Ideas Drive Integrated Learning, Not Subjects


Integrated learning seems like a pretty simple idea. Kids don’t get fired up when you say, “Let’s go study some English!” They get fired up with dinosaurs, scuba diving, and iPhone apps. Why? Because English is boring. In the traditional sense, that is. (Unless you’re that one teacher who really digs grammar. Seriously, I know this woman and she’s nuts, in the good way. Definitely an anomaly.) However, English when introduced through a lens of interest is a means to an end.

Isn’t that what education is about? Providing young learners with the tools and building blocks necessary to pursue passions, create something, and figure out which piece of the puzzle they are.

Traditional teachers don’t have the luxury of teaching this way. They’ve got 30 kids (times 6 classes) with children from different backgrounds, of different genders, of different interests, and other factors, such as language, disposition, and age.  Teaching in an integrated way, incorporating other subjects into one’s main discipline, is challenging. English teachers are hired to do just that: English. They’re not hired to teach Science, or History, or Math.

And yet, true learning can’t happen in silos. Rather, it can, but should it? Why are all the tech giants sending their kids to Waldorf and Montessori education? Because in these styles of school, kids are left to their own devices with mentors and counselors rather than direct teachers. As I’ve said before, teachers are a dying breed. Information isn’t the golden ticket; it’s what you do with it. When Dewey envisioned the current educational system, it was to provide access to knowledge. At the time, teachers were the repositories of such knowledge.

Dewey was a genius, but his ideas don’t apply to the time we’re living in now.

A system that hires six teachers to teach six separate subjects made sense 100 years ago when we were in the throws of the Industrial Revolution. We’ve moved on from that as a society and need (demand?) more.

Interest-driven education has seen great success in Montessori schools, specialized programs or charter schools, and homeschools. Learning in an integrated way means that kids see the connections between disciplines. They don’t get caught up in the categories of learning; it’s simply figuring out what needs to be done in order to accomplish a goal. This goal may be designing an iPhone app, developing an understanding of Greek and Roman mythology, or learning how to cook. Each of these requires fundamental understanding across different disciplines. In order to learn about app development, you must learn to read. Then you must learn to read critically, determining what skills are necessary to design and code successfully. Finally, identifying what mathematical concepts and programming tools you need require practice and discipline.

Interest-driven and project-based learning are gaining a lot of traction in the US. There are many reasons to explain this shift in thinking, but in particular, interest-driven education:

  • Makes learning relevant
  • Puts kids in charge of their education (with guidance from mentors)
  • Creates a “doing” culture rather than a “watching” culture
  • Emphasizes that living and learning go together, that even kids can create things that matter, that are real
  • Acknowledges that kids can accomplish great things when adults get out of their way

When I say that teachers are a dying breed, I mean in the most fundamental sense. Educators will always have a place in children’s lives, though the venue and the function will continue to evolve. Kids don’t know what they don’t know; educators enter the picture to provide guidance, context, and support.

As John Seely Brown mentions, “For interest-driven learning to work, you need mentors. … The role of the mentor is to get you to discover things you might not actually know you were interested in, to confront topics you may not be very good at understanding, but once discovered, you will.”

I will be very interested to see traditional schools bending more towards integrated learning. Rather than setting aside a few token days each year for this “special treat,” what would a school structure look like if this happened year-round?  Homeschoolers have demonstrated that learning through ideas, not subjects, creates enormous success, allowing kids to think holistically and completely.

What benefit do you see in integrated learning? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Christa Johnson is focused on helping new parents get started with homeschooling. She writes about homeschooling strategies and successes, including the latest research in the field. She is the founder of No Agenda Homeschool, which provides practical tools to start homeschooling with confidence.

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