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Developing Curriculum Across the Disciplines

Choices about what to teach are some of the most important decisions that educators make. While national and state standards and district curriculum frameworks can give general guidance, teachers make the final decisions for day-to-day instruction. The following hypothetical story presents one way teachers might work together to develop curriculum. This scenario could fit in some settings and with some teachers, but, since schools are unique places and teachers have individual preferences for balancing independence and collaboration in their professional lives, not all teachers would work well with this model. Problems of logistics or organization are not covered here.

Evelyn Madison, a life science teacher at Elmore Middle School, and Diane Rainey, the mathematics teacher, had often worked together, sharing ideas and trying to be sure their instruction was complementary. They benefited from Elmore's commitment to professional time for teachers -- one afternoon a week was set aside for planning, meetings, and conversations that helped the faculty explore ways to improve their teaching. The two teachers had often planned shared student work that usually lasted a week or two and focused on an issue in science with extensions in mathematics. They had never attempted a long-term project together, but their thinking seemed to be leading them to share one that embedded basic science and mathematics concepts. If they extended it over time, perhaps a six-week unit, they thought they would be able to introduce and pursue themes rather than discrete components of content. They wanted to design a unit that enabled students to explore ideas, pose problems, and work toward their own solutions.

Integrating Design Technology

A mention of their discussion interested Will Hooks, Elmore's technology education teacher. Hooks was not the computer teacher, although he included computers in much of his instruction. He taught about systems -- their design, development, and influence. He was particularly interested in the connections between classroom instruction and the world of work. Listening to Madison and Rainey discuss their ideas he realized that students involved in this work could build their understanding of systems development. He suggested combining the efforts of the three classes -- mathematics, life science, and technology -- in a way that would emphasize the connections among disciplines. The school's scheduling would accommodate a shared group of students -- the school called it a student "family" -- who would attend all three classes.

The teachers' thoughts coalesced into the idea of designing and building a model hydroponics farm. Madison had seen a similar project at last year's state science teachers' conference and liked the way it demanded understanding of both mathematics and science. She suggested to the other two that they try a similar idea. They searched an online database offered by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (http://www.enc. org) and found a very helpful notebook, the Technology Science Mathematics Connection Activities Binder (available from Glencoe/ McGraw Hill). With its purchase, the teachers had detailed instructions for six long-term projects, including a hydroponics farm, that integrated science, mathematics, and technology and included suggestions for subject emphasis in each discipline.

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse web page

The school librarian had brought the value of using the Internet to the attention of the three teachers. The first site he suggested to them was the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (ENC, http://www.enc.org/), which proved particularly relevant to their work.

Building on the Curriculum Framework

The teachers knew that they needed to ground their plans in the district's curriculum framework, and that some eighth-grade topics outlined for each discipline fit quite nicely. An understanding of biological and physical properties were key components for producing the farm's products. In mathematics, concepts of determining volume, interpreting ratios, and analyzing data were essential to the model's development and the interpretation of its results. Hooks knew that basic design elements -- understanding environmental requirements, analyzing materials and equipment, sketching and refining designs -- were fundamental to developing the model.


Remembering the Big Ideas

With such a complex undertaking the big ideas in each lessons can be overlooked, so the teaching team set regular meetings and continually reminded themselves of the areas they wanted to cover in the work. For Madison, these included understanding pH balance, exploring plant structures and determining the role of nutrients in plant growth. Rainey's class would concentrate on determining volumes of various containers, interpreting ratios, drawing conclusions, and making predictions from data. Hook's focus would be on the basics of systems design, the role of materials and equipment, and responding to the model's environmental needs including light and temperature controls. While the project involved many activities, the three were determined to focus on the encompassing ideas, rather than on disconnected pieces of information and skill learning.

In their first meetings, the team established their learning goals, based on curriculum requirements. Their choices for specific learning activities and classroom events emerged from their understanding of their students' interests and inclinations and the requirements of the model. While goals were set in these first meetings, the three came back to them many times over the semester, not only to see if the goals were being met but also to revise and expand them.

Early in their planning, the teachers outlined ways they might assess students' understanding. While the students' completion of the model would be tangible proof of some forms of mastery, the specific goals of content understanding also needed to be addressed along the way. The teachers agreed that each class period would provide time for the students to keep journals that would include a short log of that day's activity and learning. Rainey asked her students to include their calculations for determining container volumes and ratio interpretations in these journals. She read the journals weekly.

Rainey scheduled discussion times throughout the unit for teams to respond to specific questions, such as

  • What do we mean by pH level?

  • What happens if a plant receives a nutrient solution with a pH level that is too acidic? too basic?

  • What function do root hairs serve in the plant?

  • What factors make it difficult for root hairs to grow? Following each of these discussions, students wrote short essays to respond to questions that stretched their understanding.

