Integrated Learning: Deborah Fraser, Viv Aitken, and Barbara Whyte from Waikato's Faculty of Education observed the language, interactions and work of students in primary schools.
A group of University of Waikato academics say rather than narrowing the New Zealand curriculum through assessment driven teaching and reporting to standards, schools should be focusing on engaging, challenging and inspiring their students; do that and achievement will follow.
Deborah Fraser, Viv Aitken, and Barbara Whyte from Waikato's Faculty of Education have just released a new book called Connecting Curriculum, Linking Learning. The trio is advocating integrated learning where the arts, including drama, play a major role in the classroom.
Lots of support and ground-work
Dr Fraser has been researching curriculum integration since 1998 when she and Barbara Whyte won a contract with the Ministry of Education to research curriculum integration. Dr Fraser went on to win contestable funding from the government research fund, the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) to support two further research projects on the arts and integration. More recently the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) agreed to publish a book on the topic.
The academics worked in five primary schools of varying deciles in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, covering a range of year levels. They observed the students and their teachers, taking note of the language, the interactions and the work produced; they also interviewed staff and students. Seven different in-depth case studies are included in their book.
They include investigating the Kaimanawa wild horses, the Samoan tsunami (which resulted in a community fund raising drive), poetry writing, a study of mauri (life force) and the creation of an interactive museum.
"So for example, with the Kaimanawa horses the students used drama, an approach known as mantle of the expert, and were able to look at the issue from so many different perspectives," says Dr Fraser.
"From saving the animals, to culling, and conservation of native flora and fauna and animal health - the children took on fictional job roles and had to consider contesting and competing points of view and weigh and balance the evidence. They had to consider DOC's perspective on the need to keep horse numbers down to protect the unique flora of the region. This challenged them to weigh their emotive response against the bigger picture of preserving an ecosystem. From start to finish their work included literacy and numeracy, ICT and science."
Challenging work with outstanding results
Dr Fraser says before she and her colleagues researched and wrote the book, there'd been plenty of stories, but very little empirical research on integrated learning. "We were onto this before national standards were even on the agenda. Our research shows that teachers can work creatively - we're not saying you need to integrate everything - just where it fits. The levels of student engagement in a subject can be outstanding when working this way."
For teachers it can be demanding and challenging, says Dr Fraser. "The teacher’s role is crucial. It demands that they negotiate with their students so they have a say in what and how they learn, and the teacher needs to be highly skilled in engaging and leading the class. They need to help drive the process, but with a focus on learning, not achievement and benchmarks."
Dr Fraser says the book is primarily aimed at teachers, principals, and those training to be teachers. "This type of teaching can work alongside current Ministry demands - but it reminds teachers that they don't have to sell their souls - it's a creative, responsive form of teaching that serves the needs of students and is relevant to them. It also offers students multiple opportunities to initiate, collaborate with others, and contribute to their community. Such agency in itself is motivating and makes school a place where knowledge is viewed as provisional and contestable rather than merely ingested."
Connecting Curriculum, Linking Learning is published by and available from NZCER for $44.95.