Education Trends

Why Integrated Instruction Is a Must for Today's Tech-Enabled Learning

As new technologies change the way students think and learn, there is an ever-increasing need for instruction that supports real-world problem solving and an integration of ideas across disciplines.

overhead view of students studying on laptops

Those of us in education have heard about integrated instruction for some time. Also known as "interdisciplinary instruction," the term is used to explain approaches to teaching and learning that support problem solving and critical thinking. Bringing various academic disciplines together can help students think more deeply and more holistically about a topic or a project solution. Therefore, rather than presenting content in a linear fashion with prescribed beginning and ending points, an integrated approach not only encourages, but expects intersection points where related content can be part of the learning process. Topics and subjects are not seen as completely separate entities in an educational journey; instead, they are integrated at points, to make more sense of the whole.

Curriculum and Thinking

Certainly, with new and newer technology, ways in which people think and learn have been changing at an increasing rate. In fact, they are changing more quickly than academic programs and curricula have changed. This has even challenged how we have organized education in terms of age and levels. In a 2017 article I wrote, I explained the changes in literacy and ways of thinking as follows:

We now have younger students who can decipher meaning from short visual cues, modified text and only when the media are mixed. That is, long scrolls of text are not read, but hotlinks are used to web out the logic and to create an understanding that is not dependent upon conventional literacy skills but a new literacy that exchanges meaning differently and, as such, uses language differently. In addition to various "threads" or logical flow of information, "multi-view" provides a multilayered schema of information that necessarily must be processed simultaneously in order for any kind of understanding to be reached.

Certainly, there are no straight lines anymore when students explore topics or problems. In fact, the very essence of exploration now means that students are more open to identifying problems and finding their own ways to solve them.

There are still ways to plan for integration — and various levels of integration — working within set curriculum expectations and outcomes. For instance, a post on TeachingIdeas4u suggests the following (in referencing a Drake and Burns 2004 publication):

  • Multidisciplinary Integration: Teachers who use this method focus primarily on the disciplines. They use a central theme, and standards from each subject are selected to support the theme. For example, a unit focused on geocaching that met standards in math, language arts, and science would be multidisciplinary.
  • Interdisciplinary Integration: The interdisciplinary approach supports standards from different subcategories in one subject area. For example, a unit that integrated reading, writing, and oral communication would be interdisciplinary. Another example might be a unit that integrated history, economics, and geography.
  • Transdisciplinary Integration: In the transdisciplinary approach, [learning content] is organized around student questions or a real-world topic. A common example of transdisciplinary curriculum is problem-based learning.

The approach in higher education is somewhat different, in the sense that outcomes, rather than standards, frame courses. Additionally, student exploration and research are more familiar in higher education than in conventional school education. A 2008 Peer Review article by June Youatt and Kim A. Wilcox, states:

This new signature pedagogy can be characterized as discovery-centered, interdisciplinary, integrative, translational, and contextual. Although any one of these characteristics can contribute to an important and meaningful learning experience, it is the five together, interconnected in a program or experience, that results in the kind of twenty-first-century learning we are striving to achieve and assess.

With the new ways of thinking that are emerging with new and newer technology, this level of exploration and discovery, problem articulation and solution, and critical analysis is possible like never before. The Internet itself provides access to a huge scope and breadth of information on any subject. How, then, can instructors actually facilitate the process? How can teaching and learning partner to produce the kinds of thinkers needed in the future?

Teaching and Learning

It is not a new idea that, in general, teaching and learning is about partnering in the educational process of any student. The discussion here is specifically about how fully integrated thinking can be supported and developed through flexible learning environments designed for active application and use, rather than the passive coverage of content that is already discovered. The realities of current and future employment, social success and future innovation are dependent upon how we teach current students to think and continuously learn. Many rote tasks will be completed by robots and the jobs for humans that will remain are those that specifically require creative and innovative thinking on the job and for varying purposes. Therefore, the kind of integration required is not only referring to curriculum, but it must also involve thinking and processing information, including possible diversions of thought, redirection of focus and the integration of new ideas and trends. This flexibility of instructional design allows for new ideas to be explored, relevant problems to be identified and effective solutions to be created.

