Teaching Across Content Areas


The pre-service teachers I work with often here me tout  "Instruction is not a one size fits all approach".  This notion is based on Tomilson's theory of differentiated instruction. Tomilson contends that teachers can and should provide multiple pathways to learning by differentiating three areas of instruction: content, process and product.  The idea of presenting content in multiple ways can feel like an overwhelming task.  Moreover some students might not find different representations of the same content meaningful or engaging.  Similarly having multiple products or processes can be extremely overwhelming for new teachers to manage and be effective, especially with younger children or students  who may not have the foundational skills to work independently.
Building on the notion of differentiation instruction is integrative instructional design. Similar to the idea of presenting content in multiple ways, integrative design  builds on students interests and readiness and makes connections across content areas in the context of a theme or unit of study.   This approach to instruction is extremely effective for English language learners who can apply academic language across content areas rather than learning new words in isolation and without meaningful experiences.  Furthermore teachers can provide explicit direct instruction, and support collaborative group work experiences with exemplars, higher order questioning and resources that"fits-all" in multiple ways.
This week I had third graders build on their knowledge of multiplication/division in the context of designing a garden and determining the area each student would receive.  This was part of their science unit on investigating the impact of different types of environments has on plant growth. Not only where students able to use their math knowledge to determine the area but they were able to apply calculations in a real-life situation which included students measuring the plot and using string to create equal spaces.
So where do you begin? Think about an essential question that can begin your investigations into a theme.  For example "What do plant's need to grow".  Then begin your investigation with activities that will support the central theme such as identifying parts of a plant, tools for the garden and sorting and counting seeds. Teachers can begin their planning by thinking about how the unit of study can overlap into other content areas.
This instructional approach is also extremely useful for secondary students to go deeper with skills and strategies to promote mastery of learning.  Co-planning with other subject teachers at your school site can provide for a much more in-depth unit of study.  Check out this unit of study on ratio and rates which is built on a unit of eating healthy and includes activities from other subject areas such as social studies, health, technology and writing.
How might you use an integrative approach in your classroom instruction?
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