Why Should Schools Embrace Integrated Studies?: It Fosters a Way of Learning that Mimics Real Life

Integrated studies allows students to gain knowledge in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.

Integrated studies allows students to gain knowledge in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.
Student studying a model of a human eye
Credit: Ethan Pines

In today's dynamic global economy, centered on the development and exchange of knowledge and information, individuals prosper who are fluent in several disciplines and comfortable moving among them. Creativity, adaptability, critical reasoning, and collaboration are highly valued skills. When it comes to fostering those skills in the classroom, integrated study is an extremely effective approach, helping students develop multifaceted expertise and grasp the important role interrelationships can play in the real world.

Integrated studies, sometimes called interdisciplinary studies, brings together diverse disciplines in a comprehensive manner, enabling students to develop a meaningful understanding of the complex associations and influences within a topic. A happy by-product of this approach, which is often coupled with project learning, is that it makes school more interesting and productive for students and teachers.

"The Logic of Interdisciplinary Studies," an exhaustive 1997 research report, found broad consensus among dozens of researchers as to what the report called the "positive educational outcomes" for students in an integrated- studies program:

  • Increased understanding, retention, and application of general concepts.
  • Better overall comprehension of global interdependencies, along with the development of multiple perspectives and points of view, as well as values.
  • Increased ability to make decisions, think critically and creatively, and synthesize knowledge beyond the disciplines.
  • Enhanced ability to identify, assess, and transfer significant information needed for solving novel problems.
  • Promotion of cooperative learning and a better attitude toward oneself as a learner and as a meaningful member of a community.
  • Increased motivation.

One integrated-studies success story is playing out every day at High Tech High, in San Diego, California, where interdisciplinary curriculum and project learning have propelled 100 percent of the school's graduates to college acceptance; 80 percent of those enroll in four-year institutions. Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High's founding principal and now CEO, explains that the school's approach is not an end in itself, but rather "a means of restructuring the American high school experience for kids." How students learn at High Tech High closely resembles the varied ways in which any of us acquire knowledge and apply skills in the experientially kaleidoscopic real world.

For instance, to create a series of field guides about San Diego Bay, High Tech High students work with a team of the school's biology, math, and humanities teachers, researching, writing, and producing the books. So far, five guides have been published to excellent reviews.

VIDEO: Common Sense: An Overview of Integrated Studies

Running Time: 10 min.

To ensure ongoing progress and monitor quality, a constructive feedback system is critical for any integrated-studies program based on project learning. It's essential, Rosenstock emphasizes, that student work is presented to, and assessed by, fellow students, teachers, and parents, as well as professionals in the relevant disciplines. That way, he says, "you build into the school a system, a cycle of improvement."

Although integrated studies has been around in one form or another for nearly a century, the approach has won newfound acceptance in recent years, thanks to effective advocate-practitioners like Rosenstock and the many on-the-ground success stories coming out of schools across the country.

After all, our daily life and work are not stratified into "the math part, the science part, the history part, and the English part," Rosenstock points out. "Kids don't experience the world that way." Instead, they -- and all of us -- live in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.

Return to our Integrated Studies page to learn more, or read an extended version of this article with comments by experts Sir Ken Robinson and Heidi Hayes Jacobs and more details about High School High's San Diego field guides.

This article originally published on 10/6/2008

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Comments (12)

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I think all schools should

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I think all schools should start using integrated studies because it teaches children a sense of teamwork and causes a higher attendance rate and homework completion.

5th grade teacher

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I just finished a unit of integrating science and math. Now my students understand the purpose of math and they alos see how important its role is in science.

Teach Civics and ESl for Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections since 2000

Total Integration

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Has anyone tried to totally integrate a secondary school curriculum? I integrated my social studies curriculum back in the '90's..by combining both US History and world history with economics, geography and sociology/anthropology I taught an integrated "history" course over a 5 year period (7-11) and a semester of civics in grade 12.
I'd like to know if it's possible to take that a step further..integrate an integrated social studies curriculum with an integrated language arts, science and math..and so forth. Is it possible to create a curriculum based on how knowledge and skills are actually used?

Owner, Celebration Education

I love this!

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I have been teaching integrated learning since 2004 and I love it! I started a school to further the use & it's growing. It's time has come.

Laurie (Staff) (not verified)

Theme-based curriculum

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Staff comment:

Hello, George:

We produced a video that takes an in-depth look at the impressive work of aviation students at Project Learning in Action: The Wing Strength Design Project. You'll also find some teaching tools and sample student work in the form of pdfs. Hopefully it will spark more aviation ideas for you and your son!

George F Bartan (not verified)

Parents involvement in the interdisciplinary learning

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I am so happy I found this web site.I have an 9 years old boy and I have encouraged him to learn through various projects and by connecting different disciplines.Since his passion is aviation I have used this a a base from which I can expose him to other fields of knowledge and make him understand that all these are interconnected.I have a lot of fun and I am able to connect better with my son as a parent.He's academic results are very god and he is an honor roll student.
You can see what we have done together in my web site (www.aviation-for-kids.com).
I hope I will get some feedback from other parents interested in this revolutionary way of learning.

peter (not verified)

I am very glad to see this

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I am very glad to see this article. i have been practicing intergrading studies with At-Risk students in an afternoon program for the last nine years. We have combined English and Social Studies to study the Vietnam war and the WWII.We have used novels and movies to expore both wars with great success.

James Klock (not verified)

At the high school level

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As a high school teacher certified in both math and science, I'm very excited to be piloting an integrated algebra+environmental science class next year-- it'll be taught in a "double block," 96 minutes each day. There's no real existing curriculum for it, so I'll be making it all up over the summer, but I have big ideas about continuing to develop high-school integrated math and science curricula... watch for it!

Joy Espinoza (not verified)

Integrated Studies

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I am ecstatic to have read this article on behalf of integrated studies. I am a firm believer in this type of teaching and learning. For seven years I taught this way with the social studies teacher on my team. My students were able to grasp so much more when I taught a novel based on the area they were learning in socail studies. I noticed more interest and conversation took place and during the readings. I felt that they were more aware of the cultures being taught. The connections that they were able to make were phenomenal. More importantly, it's a fact that we need to teach more multicultural novels in our education system because of the diverse students in our classrooms. I am saddend to say that my school has changed our way of teaching languageto curriculum mapping which limits and requires certain novels to be read and taught. The many wonderful, multilcultural novels and integrating teaching is no longer. I will now try to fight to bring back some of the intergrated teaching based on these readings. Thank you!

Joy Espinoza (not verified)

Language Arts

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I am ecstatic to see that integrated studies is highly recommended. I have always believed that my students learned and grasped so much more by this type of teaching and learning. For seven years I taught a novel where the setting took place in an area that was being taught in their social studies class and our students loved it. I loved teaching this way because it also allowed so many different types of multiculural novels to be read;which is huge when teaching any subject. My school has recently changed its curriculum to spiraling which unfortunately took away my intergrating studies in my classroom due to the fact that we now have "assigned" books to read, and believe you me, these novels do not come close to any genre of culture based novels that we need in our English classrooms. However,I decided to sneak it in anyway because I felt I was neglecting our multicultural students and all my students from such an amazing way to learn. I now have proof to show my colleagues that this is a meaningful, positive way to teach with many proofs that it works.
Thank you!!!

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