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Subject-Centered Classrooms Can Morph Into Integrated-Content Classrooms

Formal education in most elementary classrooms is based on an organizational system that focuses on content subjects. Posted in classrooms is a calendar of the day: 8:30–9:30 Reading, 9:30–10:30 Math, 10:45–11:30 Science, etc. This subject-centric method has been a driving force in how elementary schools have traditionally been organized. This was done for many reasons, which vary with each school, but it is interesting to note that even though each school or district may have their own reasoning, the end result is the same across the United States: subject matter dictates the classroom experience. Our society wants balanced individuals, yet we segregate our learning into silos.

What are some reasons that subject-centered learning still around?

In his 1982 paper entitled “Curriculum Contrasts: A Historical Overview,” Allan Ornstein examines the case for why subject-centered learning has held on:

“Proponents defend the subject-centered curriculum on four grounds: 1) that subjects are a logical way to organize and interpret learning, 2) that such organization makes it easier for people to remember information for future use, 3) that teachers (in secondary schools, at least) are trained as subject-matter specialists, and 4) that textbooks and other teaching materials are usually organized by subject.”

Ornstein’s second point about subject-centered curriculum has many opponents. One argument is that education shouldn’t be designed with the goal of simply having students remember information. That was old, Industrial Age thinking that does not take into account either the goals of college and career readiness currently espoused by our new educational standards, or the fact that learners come with many different strengths and weaknesses—and those differences need to be addressed individually for maximum effectiveness.

At my last school, the primary classes (K–2) had a literacy block for two hours every day. Our Instructional Assistants and Para Educators were available to lead small groups and enhance student discovery and learning in an organizational technique established by the district. In the intermediate grades, we tried to combine subjects for meaningful interdisciplinary learning, but also ran into obstacles, such as Special Education pull-out timing, scheduling specialists, recess and breaks, other teachers’ schedules, material availability, etc. Thus, sometimes having discreet subject times was the easiest organizational tactic.

What is needed to combine subjects in the classroom?

Employers today want interdisciplinary learners; the engineer who can write effectively is a rare breed, and one that is in high demand. The same can be said for the writer who can effectively interpret and describe design schematics. In other words, these days, all subjects work together.

The common chore of organization is the main reason elementary school classrooms remain subject-centered. There are additional reasons for subject-centered classrooms in middle school, high school, and beyond.

However, a classroom schedule based on a subject-centered configuration can easily morph into an integrated-content classroom. It can be done by combining subjects as long as the equivalent time allotment for each of the subjects is maintained throughout the day. A literacy block can also have a social studies focus; the students can be learning to read and write while exploring a non-fiction history genre. In the upper elementary grades, math can easily be merged with science, yet can also be integrated into social studies and language arts through creative methods. What’s more, students can help integrate interesting subjects into the classroom.

A lot of work goes into this adjustment. Especially the use of a teacher’s most precious commodity: time. Time is necessary for adjustment, time needed for planning, time for generating ideas with colleagues, time for reflection, and time for iteration after. It won’t be an easy transition, but it will be an amazing one.

The integrated classroom

Proponents of the subject-centered classroom have an idyllic view of the modern classroom. In 1998, Parker Palmer described the subject-centered classroom as one in which students and teacher can come together, reveling in the pursuit of knowledge in the name of an engaging and enriching subject. Any teacher or student would be excited about this idea, but we have the capability to integrate that same idea with several subjects around a common theme.

Subject-centered classrooms are almost certain to remain the organizational strategy of our educational system for the foreseeable future. There are simply too many moving parts that would need to be updated to adopt this more interdisciplinary approach, and teacher training would need to be revised. What has been done for so many decades is difficult to change.

However, integrating subjects in the classroom with a common theme can enhance the enthusiasm of students, bring new life to lessons, and open up a new world by showing them that all subjects are connected and important.

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