Secondary Experiences

Despite curriculum integration being considered firmly on the middle school reform agenda to address disengagement (Beane, 2006; Wallace et al., 2007), in Australian secondary schools, it is often a one-off special event, for example, introduced for one school term in Year 9 or a study of life in the city for one week of the school year. Unlike the primary years, where models of integration have been developed and guidance around the planning of integrated unit and the use of rich pedagogies provided (Murdoch & Hornsby, 1997; Pigdon & Woolley, 1992; Wilson & Wing Jan, 2003), this level of support is notably absent at the secondary level (Dowden, 2007).

Toni Dowden’s (2007) investigation of challenging, integrative exploratory curriculum design for middle-level schooling in Australia noted that in the 1990s, Pigdon and Woolley (1992) and Murdoch and Hornsby (1997) developed an integrative curriculum model that provided an explicit focus on concept-based teaching and learning. In this inquiry-focussed model, content knowledge is drawn from a host subject. The key concepts and big ideas that connect with the host subject’s content are then identified, enabling authentic connections to be made with other subjects (learning areas) and grounding the planning of learning experiences. Their influential work included advice on planning units of work and developing rich pedagogies but was oriented to primary schooling.

Further, resistance to curriculum integration can be more intense in secondary schools where subject teachers view discipline knowledge as sacrosanct to their subjects. Such attitudes can lead to a gatekeeper’s role, with teachers safeguarding their subject’s disciplinary knowledge, wanting to ensure it is not devalued, diluted or subsumed. Not surprisingly, little is known about the learning that occurs when the theorising of integrating disciplines meets with practice or with student responses to this way of learning.

With this context in mind, the planning of a cross-disciplinary unit, Reality Bites, undertaken by a Year 8 teaching team in a large independent school in the state of Victoria is discussed. Teachers from four disciplines—English, science, religious studies and multimedia—were allocated 9 h of planning time to map how the concept of reality would play out in their subject-based lessons. What this example reveals is how the focus on an overlapping concept can safeguard disciplinary content knowledge from being subsumed or diluted and in effect disrupt disciplinary teachers’ territoriality. The teachers described their unit as transdisciplinary, but the focus on the disciplinary lens of the subjects is commensurate with an interdisciplinary design.

The planning was mediated and facilitated by an educational consultant, Dr Julie Landvogt, termed by the teachers as ‘an outsider with an insider relationship’, who also provided ongoing support during implementation. As one teacher noted, the planning meetings enabled us ‘to wrestle with what reality was’ and frame questions to focus the planning of the learning experiences for each subject (Table 2).

Some outcomes of this cross-disciplinary approach to planning are evidenced in the students’ comments about shifts in their conceptualisation of reality:

Science doesn’t interest me personally but when they bring in stuff like that it forces you to think ... it pushes you to your Limit and you think hang on there could be something I am not thinking about. And in a way it forces you to learn even if you don’t want to.

There was this one idea in the science lesson that blew me away . The idea that we have become so conditioned to only believing what we already know and what we are used to seeing that our brain has become insensitive to things we haven’t seen before.

Thinking back to what Henry said, we discard things that don’t fit the pattern that we are used to ... I think that’s why people like Kristov started to get so worried when Truman didn’t fit the patterns of reality they had set.

It was the pedagogical view of the curriculum taken by English teachers and their focus on a dialogic pedagogy or what Robin Alexander (2008) refers to as learning talk that enabled students to start considering reality from a disciplinary perspective in their English classes. These teachers dedicated class time to exploring ideas, providing examples and seeking clarification of each other’s ideas to enable cognitive advancements (Miller & Boix-Mansilla, 2004) to occur. Thoughtful questioning and probing of students’ thinking scaffolded a discussion orientation to learning and focussing on characteristics associated with intellectual quality: deep knowledge, higher order thinking, substantive conversation, metalanguage and problematic language.

Table 2 Subject framework for planning the learning experiences


Key question

Supplementary questions

Making connections


What is it to be human?

How real was Truman? What did we learn from this about the reality of human


How might these ideas be connected to the idea of reality?


What is real and how do we know? How do we know about things in the world that we cannot see?

How can you prove something beyond doubt? What methods do scientists use to establish reality?

How did Truman use scientific method to real the truth/reality of his world existence at Seahaven?



What is reality and how can we be sure?

What is meant by freedom? What is the meaning of lie? What is meant by morality and ethics?

What links can be made between your understanding of these terms and what you know of Truman’s life?


Is there more to media than meet the eyes?

What roles do the media play in shaping our reality and what we perceive to be real? Do the media always tell the truth? How can we be sure?

To what extent are we all ‘Trumanised’ by the media?

The high levels of student engagement a curriculum integration approach can stimulate have influenced the design of the emergent approach known as Learning through Country programmes (Fogarty, 2010) for secondary students in remote indigenous communities. These programmes recognise indigenous land and sea management as localised learning opportunities and as an employment pathway. Curriculum is framed around the concept of biodiversity with students working on projects with local indigenous rangers and elders that connect learning and employment with caring for country. Projects include spider diversity and abundance, crocodile egg collecting, patrolling of foreign fishing vessels, buffalo disease monitoring, longneck turtle protection and harvesting of turtle eggs.

William Fogarty and Robert Schwab (2012) note that Learning through Country programmes support the development of science concepts in the areas of biology and environmental sciences while also emphasising the explicit teaching of English literacy and numeracy skills. They argue that ‘direct instruction’ models which target the basics of literacy and numeracy disregard the research evidence (e.g. Catts & Gelade, 2002; Gelade & Stehlik, 2004; Miller, 2005) that indigenous students learn best when learning has immediate or localised utility and is connected to their life experiences.

Building on the Learning through Country project work undertaken at the Maningrida School—a remote Northern Territory community school 550 km east of Darwin—an interdisciplinary team from the University of Melbourne has worked with teachers and students to use and transform their ‘on-country’ knowledge to

Pocket books authored by Maningrida College students

Fig. 3 Pocket books authored by Maningrida College students

develop their visual and written literacy skills. A series of some small pocket books, shown in Fig. 3, adaptable for ecotourism purposes, were produced: Bush Tucker, Cath ‘n’ Cook, Animal First Aid and Animal Tracks, revealing the positive outcomes that can be achieved with a concept-based, curriculum integration approach. Adopting a continued improvement model, further curriculum documentation is being undertaken to encourage students to reflect on and make explicit links between the key concepts of food gathering and consumption, human health and safety and environmental management and sustainable biodiversity in order to provide assessable evidence of deep learning.

Notwithstanding the positive outcomes identified in these snapshots, the implementation of concept-based, curriculum integration is not without its challenges and issues, which accounts for this approach to design and pedagogy not gaining a strong foothold in Australian curriculum (Harris & Marsh, 2007). Some of the challenges and issues that have emerged from the case study examples, recent research and my practical experience are now discussed.

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