ERIC Identifier: ED351095
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Beane, James
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
Integrated Curriculum in the Middle School. ERIC Digest.
Recent debates among educators about the middle school curriculum involve
three critical concepts. The first is that the middle school ought to be a
general education school in which the curriculum focuses on widely shared
concerns of early adolescents and the larger world rather than increasing
specialization and differentiation among separate subjects. The second concept
is that while the middle school curriculum is subject to many demands, its
primary purpose ought to be to serve the early adolescents who attend the
The third concept involves revision of the increasingly popular view of early
adolescents simply as victims of their developmental stage: for example,
"hormones with feet." These labels demean early adolescents and encourage low
expectations and gimmicks like slogan systems, coupons, and bumper stickers
designed simply to "keep the hormones in check" (Arnold, 1980). Instead, early
adolescents can be seen as real human beings who participate in the larger world
and have serious concerns about both the world and their own adolescence.
These three concepts, along with the notion of curriculum integration, point
to a compelling possibility for middle school curriculum. This new vision begins
with two kinds of questions: those that early adolescents have about themselves
and their world and those widely shared by people in the larger world (Beane,
1990a). Early adolescents often have questions about the physical changes
they're experiencing, their identities, their relations with peers and adult
authority figures, and their prospects. At the same time, they share with all of
us concerns about life in a changing world, the environment, wealth and poverty,
cultural diversity and racism, and so on. Moreover, their questions about
themselves are often personal versions of a larger-world question, concerning,
for example, the connections between conflict with adults and peers and conflict
on a global scale. In other words, at the intersection of concerns from early
adolescents and from the larger world, we can begin to imagine powerful themes
that connect the two and thus offer a promising possibility for organizing an
integrative curriculum (Beane, 1990a).
The emerging vision of a middle school curriculum is organized around rich
themes from these two sources rather than artificial subject areas. Imagine a
unit on identities in which students examine how self-perceptions are formed,
how culture influences self-concepts, and how increasing cultural diversity
promises to reshape politics and the economy. In such a unit, early adolescents
develop skills related to communication, problem-solving, research, and social
action. They expand their critical, creative, and reflective thinking skills and
become acquainted with a rich array of facts and concepts from a wide variety of
sources. They can explore enduring, but elusive, ideas like democracy, human
dignity, and cultural diversity (Beane, 1990b).
AN EXAMPLE OF THE NEW CURRICULUM
At Marquette Middle School
in Madison, Wisconsin, a group of teachers carried out a thematic unit that
followed the new curriculum vision. The unit began with the students listing
questions about themselves and their world and then identifying a number of
themes that the questions suggested. Students then selected one theme, living in
the future, and listed activities they might use to answer questions related to
The activities suggest just how such a curriculum works. One involved
designing a model for the city of Madison in the year 2020 and required
integrating the work of committees on the environment, transportation,
government, education, and health. Another activity called for investigating
family health histories to determine personal risk factors in the future. A
third brought an artist into the school to sketch pictures of how the students
might look in 30 years and discuss physical effects of aging. A fourth involved
creating, distributing, tabulating, and analyzing a survey of several middle
schools to find out what students' peers predicted for the future. Yet another
activity found students investigating the accuracy of predictions made for this
decade 100 years ago.
These examples point out several key features of the new curriculum vision.
One is that it compels teachers to work with students in ways that give the
students a powerful voice in curriculum planning. This is quite different from
adapting a planned curriculum to students' presumed needs. Certainly many
teachers have taught exciting units like the one just described. But they have
probably done so within the confines of one subject, or by contriving
contributions from several subjects. Here, the theme and activities emerge from
the concerns of the students rather than the interests of a teacher or the
manipulation of subject areas.
Another feature of this vision of curriculum is that it proceeds from a
constructivist view. Since meanings are created by students rather than imposed
by adults, students use their knowledge and skill to search for answers to their
questions rather than to concentrate on passing exams or preparing for an
occupation. Obviously this shift in the source of meanings redefines the role of
the teacher from KNOWLEDGE GATEKEEPER and MEANING MAKER to GUIDE and
A third feature of this new curriculum is that it is knowledge-rich.
Knowledge and skill are taken out of abstract subject categories and
repositioned in the context of thematic units where they are more likely to
develop. This kind of curriculum is appropriate for an era of knowledge
A fourth feature is that this curriculum presents an authentic integration of
affect and cognition. The most important concerns of people in general, and
early adolescents in particular, have to do with self and social, or affective,
issues. Such issues are not simply a matter of emotion; we think about and act
on them in terms of values, morals, and so on. Yet middle and other schools
continue to treat affect and cognition as if their theoretical distinctions
reflected real life. The new curriculum recognizes the artificiality of such
distinctions and challenges their application in separate affective arrangements
such as advisory programs.
Finally, the new curriculum departs from arrangements such as the earlier
block-time core programs, which were scheduled alongside traditional subject
courses, in that it is meant to serve as virtually the entire curriculum. The
new curriculum embraces an entirely different theory of curriculum and learning
than that of the subject-area approach. It assumes that a curriculum that
facilitates integration and is person-centered, constructivist, and thematic
makes sense, and, therefore, ought to be the whole curriculum.
RESTRUCTURING THE CURRICULUM
Although arguments for an
integrative curriculum have implications for all levels of education, my
proposal (Beane, 1990a) focuses on the middle level for a simple reason: for
three decades, people at the middle level have been more engaged than those in
other levels in efforts to reform their schools. While most of their efforts
have focused on institutional features and instructional methods, progress in
many of the schools has been dramatic. For this reason, those at the middle
level are perhaps more willing to consider larger possibilities, even some that
would involve reforming curriculum.
The whole language approach now emerging at the elementary level clearly
holds promise for an integrative curriculum there. And it may be that recent
calls for integration emerging from subject-area associations may eventually
crack even the hard subject categories at the high school level. But
middle-level education cannot wait for such developments. Perhaps actions taken
in the middle will support other levels in their efforts.
The question in curriculum reform remains: are educators willing to make a
leap of faith on behalf of the young people schools are intended to serve? By
LEAP OF FAITH, I mean a willingness to turn themselves over to the young people,
rather than to the abstract subject categories and artificial purposes that have
plagued schooling for so long. Fortunately, this is not a blind leap, since we
have known for many years that movement in this direction benefits both young
people and their teachers (Jennings and Nathan, 1977). If we truly want
integration in the curriculum, then we must think along the lines of the vision
described here and extend the long struggle to make our rhetoric of concern for
the young become a reality (Beane, 1987).
Excerpted from EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, October, 1991. Reprints of the
original article available from ASCD, 1250 N. Pitt St., Alexandria, Virginia
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Arnold, J. "Needed: A Realistic
Perspective of the Early Adolescent Learner." CLEARINGHOUSE 54:4 (1980).
Beane, J. "Dance to the Music of Time: The Future of Middle Level Education."
THE EARLY ADOLESCENT MAGAZINE 2 (September 1987):18-26.
Beane, J. A MIDDLE SCHOOL CURRICULUM: FROM RHETORIC TO REALITY. Columbus,
Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1990a.
Beane, J. AFFECT IN THE CURRICULUM: TOWARD DEMOCRACY, DIGNITY, AND DIVERSITY.
New York: Teachers College Press, 1990b.
Cross Keys Middle School. A PLACE OF OUR OWN. Florissant, Missouri:
Florissant Public Schools, 1990.
Jennings, W., and Nathan, J. "Startling/Disturbing Research on School Program
Effectiveness." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 59 (1977): 568-572.