make connections that it is infectious, and so there is real positive energy…Kids are excited…Kids love to go to school and they go home and talk about what they discussed in the classroom. I know learning is taking place because there are no kids in the office.
Relevant meaningful curriculum
Many teachers noted that student engagement was connected to relevant learning. “It’s neat how everything fits together. Students are connecting with themselves and their world.” And, “My students were engaged in the unit and were not asking ‘Why are we learning this?’ Rather, they were becoming global thinkers who wanted to know and do more.” One teacher said, “My students frequently challenge me with new ideas that they are interested in, and I’m encouraged to incorporate their interests with the concepts that I want them to learn.”
Relevance was also tied to the depth of learning. “I believe my interdisciplinary classroom has allowed my students to deepen their level of insight and increase their depth of thinking. They have become engaged and articulate learners who are not afraid to voice their opinions utilizing a variety of mediums.” And: “Reflections and culminating tasks at the end of each unit demonstrated clearly that the students had internalized the knowledge and skills.”
Reaching all students
Historically, the interdisciplinary approach has often been reserved for gifted students. While one teacher mentioned that interdisciplinary approaches seemed to best benefit the high achieving students, others found that this approach benefited all students, including the most challenged learners. Many teachers found students were submitting exemplary work that exceeded their expectations. One administrator told of three learners with special needs who were typically disengaged in a regular classroom. During the unit, these students participated in a heated debate about animal rights. As well, they created a PSA announcement that was uploaded to YouTube to share with families. One student remarked, “Wow, I really am smart.”
Literacy infused across the curriculum
In an interdisciplinary approach, literacy is taught through other subjects. One teacher said, “In a year, I’ve seen a big change in literacy. The biggest change is going from teaching one block of literacy to seeing literacy throughout our program.” Others reinforced the same idea: “My language program isn’t English anymore. It is not all about reading the novel and doing a report on it,” and “Literacy is amazing. We built a strong language program around our history and geography units, using different writing tasks.” An administrator summed it up this way: “Literacy tasks are more relevant and there is a deeper understanding in an interdisciplinary unit. Literacy is the basis of what everyone does.”
The teachers found the integration of numeracy expectations into an interdisciplinary unit more difficult than the integration of literacy. Those who successfully integrated math connected it to the real world. “This year we are doing real world math. The students really, really like it.” A colleague agreed: “We focus on problem solving. Real-life connections are huge.”
Those who successfully integrated math connected it to the real world. “This year we are doing real world math. The students really, really like it.”
Many teachers found that assessment became more efficient. They were able to assess more than one discipline at a time by creating assessment tools that incorporated standards from different subject areas. The ability to differentiate was enhanced. “I can diversify my assessment tools and tasks to suit student needs.” From administrators: “Now, there are so many ways for kids to demonstrate their learning, such as through drama and technology,” and “Integrated curriculum has reinforced my belief about what good assessment practices are…I realize that the principles of backwards design in assessment and evaluation worked with integrated curriculum.”
Some teachers found it challenging to report integrated results on a discipline-based report card.
Interdisciplinary planning helped educators stay focused. One teacher noted, “I can honestly say that my thinking about planning has completely changed. No longer am I wondering ‘What will I teach next?’ or ‘How can I fit this in?’ I have a much clearer sense of where my students are and where they need to go next in order to meet the expectations both of the curriculum and myself.” For another: “This style of teaching is a way of keeping me on track. It has helped me to stay focused, yet allows me to include my ‘great’ ideas or kids’ interests along the way.”
Time lost, time gained
There was some disagreement about the time required to plan high calibre interdisciplinary lessons. Although time was a concern for many, others perceived that they actually did less planning on a day-to-day basis. One said, “I feel that my day-to-day planning runs smoothly, as we spend long chunks of time on tasks rather than jumping from area to area or subject to subject.”
Collaborative professional learning
Teachers appreciated the formal planning sessions, which provided an opportunity to collaborate and revitalized teacher practice. “Teacher talk brings enthusiasm.” And, “Once you have been teaching for a while, when times are bleak, this opportunity rejuvenates teachers.”
Today, the Bluewater District School Board continues on its interdisciplinary journey. Evidence-based practice and professional learning are ongoing. The board continues to synthesize interdisciplinary philosophy with accountability measures and Ministry initiatives to teach students the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to be active and caring citizens in a global world.
EN BREF – La réforme de l’éducation en Ontario met l’accent sur la littératie et la numératie; l’enseignement de la littératie dans toutes les matières est préconisé. La planification pédagogique du personnel enseignant doit aussi intégrer le développement du caractère et la sensibilisation environnementale. Les programmes-cadres prescrivent l’enseignement de concepts interdisciplinaires fondamentaux – les grandes idées comme le changement, les systèmes et l’interdépendance – ainsi que de compétences de raisonnement d’ordre supérieur comme la recherche, la communication, la conception, la résolution de problème et la littératie critique. Dans le Sud-Ouest de l’Ontario, le conseil scolaire Bluewater a adopté une approche interdisciplinaire pour satisfaire à ces exigences. Il en est résulté une plus grande participation des élèves, un curriculum qu’ils trouvent pertinent dans leur vie et la capacité de rejoindre les élèves de tous les niveaux de rendement scolaire. Des séances structurées de planification ont permis au personnel enseignant de collaborer et de revitaliser leur travail.
 D. Cooper, Talk About Assessment High School Strategies and Tools (Toronto ON: Nelson Education, 2010); S. M. Drake, Creating Standards-Based Integrated Curriculum (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2007).