Integrating Thinking, Learning Skills

Chapter 7.
Integrating Thinking and Learning Skills Across the Curriculum
by David Ackerman and D.N. Perkins

ASCD, 1989

Imagine that we have the opportunity to observe two classrooms where the teachers are discussing the Boston Tea Party. Both teachers have been integrating certain ideas across several subject matters, but they do not have the same agenda.

In classroom A, the teacher highlights an integrative theme mentioned earlier in this book, dependence and independence. The students have already read the history of the Boston Tea Party. To foster collaborative learning, the teacher divides the class into groups of two or three. The students in each group are supposed to make what the teacher calls a “dependency map.” “Who depends on whom, how much, and in what ways?” the teacher asks. The students set out to diagram some of the intricacies behind the Boston Tea Party. For example, the Boston tea sellers were not entirely dependent on British tea; there was a thriving black market in Dutch tea.

But now compare events in classroom B, where another teacher is emphasizing a different approach to integration, a skill called “concept mapping.” Again, the students have read the text, and again the teacher divides the class into groups of two or three. The students are to make a “concept map” that shows how key groups involved in the tea party and its surrounding circumstances relate to one another. “You'll remember,” the teacher says, “that in making a concept map we try to highlight important relationships. This time, I want you to highlight relationships of dependency. Who depends on whom, how much, and in what ways?”

There is reason to be puzzled here. A distinction was promised between content and skills integration, yet the two teachers seem to be doing essentially the same thing. In both classrooms A and B, the students are working in groups, making diagrams, and highlighting dependency relationships. Where, then, lies the difference?

The difference cannot be seen clearly in one lesson on one topic. However, if we look across several lessons in different subjects, we begin to see the essence of two contrasting attempts at integration across the curriculum. In classroom A, the approach is thematic: dependence and independence is the recurrent motif. In another lesson, an introduction to the concept of ecology, the teacher involves the students in discussing (not concept mapping) patterns of dependence and independence in the food web. In exploring a short story about a child who runs away from home, the students make up additional episodes for the story, showing how the child just shifts his dependencies rather than become independent.

However, in classroom B, where the students also study ecology and read the story about the boy who ran away, matters play out differently. As part of their ecology unit, the students make a concept map of the ecological system of a pond: They highlight cause-and-effect relationships and predict the behavior of the system over time. After the students read the short story, the teacher asks them to prepare concept maps of the problems the child faces upon running away from home: how to find food, how to find shelter, how to feel safe, and so on.

These examples illustrate the difference between content-oriented integration and skill-oriented integration. The first approach is “thematic” in nature, aimed at helping students acquire “higher-order content,” general ideas such as dependency, that they can use to order and illuminate their understanding of particular topics and situations. The second approach is “procedural” in nature, to enable students to acquire general skills and strategies that they can apply widely to understand situations and solve problems.

In this chapter, we focus on the potentials of integrating thinking and learning skills across the curriculum. When, how, and why might we cultivate such an approach to integration? What are its promises and its pitfalls?

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