There are some fields of study that require covering set content and the memorization of that content. Even so, the usefulness of that information and the way in which it can be used effectively is through application in real-life contexts. In order to do that, students must understand the context as well as the various ways in which the application of information is relevant and effective. In order to do that well, students need to "work" the content in various contexts and explore possible problems that the information will address, along with new integrated solutions that may be explored and discovered.

Employers in all fields are increasingly looking for employees who can "think on their feet" and lead toward new trends and new solutions so that ongoing success may be achieved. That kind of thinking is not the outcome of rote memorization or preset learning parameters, but of applied and innovative exploration and discovery.

Integration and Application

Given that integrative learning is most effective when it supports and facilitates ways of thinking and the application of what has been learned in various contexts of use and for various purposes, learning design and mediation are critical. New and newer technology is a key component, providing increased access to information, the opportunity to interact with information and users like never before, and tools for authoring and publishing new ideas while immediately seeing their impact in real situations (e.g., simulation technology). Integrative learning also increases understanding through its focus on logical connections and intersections of thought and implication. These levels of thinking were always regarded as extremely advanced, but with the access to the kind of technology we now have, they are increasingly becoming the "norm" for users.

In a 2010 article, I wrote:

This is where academic rigor becomes so important. It is vital to keep learning going for students and not create the perception that knowledge is completely contained within the parameters of a set course and that there is nothing else to learn beyond that. Rather we should help students understand the extent of the thought process and how, once fundamentals are grasped, new ideas can emerge that can then be assimilated into their knowledge framework so that new ideas can emerge again, and so on.

For many years, transformative learning theory has addressed the issue of how students learn, including engagement with content, interaction, reflection and problem solving all as aspects of the learning process. InstructionalDesign.org describes one transformative theorist in this regard:

Meaning structures are understood and developed through reflection. Mezirow states that "reflection involves a critique of assumptions to determine whether the belief, often acquired through cultural assimilation in childhood, remains functional for us as adults" (Mezirow, 1991). Reflection is similar to problem solving and Mezirow talks about how we "reflect on the content of the problem, the process of problem-solving, or the premise of the problem" (Mezirow, 1991). Through this reflection we are able to understand ourselves more and then understand our learning better. Merizow also proposed that there are four ways of learning. They are "by refining or elaborating our meaning schemes, learning new meaning schemes, transforming meaning schemes, and transforming meaning perspectives" (Mezirow, 1991).

So, then, how can instructors support this kind of learning? By designing instruction to be flexible and customizable, based on learning outcomes, but without prescription and for the purpose of real use. Instructors should always ask themselves the following questions when designing instruction to be supported and facilitated by new and newer technology:

  • Does this have any real use in any context?
  • What difference will this make in any real sense?
  • What scope is available for student preference and choice?
  • What opportunities are available for open reflection and problem solving?
  • Are problems and solutions encouraged in this learning environment?
  • Can the students integrate their own ideas and new ideas as they are discovered?
  • How can the learning be integrated into an understandable context for the student?

Ultimately, the focus must be on process rather than prescribed tasks. The assessment value, too, must consider the following:

  • The creative approach the student has demonstrated in reviewing the information and identifying new ideas and/or potential problems;
  • The reflective process the student has engaged to fully understand the scope and breadth of the topic;
  • The creative design of a project-based approach in gathering, organizing and using the information; and
  • The innovative way in which the student has integrated his or her thinking to design solutions that work and applications of new knowledge in real-life contexts of use.

Conclusion

In real terms, then, integrative instruction is about designing and mediating instruction that promotes and supports a full process of analysis, reflection, understanding and application. Integration is the way in which all of these aspects of the process work together to frame and produce the kind of learning that demonstrates clear understanding and the reasons why the knowledge is important to its relevant contexts of use. While instructors continue to focus only on standardized information for tests, fully integrated thinking and learning cannot take place. While tests have to be done, the preparation for tests should only be the starting point, not the full scope of the learning.

References

Reynard, Ruth (2017): Redefining Literacy in the Digital Age. Campus Technology.

Drake, S.M.& Burns, R.C. (2004): Meeting Standards Through Integrated Curriculum. ASCD.

Youatt, J. & Wilcox, K.A. (2008): Intentional and Integrated Learning in a New Cognitive Age: A Signature Pedagogy for Undergraduate Education in the Twenty-First Century. Peer Review. Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Reynard, Ruth (2010): Technology & Teaching Tomorrow's Thinkers. THE Journal.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

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