Integrated Studies

Change It Up With Integrated Learning Day

Real life doesn't happen in 42-minute periods, so give your students a day of interdisciplinary collaboration -- and enrich your curriculum along the way.
August 22, 2016
Three young, elementary-aged students are sitting at a classroom table building windmills out of cardboard and colorful popsicle sticks and styrofoam.
Gable Denims/500px

It's Integrated Learning Day, and the hallways practically vibrate. The schedule has been turned upside down. The entire middle school travels throughout the building, exploring a theme from a variety of angles. With sessions guided by non-typical pairings of teachers, this day seems to be a complete departure from "regular" learning. The kids know this is a very different kind of day -- and they're into it.

Modeling Real-World Conditions

Integrated learning (sometimes called integrated studies or interdisciplinary learning) centers around the basic premise that life after graduation isn't neatly broken into 42-minute periods. Among the discrete subjects that students shuffle between in the course of a typical day is a reservoir of untapped connections. In the real world -- and the 21st century workplace -- adults must problem solve, integrating disparate knowledge into elegant, creative solutions. Why shouldn't we immerse our students in learning environments that challenge them to engage in similar interdisciplinary thinking?

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At face value, a full-day integrated learning program offers a "break" from the routine of school -- which means instant buy-in from kids. However, an integrated learning day is much more than a day with a different schedule. Yes, students are surprised to see their math and science teachers leading the same lesson, and such surprise translates to curiosity and engagement. But the learning goes deeper. Teachers model true collaboration, connecting across disciplines and differences in order to create new meaning. That's a powerful lesson. Educators should view an integrated learning day as a critical piece of a rich school year, thinking about how we can extend the day's connections and collaboration into the lessons that we craft throughout the year.

A Day With a Theme

A successful model for a full-day integrated learning program begins with a broad theme, one that offers lots of possibilities to find connections. The theme should also be highly relevant -- kids should understand why the topic was chosen as the day's focus. Recently, our school organized an Integrated Learning Day focused on the value of water. Throughout the day, students traveled to hands-on workshops (not lectures!) that approached water's value from a variety of angles:

  • Causes and effects of California's drought
  • What we can do about it
  • How much water Los Angeles County needs
  • Just how acidic water can get before it becomes intolerable to the human body

The first and last sessions framed the day, offering students a chance to broaden the scope of their discussions into the realm of faith. Since we're a Jewish day school, these sessions focused on analyzing passages in the Torah that addressed water's value for humans. A non-religious school could bookend Integrated Learning Day with similarly deep textual analysis. Use a poem, passage, or story as a thematic frame for the day's adventures, and return to the text for reflection and discussion in the last workshop session.

At the very end of the day, we met as a community for the grand finale -- a ball cage full of water bottles that had been discarded around the middle school. Students saw the impact of their individual actions by viewing this "wasted" water in aggregate. But they also saw their potential for positive change as a group. The day's messages came into focus:

  1. When we collaborate, switch things up, and think outside the box, we can learn about and tackle big-deal issues.
  2. Every drop counts.
  3. We’re all in this together.

Building an Integrated Learning Day

Step 1: Create buy-in. In order to implement an Integrated Learning Day at your school, start by getting other teachers and administrators on board. Sign up to lead a faculty meeting with the goal of getting your colleagues excited about integrated learning. Pitch the benefits -- engagement will skyrocket, and students across grade levels will have a chance to collaborate. You'll foster a sense of community while challenging students to draw meaningful connections between subjects.

Step 2: Plan, collaborate, and plan some more. Once you've got a day on the calendar, plan to devote considerable time to interdisciplinary, interdepartmental meetings. This is a chance to forge connections as a faculty, paving the way for students' lightbulb moments, both on Integrated Learning Day and when they return to "normal" classes afterward. If we want kids to internalize collaboration, we must model those skills for them every step of way, including the behind-the-scenes planning. Involve students in the planning process, too. Kids can post hashtags around the school to create intrigue, or student government can create an introductory video to psych up the student body. The more student leadership, the better. 

Step 3: Make it work. On Integrated Learning Day, it's helpful when teachers are available to troubleshoot, direct lost students, and pop into the sessions for support. Make sure that everyone knows her or his role and has a copy of the schedule. It's definitely not a typical day, so extra reminders go a long way.

Step 4: Reflect on your accomplishments. After you've caught your breath, plan a reflection meeting. Consider questions such as:

  • Did everyone -- faculty, administration, students -- "own" a piece of this day?
  • How can the stations and workshops increase engagement?
  • How can you involve as many school stakeholders as possible?
  • Are you collecting student feedback?
  • Did your goals for collaborative, interdisciplinary learning align with the students' perception of the day? 

Most importantly, discuss how your faculty can extend the learning from Integrated Learning Day beyond a single day, weaving integration into the fabric of your curriculum. If one day of integration is this awesome, imagine what a whole unit -- or a whole year -- of truly integrated curriculum might do for your students, faculty, and community.

Please feel free to add your comments about integrated learning below!