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Volume 11, Number 5
September/October 1995

Knowing No Boundaries

A Conversation with James Beane


Perhaps the best-known American advocate of curriculum integration, James Beane separates himself from many of the others by calling for a complete dissolution of subject-area boundaries for almost all pre-college instruction. A professor of education at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois, Beane helps schools around the U.S. as well as in Canada and Australia implement integrated programs. He is the author or editor of nine books on the subject, including Affect in the Curriculum: Toward Democracy, Dignity, and Diversity (Teachers College Press, 1990) and A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality (National Middle School Association, 1993). He was interviewed for the Harvard Education Letter by Michael Sadowski.

HEL: How did you first become committed to the idea of curriculum integration?

Beane: I started as a junior and senior high school teacher in the mid-1960s, and I saw that there was something fundamentally wrong with schools. Like a lot of people, I was concerned about the injustices I saw in things like school structures, grouping, and grading. I did a lot of reading about the progressive education movement and core curriculum, and ended up doing my doctoral dissertation on it. I also did a lot of reading about values, moral education, and self-esteem issues with kids.

Unlike people who talked about doing "activities" or changing the structure of schools, I wanted to see how the curriculum could be more nurturing. I saw what was happening to kids in school. School seemed to be a place where their self-esteem was constantly at risk. They had no say in what went on in their lives. Now, when we plan with young people, we're dispersing ownership of knowledge and kids have a say about what counts.

HEL: So for you there's a connection between integrated curriculum and values education?

Beane: Definitely. The idea of real curriculum integration is to deal with the issues and concerns of youth and society, to build a curriculum around the issues society seems to be facing. Values, morals, and ethics come into that naturally.

I think some fundamentalist conservatives may actually understand curriculum integration more clearly than a lot of educators do, because they see the values built into it. When you engage kids in critical thinking and investigation, they start forming their own opinions and seeing diverse points of view. Many conservatives see this as a threat to their structured, top-down way of viewing the world, and they oppose it for those reasons. An ultraconservative group in Wisconsin called PRESS has curriculum integration on its list of "school reform red flags" that they want to get rid of.

People also complain that integrated curriculum gets us away from teaching "the basics"—which is a code word for a teacher-dominated, apparently apolitical system. I say apparently because there's a view out there that subject-centered curriculum is apolitical—but it's very political. It's all about deciding what counts for knowledge—keeping certain things in and certain things out.

HEL: How do you incorporate "the basics," those concrete skills students need, such as math and reading, into an integrated program?

Beane: When we plan units, we try to be as aware as possible of the kinds of knowledge we're expected to incorporate. We sometimes take things a little out of sequence, but kids do get the skills. History comes in with kids trying to find out why things are the way they are, but not chronologically.

The disciplines of knowledge are a major resource for us. They're necessary for responding to the questions and concerns in the curriculum. But we neither begin nor end with them. They are integrated into the problems at hand. We teach the skills as we go along. When people ask me, "What about the integrity of the disciplines?" I often ask, "What integrity do they have apart from this?"

For example, in one unit called "Living in the Future," a student asked, "What will happen with gang violence?" We went to the library and gathered statistics on violence over time, did line graphs, and did some work on formulas that would help us extrapolate the statistics. We do things with algebra and geometry, too.

HEL: How do you work with students to generate curriculum themes?

Beane: We begin by asking kids two kinds of questions. First, "What are questions or concerns you have about yourself?" These might be things like "Do other people think I am the way I think I am?" or "What will I look like when I'm older?"

Next, we ask what questions or concerns they have about the world. Kids will say things like "Will the environment survive?" or "Will world hunger ever end?" One of my favorite questions is "Will there ever be a president who isn't a white man?"

