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Whatever happened to the integrated curriculum?
Derek Gillard
October 1987

copyright Derek Gillard 2001
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The 'integrated day' and 'integrated studies' in various guises have been with us for some years now. However, much current practice falls short of the ideal of curriculum integration because it is frequently a purely organisational matter lacking any sort of theoretical underpinning. And the very concept is threatened by the National Curriculum which is entirely subject-based.

Context

The context for this discussion is one in which various forms of curriculum integration have become widespread in the primary sector over the past twenty years, especially since the publication of the 1967 Plowden Report. But Blenkin and Kelly (1987:206) suggest that curriculum integration can be seen in traditional secondary subjects, too, like geography, for example, in which mathematics and science come together. Early initiatives in wider curriculum integration were at least partly a result of dissatisfaction with the traditional (mainly secondary) curriculum. However, some of the schemes (the Keele Integrated Studies Project and Goldsmiths' Scheme for Interdisciplinary Enquiry, for example) were little more than a cobbling together of traditional subjects. Blenkin and Kelly do not feel that centrally produced schemes have been very satisfactory:

they have been concerned with whether one can, and whether, how or why one should break down barriers that are already there rather than with the question of whether such barriers should be erected in the first place. (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:145)
The issues

What, then, are the principle areas of argument surrounding curriculum integration? They fall into five categories: philosophical/epistomological arguments, psychological considerations, sociological/political arguments, organisational issues and contextual matters.

Philosophical/epistomological arguments

For the traditionalist, curriculum integration 'transgresses certain canons of logic and the requirements imposed by the structure of knowledge itself' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:151). This argument is based on a rationalist view of knowledge and only has validity

if we accept the view that the central concerns of the curriculum are to transmit certain kinds of valuable knowledge and to do this in such a way as to make clear to pupils that they are divided up into certain timeless and discrete forms of rationality. (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:151)
Kelly (1982) asks why curriculum integration has ever been seen as a problem and suggests that this is the result of looking at it from the point of view of this one particular theory of knowledge. Hirst, for example, sees knowledge as being organised into several discrete 'forms of understanding' (Hirst 1974:48), while Phenix (1964:6) talks of six 'realms of meaning' which he categorises as 'symbolics, empirics, esthetics, synnoetics, ethics, and synoptics'.

Empiricists, however, claim that subjects

should not be seen as the base from which the curriculum is organised, that such divisions should be natural and make sense to the child in the organisation of his/her knowledge and not presented as derived from some notion of subjects, disciplines or 'forms'. (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:151)
Kelly (1982:66) suggests that an empiricist view of knowledge has enabled the primary sector to espouse curriculum integration with 'comparatively few problems'.

Psychological considerations

The primary sector has also been more mindful of the results of research into learning processes - the Plowden Report was firmly based in Piagetian theory, for example.

The work of Piaget and Bruner showed that the gap between philosophy and psychology in the discussion of education is not as wide or as clearly recognisable as some believe. This is a point 'which may in itself tell us something about the integration of knowledge' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:146). The theories of learning posited by Piaget, Bruner and others suggest that we should be planning education 'in terms of developmental process,' trying to develop 'a unity of understanding in the mind of the individual pupil' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:131). Dewey felt it important that the child should organise his/her own knowledge, not have it done for him/her, and Kelly (1982:80) suggests that motivation, interest and relevance are all psychological factors in favour of curriculum integration.

Sociological/political arguments

Kelly suggests that the integrated curriculum is part of a move towards a more 'open' society in which knowledge is freely available. The effect of this is seen in schools: 'when subject boundaries are strongly maintained, the organisation of the institution remains firmly in the hands of the Head and the heads of the subject departments' (Kelly 1982:69). He also suggests that curriculum integration produces a different attitude to knowledge in children - a greater willingness to share and collaborate. 'The whole substance of inter-pupil relationships is changed' (Kelly 1982:70). This goes for pupil-teacher relationships too: the teacher is not 'set in authority' but becomes 'an authority' (Kelly 1982:71).

Kelly points out that some themes can only be dealt with in an integrated curriculum. 'No adequate examination of racial problems or relations between the sexes, for example, can be undertaken within any one discipline' (Kelly 1978:91). In his later book he also suggests that 'a changing society will inevitably create new bases for the organisation of knowledge: CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) and Life Skills, for example' (Kelly 1982:75). It is important to avoid what Whitehead (1932:8) called 'inert knowledge' (quoted in Kelly 1982:56).

Schwab underlines this point about the changing nature of knowledge: 'The revisionary character of scientific knowledge accrues from the continuing assessment and modification of substantive structures' (Schwab 1964:266). Pointing out the dangers of a purely dogmatic, inculcative curriculum, Schwab suggests that unless pupils appreciate the limitations of the enquiry that produced the knowledge, they will be bewildered by revisions. On the other hand, if they are given freedom to speculate on the possible changes in structures, they will not only be prepared to meet future revisions with intelligence but will better understand the knowledge they are currently being taught.

