Curriculum integration – Challenging the popular narrative

Dr Graham McPhail, University of Auckland

Bringing subjects together is a key component in discussions about 21st century learning. The narrative that we repeatedly hear from policy makers and the media wants us to refocus curricula on ‘big picture’ themes and problems, recommending that we use more holistic approaches to organising the curriculum than traditional subject-based ways. Curriculum integration in New Zealand is more common in primary schools than secondary schools, but there is a growing trend in this direction at all levels of schooling world-wide so it is worthy of (re)-investigation.

So here’s how the current story goes…

We are told the world is changing in fast and precarious ways. The model of schooling we have is a 19th century industrial model ill-suited to preparing students for an unknown future. We need a new sort of student; one who is a creative problem solver who can work collaboratively and think in inter-disciplinary ways. The student will also learn-to-learn and become a life-long-learner … Who could disagree?!

One key mechanism for developing such a learner, it is argued, is Curriculum Integration. So what are the key arguments in favour of curriculum integration?

Arguments in favour

The first argument in favour of curriculum integration says that learning in integrated ways is more authentic; more like the real world where we don’t compartmentalise things. The somewhat staid, separate disciplines we have traditionally used are no longer regarded as appropriate for learning in our new, fast changing, interconnected world. We are told that we need to think beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

An integrated approach is also (we are told) more motivating. If we can connect learning to real world problems and ideas, students may be more inclined to engage with some of the hard stuff as they can see the relevance of content or where the learning might be heading.

Finally, we’re told that curriculum integration will lead to deeper learning. By seeing connections in learning, the learning will be deepened. Curriculum integration is closely linked with the personalisation of learning, a focus on key competencies, and inquiry learning. Bolstad and Gilbert (2012) suggest that we organise the curriculum around what they call “high-level organising ideas” (p. 34) such as education for enterprise, education for sustainability, or any of the world’s ‘wicked problems’. Using ‘external organisers’ or ‘themes’ rather than subject concepts provides a means for personalising and integrating learning within an inquiry-based model. These three aspects, personalising, interation, and inquiry, appear to go hand in hand in the new imaginary.


There seem to be a few major challenges lurking in each of the above ideas. I think that these challenges suggest we need to approach curriculum integration with care.

First, I’d like to consider authenticity and the ‘real world’! At one level, wanting to make clearer connections between the conceptual ideas of various subjects and their application or relevance to the ‘real world’ (wherever that place might be!) is all well and good. However, I think we also need to remember that a school is not the ‘real world’nor should it be! A school is a very special social institution set up to provide access to knowledge that students don’t have systemised access to at home. The specialised knowledge only available at school has a different purpose and a different structure from everyday socio-cultural knowledge, and the two types should not be conflated or confused.

Second, it seems to me that authenticity and motivation are pedagogical problems so therefore shouldn’t be used as reasons to fundamentally change what we teach. We need to be careful to differentiate between the curriculum and the pedagogy.

Third, it seems unlikely to me that deep learning will occur if the curriculum is structured around “high-level organising ideas”. Such ideas do not have an epistemic structure (a series of interrelated concepts as found in the sets of ideas making up individual subjects), so high-level organising ideas can only provide motivational impetus rather than providing a means for deep conceptual learning.

Finally, ‘interdisciplinarity’ (integrating subjects) presupposes disciplinarity (separate subjects). We can’t think in interconnected ways before we have learnt to think in disciplinary ways – so first things first!


Now all this doesn’t mean I am against curriculum integration, but in my recent research watching and talking with teachers attempting integration at the NCEA (senior secondary) level, I would say it is much harder than it looks (see here, here, and here). If we keep in mind that deep learning will consist of students’ increasing understanding of interrelated concepts, so that they learn to think progressively in deeper and more perceptive ways (cognitive advance), then subject concepts must be the foundation for the curriculum experiences. We can use problems and themes to bring concepts together but if the reason for bringing subjects together cannot be conceptually justified then curriculum integration seems to be too risky. In fact, curriculum integration might result in confusion in learning if key concepts are missed out or muddled in the thematic approach.

As a result of my research I’ve reached the following conclusions about curriculum integration:

  • The arguments for curriculum integration are predominantly pedagogical, and the evidence for academic learning gains is, as yet, less clear (see here, here, and here).
  • Making meaningful connections across subject boundaries is much harder than it looks! (see here and here)
  • Curriculum integration may be best utilized as a supplementary opportunity to put subject knowledge to use in certain, well-planned contexts rather than as the main means of curricular delivery (see here).
  • Where curriculum integration is utilised, the ‘meta-concepts’ or ‘themes’ need to be underpinned with strong subject concepts to increase the likelihood of deep learning (cognitive advance; see here).

I suggest reading Wineburg, S., & Grossman, P. (2000). Interdisciplinary curriculum: Challenges to implementation. New York, NY: Teachers College Press for some very balanced thinking and some excellent examples of what successful curriculum integration might look like. In the meantime, I think we should tread with caution. If we venture into the realms of curriculum integration, we need to put subject concepts at the centre of our thinking. Only then will deep rather than everyday learning occur.

Graham.pngDr Graham McPhail is a senior lecturer in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. His research work is centred on the role of knowledge in the curriculum, in particular within 21st century schooling and music education contexts. He is the lead editor for NZ’s first ever volume on secondary school music education, Educational Change and the Secondary School Music Curriculum in Aotearoa New Zealand, to be published by Routledge in early 2018.

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