A Web of Meaning

girl in leaf tunnelThe mind learns through connections. The more connections one can make to an idea, the better one understands it, and the more one can remember about it. This is the cognitive argument for teaching through integrative studies. Meanwhile, people learn in community, and most of our knowledge is defined by our community. The ways we communicate and share ideas and act on those ideas have huge implications for the kind of world we create. This is the social argument for integrative studies. Finally, the purpose of learning is not just to make people more productive, but to give us greater fulfillment and understanding. We should see our knowledge in its wider context of life in the universe. This is the holistic argument for integrative studies.

The purpose of integrative studies is to weave together different kinds of knowledge and to recognize that they all play a role in human experience. A scientist can see poetry in the universe. A historian can refer to music, literature, and invention. An artist can examine objective detail and experiment with materials. By drifting outside of a discipline, one can find more meaning in it.

We face two inherent problems in an integrative approach. One is the balance between “the forest and the trees.” A curriculum that is too focused on particular topics, like the chemistry of paint making, may leave students without a wider sense of connection among the many strands of knowledge. boy with wormThe broad survey approach to teaching that is typically followed in schools can fail to awaken the interest and passion involved in studying something very deeply over time. The way topics are chosen and woven together therefore makes a huge difference in the impact of the learning experience.

The other problem is practical: real integrative studies cannot come out of a box. The teacher faces a monumental challenge in developing original content that is both well planned and responsive to the unpredictable questions and interests students express. Over time, this task becomes easier for a school if it is able to document and pass on successful ideas, adding improvements with each visit to a theme. Local resources, field trip destinations, websites, and materials gradually accumulate to form a coherent whole for the project.

The Children’s School of Art and Science allows the youngest and oldest students to participate in the same thematic study, adapted to their own level of understanding. Teachers dedicate time to identifying shared content, generating questions and a framework for the study, and assembling students on a regular basis to share their work. In a cycle of different integrative themes over three or four years, the school gives students the opportunity to experience a topic more than once—as a young primary student and later with more maturity and abstract understanding. This repetition can help children see how learning is not just a process of entering new territory; it can be a deeper exploration of territory that is already familiar.

The project contains a mix of planned events and spontaneous exploration. Being shown a new connection often does not yield the same impact as discovering that connection for oneself. We give students many chances to ask their own questions about an idea and see where those questions lead. Sometimes they may lead exactly to the kinds of projects we already expected. Sometimes not. Teachers also follow their inspiration, introducing new ways to explore the topic.

Ed Clark’s work, Designing and Implementing an Integrated Curriculum, serves as a model and resource for our school.

See Also

Example of Integrative Study: A History of Me
Example of Integrative Study: How do I know my neighborhood?

quotesThe class subjects don't rotate on a 20-40 minute schedule, so the children really have time to absorb and master what they are learning"

–A Children's School Parent

quotesMy daughter literally breaks down sobbing when she is too sick to go to school!"

–A Children's School Parent


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