The imperative of integration

I was recently working on a number of learning modules for a potential visit from educators in China. One of the areas they are interested in learning more about is how American schools approach STEM/STEAM instruction, and why STEM and all its “relatives” (think STEAM, STREAM, etc.) have become so prevalent across the United States.

While I can’t answer on behalf of the country, I can provide a rationale based on what I’ve learned across my career so far, and what I’ve heard in conversations with educators from across our region.

And, it all boils down to the value provided by integration.

It isn’t simply the process of integrating disciplines though. When we peel the onion, we see that the true value in integration comes from the relevance it provides. The more connected we can make ideas the more meaningful they become. And when something is meaningful, we become more in tune with it, and are more likely to see it as important and therefore be able to devote necessary cognitive space to whatever it is.

So, when it comes to an opportunity to integrate, such as in the case of the STEM disciplines, how can we make sure that the integration leads to meaningful outcomes? Here are three ideas to help in raising relevance.

Keep it Real. Like with much else in the field of education, if we aren’t careful, meaning can be lost simply by the proliferation of a term, and the variety of ways in which it is interpreted. STEM means one million different things to one million different people, and because of that, interpretations for what the integration of the STEM disciplines can look like are infinitely varied. That said, rather than attempting to create a STEM class or course, which, in my humble opinion feels inorganic, we can help our educators understand each other’s disciplines and provide them with the opportunity to create real life connections in the work they do with students. Better yet, we can find ways for our secondary courses to operate much more like the elementary school classes of old. In those classes, blocked content time was almost non-existent, and learning flowed from thought to thought, rather than discipline to discipline.

Keep it Manageable. While it is a testament to the power of integration, the number of STEM-based “relatives” that have appeared over the last few years speaks to the complexity of creating relevance. Clearly, the more complex the integration scheme (i.e. STREAM) the more opportunities for integration and therefore the higher the chance of the learning being relevant. Of course, the more complex, also the more difficult to connect effectively and the greater the opportunity for the learning to be surface-based and disengaging. Like much else, we can apply the “Goldilocks Principle” here and find the “Just Right” combination for our students, staff, and communities.

Keep it Going.  Learning is most meaningful when it isn’t held to a set timeline. After all, as life-long learners we recognize that our learning should never stop. And yet, the design of our school systems puts time at the forefront; whether thinking about our work in terms of periods, days, years, or any other duration period. By forcing learning into a time-limited box, we create a hurdle for integration, and therefore an obstacle to relevance. This doesn’t mean that we ignore weekends, or holidays, or school vacations, but it does mean that a commitment to integration also means a commitment to vertical articulation, and that grades can’t be seen (or see themselves) as separate entities. All must work together to help connect the learning for each other.

While integration isn’t a “must” for education to exist, it is a “must” for learning to stick. Whether discussing integration across the disciplines of STEM, thinking about ways for athletics and academics to live together, or providing embedded intern/externships into student coursework, relevance is foundational to making meaning of life and charting a course for the future. 

Fred Ende is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks, is available from ASCD. Visit his website www.fredende.com. Find him on Twitter @fredende.

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