Factors Influencing the Use of Interdisciplinary Curricular Practices in Middle Schools: A Historical Perspective
This study traced the use of interdisciplinary curriculum from earliest times until the present, especially in today's middle schools. The disciplines were first used by Aristotle to present knowledge, with its distinct information, ways of knowing, and ways of investigating. This began the traditional separate-subject approach to transmitting knowledge to future generations.
The questioning of this organization for the best delivery to students peaked with John Dewey and the progressive education movement of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which called for child-centered education. The core curriculum, with its interdisciplinary approach to investigating student concerns and interests, was developed. Though receiving much publicity, the curriculum failed to be implemented or sustained in the majority of schools because of lack of community and administrative support and inadequately-trained teachers. The Eight-Year Study substantiated the method's effectiveness, but the barriers could not be overcome, and the results, released in 1942, were lost on a nation at war. The polarity, for which John Dewey warned, created an either/or situation, and the "status quo" won.
The fear of falling behind the Soviets in the 1960s, following the launching of Sputnik, led to another "back to basics" movement, and interdisciplinary methods were shelved in favor of stronger math and science classes. The 1960s also saw the advent of the middle school movement, with its strong emphasis on meeting young adolescents' needs. Curriculum issues were not addressed until the 1980s. The middle school movement now strongly supports interdisciplinary curricular practices.
Quantitative research on the effectiveness of interdisciplinary curriculum, since the Eight-Year Study, has been neither comprehensive or prolific. Educational research techniques have changed as educators seek better ways to assess quality of learning. Outlier studies and action research are showing effective results in the use of interdisciplinary curriculum.
The investigation of interdisciplinary curriculum by states/provinces, school districts, and schools, especially middle schools, is widespread. Actual implementation is slowed due to the same factors that affected core curriculum: lack of community and ongoing administrative support; the "back to basics" movement; lack of time for planning, collegial support, and scheduling, and inadequate teacher training.
The willingness of schools to look at reorganizing time, the move by states to equate exit standards with performance and not seat time; the searching by teachers to make learning relevant and contemporary; and the increase in teacher education and staff development programs which model curriculum integration all signal a possibility that interdisciplinary curriculum will make an impact. Middle schools, in particular, are embracing this paradigm as a curricular practice of the Twenty-First Century.