At the end of every other week, Hook asked each student team to prepare a summary of their learning, responding to specific questions, such as

  • What changes did you make to your original design, and why?

  • How would you describe the hydroponics farm model in terms of these four characteristics: input, process, output, and feedback? The summary was signed by every team member. Three teams were then selected each time to present their responses during class.

Through these assessment approaches the teachers hoped to keep track of student progress and understanding.


Linking with the Community

At the beginning of the unit, the teachers scheduled a formal weekly meeting to be sure that the project was progressing and that their original goals were addressed. At the beginning the teachers had set one goal of establishing links with the world outside their school. They believed that students needed to understand how the experience of designing, building, and observing their model could be useful beyond the immediate classroom experience. One afternoon Hooks invited several guests to the class, including a local farmer, an instructor from a nearby agricultural college, and a friend, who was a systems engineer and consultant to a variety of local and national businesses. Before the visit the guests had talked with the three teachers about the project and what the students should accomplish. The teachers posed several specific requests to the guests, asking them to comment on changes they had seen in their work in the past 10 years, the effect of the use of technology in their work, and how science and mathematics affected what they did. With these guiding questions, the guests were able to focus their comments and connect with the students' work. The students were ready with questions of their own and the initial visit resulted in return observations from the systems engineer and a final visit from all three guests at a concluding presentation.

To get a look outside their town, the students spent some time on the Internet and found, among other resources, an international study of fast-growing plants in space that was called the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment (see http://teams.lacoe.edu/documentation/classrooms/gary/plants/projects/tsips/cue.html). That study was collecting data similar to the information the students would be gathering from their model.


Keeping the Focus

As the project progressed, the teachers tried to maintain a classroom atmosphere that encouraged inquiry and exploration. Bringing in community guests and surfing the Internet further broadened the students' horizons and increased their queries beyond the unit's original plan. They posed new questions, such as
  • Does growing in space affect plants in a different way from growing on the surface of the earth?

  • What is the economic impact of farming on our town?

  • Is there a computer game that simulates plant growth and environmental impact?

The students' explorations were suggesting so many avenues to pursue that the teachers began to fear that the learning would become scattered. If less is more is a guiding principle for in-depth understanding, the breadth of content must be limited to allow continued, thoughtful exploration of specific content. While the state standards or the district's curriculum framework give some general guidance about what content areas to cover, those documents are too broad to give direct advice for day-to-day classroom direction.

Steven Levy in his book Starting from Scratch (1996) describes his method of classroom curriculum development. He calls his method finding the genius of the topic -- determining the essence of what makes the content unique and letting that essence steer the development of the lesson. This genius helps him decide which questions and ideas will lead the students to a closer understanding of the topic and which will lead them away. So, while communicating electronically with the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment about growing plants in space might be fascinating, the teaching team or students must determine first if it contributes to their learning goals and, if it does, how to guide the exploration so it is productive.

Will communicating with the Ukrainian group enhance our knowledge about systems, experimentation, ratios, pH balance, or plant structures? If links are legitimate, the space experiment could extend the classroom learn.


Looking Back

By the conclusion of the project, the three teachers and their students had faced many practical and theoretical issues. The teachers had anticipated some of the practical problems they encountered -- How will we find sufficient light sources? Is there space for all the plants in the science room? Can the school be flexible enough to accommodate some scheduling changes? These concerns were discussed when the team met that summer to think about the next year. The strengths of their work became apparent as they reflected on their experience. First, the benefits of their teamwork and sharing across disciplines was paramount. They were also convinced that student learning was enhanced through practical experience.

The project forced the students to understand and use mathematics, science, and technology concepts that might never have found meaning in a more abstract context. The teachers liked the notion that, while they had designed a firm, flexible structure for student work, much of the learning was directed by student inquiry and exploration that emerged naturally. The hard work of setting up and working through a logical sequence of activities had resulted in a rewarding experience for the students and the school.

The teachers decided to use some of the summer after their first year to learn about embedded assessment and developing rubrics for measuring student work. Their reading and discussions had already convinced them that these assessment methods might be more useful for their work than traditional methods had been. They were already looking forward to improving and extending their learning in the coming year.


References

Braunger, J. & Hart-Landsberg, S. (1994). Crossing boundaries in explorations in integrative curriculum. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Cook, G. E. & Martinello, M.L. (1994). Interdisciplinary inquiry in teaching and learning. New York: MacMillan College.

Levy, S. (1996). Starting from scratch: one classroom builds its own curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Short, K. & Burke, C. (1991). Creating curriculum: Teachers and students as a community of learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

More information on hydroponics farms can be found in these two sources by David R. Hershey:

Pardon me, but your roots are showing (February 1990). The Science Teacher 57:42-45.

Culturing Brassica by hydroponics (fall 1993). Carolina Tips 55, no.1.

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