If there’s one thing educators are used to, it’s jargon.
New terms get tossed around at staff meetings on a regular basis, so it’s not surprising that similar terms become interchangeable in conversation. “Integrated instruction” and “coordinated instruction” are good examples. Many educators toss these terms into the basket of “interdisciplinary learning” and leave them jumbled together, perhaps to look at when there’s more time to plan.
Coordinated instruction and truly integrated instruction are quite different, though, and understanding the subtleties between them will help you hone your planning and work with your colleagues to get the results you want for your students.
Coordinated Instruction: The Juke Box Sock Hop
Coordinated instruction seeks to tie elements of the curriculum together across disciplines, but largely leaves teachers independent in their planning and instruction. Think of teachers as dancers at a sock hop. The overall theme of a curricular unit is like the music that keeps different dancers in rhythm. While they’re moving to the same beat, teachers are on their own to determine the specific steps they’ll perform. The music might also change regularly in an effort to please all the dancers; that is, teachers may take turns choosing the theme that best suits their subject goals.
Coordinated instruction within a single discipline is par for the course in the age of learning standards. It’s quite common for subject teachers to teach the same units or skill sets in each grade but change the topics within those units to add depth over time. For example, English teachers may teach units on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction each year, but focus on different literary works and themes within those units. Likewise, science teachers may teach units on earth science and chemistry each year, but the content for first graders will be quite different from the content for middle school students.
Coordinated instruction across disciplines is somewhat less common, but many teachers make an effort to provide logical connections for their students. At the elementary level, a single classroom teacher may have students plant seeds in science class and read books about flowers in language arts to coordinate instruction in English and science. For secondary school teachers, English and social studies teachers may work together to choose a time period to study; for example, teaching the history of Elizabethan England and the Renaissance at the same time as a unit on Shakespeare. Coordinating instruction in this way allows students to revisit what they’ve learned and make connections to strengthen their understanding.
Integrated Instruction: The Square Dance
Unlike the juke box sock hop, dancers at a square dance don’t get to choose the music—or even their dance steps. In this situation, a “caller” plays the tune and calls out the directions. When the dancers follow, they often end up with new partners as the dance moves on. If you imagine the music as the theme of the learning unit, the dancers are the teachers moving in time. Sometimes they work alone and aren’t touching, but other times they grasp hands with a partner, spin, and then take a new partner. In integrated instruction, teachers all work together to perform the dance that the music requires, often interacting with each other in new and perhaps unexpected ways.
Truly integrated instruction does more than encourage teachers to talk about the same topic at the same time. While that approach can be valuable, Robert Sherriff points out that it’s up to teachers to “remind” students of connections, a practice that’s more didactic than effective. Integrated instruction often begins with an essential question, a problem to be solved, or an overarching concept to guide teaching. From there, all lessons are aimed at helping students answer that question.
Within a single discipline, integrated instruction often leads teachers to approach their subjects in new ways. For example, a math unit organized around the question How do we best display data? would focus on many different types of graphs, which could in turn lead to a study of fractions and statistics in a way the teacher has not organized those topics before. Likewise, a language arts unit about figurative language allows teachers to study everything from the daily news to regional dialects, not just a discrete poetry unit.
Integrating curriculum design or instructional planning across disciplines requires true teamwork, just like the square dancers working together on the dance floor. The theme needs to be broad enough for all teachers to access it, but focused enough that students easily make connections. Service learning aimed at solving a common problem or improving an aspect of the school community is often a useful launching point for integrated learning. For example, How can we clean up the local pond? leads students to understand ecology in science, crunch data about fundraising in math, write convincing letters to the editor in English, and so on. Interdisciplinary integrated instruction takes skills goals from each subject and applies them to the thematic unit at hand.
Making Coordinated and Integrative Instruction Work for You
It’s important to be clear about what you wish to accomplish with your students. Integrated instruction requires the flexibility to work with other staff members and shuffle the order in which you ordinarily teach your material. If common planning time is a challenge, educational technology can open the doors to interdisciplinary units to help students make connections. For example, high-quality videos that are thematically related to your topic can expand your repertoire and provide ways to address a new theme that you haven’t thought of before. Technology may also allow you to touch on areas outside your discipline when scheduling won’t allow you to bring in a colleague for help.
Whether you choose to pursue coordinated or integrated instruction in your own classroom or as part of a building-wide effort, understanding the difference between the two will help you focus on what you wish to achieve with your students. There’s no single pathway to success, but a willingness to try new things and approach your subject in a novel way can help engage your students and re-energize your teaching practice.
Elizabeth Trach is a professional writer and editor with 18 years of classroom teaching experience in both Spanish and English language arts. In addition to working with students from kindergarten through college, she also design curriculum and original teaching units. When she’s not in front of the computer, you can find her at work in the garden or singing in a band. You can follow her adventures at her blog, Port Potager, or connect on her website.