Contrary to popular belief, curriculum integration entails more than simply linking lessons together along a common theme. It is more than just "rearranging existing lesson plans", it is an attempt to organize "curriculum around significant problems and issues…without regard for subject-area boundaries" (Beane, 1997). The goal of curriculum integration
is to have students gain a deeper level of understanding across subject areas through interrelated thematic study. Themes are drawn from life "as it is being lived and experienced" with knowledge based around problem solving rather than rote skill acquisition (Beane, 1997).
Rather than seeing curriculum integration as this unified and connected series of higher order thinking skills
, many people (including teachers) confuse integration with a multidisciplinary approach. Multidisciplinary attempts at teaching thematic units relate individual subjects to singular topic without making connections. For example, during a unit on fish, a teacher could have his or her students read literature about fish and do fish word problems; however, unless the connections of synthesis, analysis, and evaluation are made, true integration is not being achieved. The students are learning a great deal about fish, math, and literature separately, but are not encouraged to see the relationships between each of these subject areas.
In order to help foster an understanding across curriculum areas, integration needs to unify the subject matter in the students’ minds through making connections between subject areas and exploring how these relate to their everyday lives. Integration of content is important and potentially very effective because the brain processes information through connections. If teachers help their students create connections between subject-area material, then they will potentially increase the amount of long-term knowledge retained by the students (Beane, 1997). Integration is also important due to the fact that there is a growing emphasis on application of knowledge rather than rote memorization and due to the fact that knowledge is not fixed (Beane, 1997). Integration allows students to look at things from different angles and to explore the grey areas that may be a part of the various concepts.
Evidence from both educational journals and personal interviews suggest several different possible approaches to successful science integration. Many of the lesson plans dealt with integrating science with technology or with mathematics. For example, a fifth-grade teacher had his class record weather observations for an entire year and then used their data to teach graphing concepts including bar graphs, line graphs, pie charts, as well as concepts such as mean and mode (Chia, 1998). Rather than simply having his students graph the raw data that they collected, he encouraged higher-order thinking by having them make predictions and generalizations based on their observations and data. He took his thematic study beyond the multidisciplinary approach to an integrated one by focusing on synthesis and analysis of information.
Specifically in Virginia, teachers are exploring the possibilities of integration, but are also aware of the challenges that it entails. One fourth-grade teacher from Fairfax County who has a forty-five minute self-contained science classroom has found it difficult to integrate other subject matter into his science class due to time constraints. Furthermore, any integration that he is able to do requires him to come up with most of his materials on his own, imposing even more time limitations. Conversely, a second-grade teacher in Northern Virginia uses laser discs and trade books to teach science, incorporating technology and literature with science. Additionally, she feels that this helps maintain open minds and the ability to see science across diverse areas. As we begin to explore integration, we have begun to realize that integration is more than simply looking at a topic through many lenses, but a way of making those lenses fit together.