Then we ask kids to look for connections between the questions about themselves and the world questions. For example, self questions like "What will I look like when I get older?" and "Will I get a good job?" can go with world questions like "Will there be more or less poverty in the future?" or "Will violence continue?" "Will I be healthy in the future?" can combine with "Will they find a cure for cancer or AIDS?" for a unit on health. The themes come out of the clustering of questions. Then we've got a list of themes for the year and the questions within them.

Some kids have fabulous ideas for activities, too. One student suggested answering the question "What will I look like when I get older?" by bringing in a police composite sketch artist. All I'd thought of was asking them to bring in photographs of older relatives.

You can also do integrated curriculum with teacher-generated themes; there are a lot of good examples out there. But I argue that if we want to get kids to integrate, the ideas have to be close to their hearts and minds.
HEL: You make a point of distinguishing between multidisciplinary and integrated curricula. Why?

Beane: When you go beyond the separate-subject curriculum, you end up in one of two places. Do you or don't you intend to retain the identity of the separate subjects? If you retain the disciplines, it's multidisciplinary. You establish a theme and then decide what each subject can contribute. Or, you dissolve the boundaries and achieve integration—you investigate big ideas and the activities integrate organically.

Heidi Jacobs says there are five degrees of integration and Robin Fogarty says ten, but these are really variations on two alternatives. It's about whether the word discipline is the root or not. It's not about correlating subject areas, but, as John Dewey said, "It's about one earth and the one life lived upon it."

HEL: So you think an integrated curriculum, as you define it, is better than interdisciplinary instruction?

Beane: I stand against the separate-subject curriculum for reasons having to do with learning theory as well as cultural politics. I think it's ineffective for learning and alienating for all but a few—only "high culture" interests are represented in it.

Frankly, I don't see multidisciplinary curriculum as much of a step beyond that. The purpose still begins and ends with the disciplines of knowledge. Integration is a different view of curriculum. L. Thomas Hopkins called it the "is" curriculum as opposed to the "was" curriculum.

HEL: What are the pitfalls of curriculum integration? What are some of the mistakes you've seen schools make?

Beane: They are the pitfalls of any teaching situation. My biggest fear is that people are going to do this sloppily or in a very low-level way and that it will be less than it can be. Then it will be vulnerable to scrutiny, or even ridicule. I have worked with teachers who plan with students but never press them. They follow a problem-centered approach but never work with kids to help them learn skills. But just as there's some bad teaching in this area, there's also bad separate-subject teaching.

There are obstacles. In the past there was a lack of resources. Textbooks, for example, are centered on separate-subject work. But with the new technology, there are much richer resources available for this kind of curriculum—CD-ROM, the Internet, videos.

HEL: Who objects to this kind of curriculum?

Beane: There is resistance from some parents and some kids—especially kids who have done extremely well under the old system. Why would they want it to change? But the greatest source of resistance by far is from within the system itself. When you move out of your own separate subjects, you become more visible and also more vulnerable. A lot of teachers are afraid to do that. Or they say that it's just too much work. This kind of curriculum is a lot of work.

HEL: What do you tell people who say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"?

Beane: I see curriculum integration as a design that more clearly works toward the goals we say we have for our students—that kids would develop skills and attitudes for living in a democratic society; that they'd become more capable at solving problems; that they'd learn how to work with others. That's the purpose of curriculum integration, and I honestly don't see how the separate-subject curriculum works toward those goals.

HEL: How do you know that an integrated curriculum works?

Beane: Sometimes I refuse to answer that question until the people who use the separate-subject paradigm answer it for their approach. Does anybody ask math teachers why they do statistics in November or graphing in March? Do you know why biology, chemistry, and physics are always taught in that sequence? Because they're in alphabetical order. Nobody seems to challenge that.

People are constantly asking me, "Are kids going to get all the skills they need?" Or they'll ask, "Will kids do worse on tests?" Unfortunately, I think some people ask this because they want to keep the curriculum in line with the dominant culture, so that they can ensure their own kids' success. Sometimes I wonder if the fear is not really whether their kids will do worse, but whether too many other kids will do well.