Politically, there is pressure at present for a move towards subject specialisation among teachers. An early manifestation of this can be seen in the 1978 HMI Primary Survey. Blenkin and Kelly feel that this has caused tensions in the schools 'which are now being resolved very firmly in favour of the subject-based approach' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:147). Another important example is the greatly increased emphasis on specialisation advocated by CATE (Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education), which now insists on two of the four years of teacher training being spent on a specialist subject, even for infant and nursery teachers. Like the one-year PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) this devalues the professional nature of the work of the teacher. These moves are an imposition of an ideology of curriculum 'inimical to our view of education as process' (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:148).

The proposed National Curriculum takes this process a huge step further. It is couched entirely in terms of traditional subjects with only the barest acknowledgement of the fact that most primary schools do not work in this way. It is based on a view which

regards subjects as bodies of knowledge that somehow have to be transferred to the consciousness of the learner rather than as media for the development of his/her intellectual or cognitive capacities. (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:148)
It is concerned with the learning of subjects rather than learning through them: the emphasis is on content as the prime concern in curriculum planning, content which can be divided up into neat parcels.

Organisational issues

Practical matters are more important than they may at first seem. School organisation - allocation of time, space, staff and material resources, decisions about pupil groupings, accommodation (workshops rather than classrooms?) and furniture (tables or desks and their arrangement) - should support the curriculum but often it is the other way round. My first headship was of a school which was furnished entirely with old-fashioned desks arranged in rows facing the blackboard. It was practically very difficult to get collaborative work going in such circumstances and, without a library, personal enquiry was almost impossible. Blenkin and Kelly suggest that problems of organisation have led to an unbalanced curriculum for many individual pupils - hence the present concern for the whole curriculum.

Contextual matters

The contextual issues raised by the debate about curriculum integration concern the relationship between primary and secondary education, the public examination system, the demands of the employment market and current plans for assessment and accountability. (There is an overlap here with political issues and it is often difficult to separate the two).

In secondary education there have been moves in recent years to break down some of the barriers between the traditional subjects (such as the schemes mentioned earlier) and the GCSE exam, though based on subject areas, has injected welcome aspects of the principles of integration into the secondary curriculum. Unfortunately, the National Curriculum is likely to erode the progress that has been made by its insistence that the vast majority of time is spent on traditional subjects. This has a knock-on effect of primary schools, which have to bear in mind issues of progression and continuity between primary and secondary schooling.

But perhaps it is the call for greater accountability - involving the use of extensive testing of pupils - which poses the greatest threat to curriculum integration:

Demands that teachers be more directly accountable to outside agencies can only encourage an emphasis on those aspects of their work [ie basic skills] that these agencies can best understand. (Blenkin and Kelly 1987:212)
Conclusions

Pring (1976:102) describes the subject-based curriculum as 'fragmented, apathy-inducing, artificially restricting, unrelated, irrelevant and duplicating'. He suggests three reasons for advocating an integrated curriculum:

  • respect for the varied mental activities of pupils;
  • recognition of the commonsense language and understandings through which pupils already engage in this mental life and to which the more disciplined modes of enquiry must be related; and
  • the need for a more flexible and cooperative teaching framework.
(Pring 1976:120)

Kelly suggests that the most common criticisms of integration are:

  • the danger of sameness leading to central control - subject specialisation is seen as helping to prevent this;
  • loss of power by individuals leading to increased autonomy for heads;
  • loss of structure and therefore quality in children's learning.
(Kelly 1982:70-1)

This last argument fails to recognise that a move to integration leads to more meaning and relevance and should therefore result in better quality and also that the erosion of specialisms is not a feature of curriculum integration - indeed, greater expertise is often needed.

Curriculum integration comes in a variety of forms but I am convinced that anything which breaks down the traditional subject barriers and makes knowledge more meaningful, relevant and stimulating for children must be in the interest of effective education.

References

Blenkin and Kelly (1987) The primary curriculum: a process approach to curriculum planning London: Harper and Row

Hirst PH (1974) Moral education in a secular society London: University of London Press

Kelly AV (1978) Mixed-ability grouping London: Harper and Row

Kelly AV (1982) The curriculum: theory and practice London: Harper and Row

Phenix PH (1964) Realms of meaning: a philosophy of the curriculum for general education New York: McGraw-Hill

Pring R (1976) Knowledge and schooling Wells: Open Books

Schwab JJ (1964) 'Structure of the disciplines: meanings and significances' in M Golby, J Greenwald and R West (eds) (1975) Curriculum design London: Croom Helm/Open University 249-267

Whitehead AN (1932) The aims of education London: Williams and Norgate

  • This article is a modified version of an essay submitted in October 1987 as part of my Diploma in Education course at the University of London Institute of Education.