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Curriculum integration can support the development of powerful knowledge in education

Mikko A. Niemelä, University of Helsinki

On 20th March 2015, an article published by the Independent (Garner, 2015) claimed that Finnish schools had scrapped school subjects and replaced them with topics. Ever since then Finland has been presented as a good example of a country that has an integrated school curriculum (see for example Drake & Reid, 2020). There is some truth in that view, but the meaning of ‘curriculum integration’ needs to be specified.

The last reform of the Finnish curriculum for basic education (grades 1–9) stirred the discussion of the abandonment of school subjects. The reform included two major changes aiming at connecting the subjects.

  1. A multidisciplinary learning module was made compulsory for each student, once per year.
  2. Transversal competences, such as learning to learn and multiliteracy, were embedded into school subjects as cross-curricular learning objectives (see Finnish National Board of Education, 2016).

Content and aims of school subjects still form the core of the curriculum.

Lately, Michael Young and Johan Muller (2016) have been building the concept of powerful knowledge in education. It is an attempt to distinguish truthful educational knowledge from unreliable everyday knowledge and ideologically formed knowledge of the powerful. According to Young and Muller, the powers of powerful knowledge stem from specialisation. Through specialised school subjects, students have access to reliable knowledge rooted in scientific practice that has the potential to expand students’ worldviews.

Because maintaining the boundaries between specialised subjects is deemed essential, Young and Muller (2016) have been sceptical about the idea of an integrated curriculum. Curriculum integration is clearly at odds with the aims of powerful knowledge if it leads to scrapping of school subjects. The main concern is that blurring the boundaries between subjects will deconstruct their disciplinary conceptual spines and thus obscure the boundary between specialised and everyday knowledge.

‘The mainstream understanding of curriculum integration views school subjects as fragmenting students’ experience. However, curriculum integration can be understood differently, making it compatible with powerful knowledge.’

The mainstream understanding of curriculum integration promotes it as a pedagogical arrangement and views school subjects as being guilty of fragmenting students’ experience. However, in a recent paper published in the Curriculum Journal, I claim that curriculum integration can be understood differently, making it compatible with powerful knowledge (Niemelä, 2020). Actually, it would be difficult to find a curriculum that is not integrated in one sense or another. School subjects are also internally integrated to scaffold knowledge to be taught and studied in schools.

A central question for curriculum design is where to draw the boundaries between subjects – that is, which areas to differentiate and which to integrate. The scope of subject area can vary. In primary schools, subjects commonly cover a wider sphere and at the secondary level, subjects become more differentiated. For example, in Finnish schools, the environmental studies of the primary years are split into physics, chemistry, geography, biology and health education in the secondary grades.

Furthermore, crossing the boundaries between subjects is important for, among other things, coherent conceptual progression in learning. However, research shows that curriculum integration is challenging if its design and implementation is left to teachers and students (McPhail, 2019; Niemelä & Tirri, 2018). Therefore, a well-designed, appropriately differentiated and integrated written curriculum is needed to support the teaching-studying-learning process in schools.

Coherent conceptual progression is crucial both for school subjects and for the curriculum as a whole. Curriculum integration that allows boundary-crossing while maintaining the boundaries of school subjects can support the development of powerful knowledge. Concrete examples of boundary crossings for powerful knowledge are presented in my recent paper (Niemelä, 2020). Some of the alternatives have been included in the Finnish curriculum for basic education, which does not serve as an example of a curriculum without subjects, but rather of a curriculum that is integrating school subjects.


This blog is based in part on the article ‘Crossing curricular boundaries for powerful knowledge’ by Mikko A. Niemelä, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free-to-view to those without a subscription for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Drake, S., & Reid, J. (2020). 21st century competencies in light of the history of integrated curriculum. Frontiers in Education, 5 (July). https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.00122

Finnish National Board of Education. (2016). National Core Curriculum for Basic Education. Helsinki: Finnish National Board of Education.

Garner, R. (2015, March 20). Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with topics as country reforms its education system. Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/finland-schools-subjects-are-out-and-topics-are-country-reforms-its-education-system-10123911.html

McPhail, G. (2019). Curriculum integration in flexible learning environments, challenges for teachers, and teacher education. In M. A. Peters (Ed.), Encyclopedia of teacher education. Singapore: Springer. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_369-1

Niemelä, M. A. (2020). Crossing curricular boundaries for powerful knowledge. Curriculum Journal, (Advance online publication). https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.77

Niemelä, M. A., & Tirri, K. (2018). Teachers’ knowledge of curriculum integration: A current challenge for Finnish subject teachers. In Y. Weinberger & Z. Libman (Eds.), Contemporary Pedagogies in Teacher Education and Development (pp. 119–132). London: IntechOpen. https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.75870

Young, M. F. D., & Muller, J. (2016). Curriculum and the specialization of knowledge. London & New York: Routledge.