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
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.
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
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,
- 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
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
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
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
Culturing Brassica by hydroponics (fall 1993). Carolina Tips