Education

Dr Ken Gnanakan: The Time is Now for Integrated Learning

Dr Ken Gnanakan
Dr Ken Gnanakan: The Time is Now for Integrated Learning

With the pressures on education in our current context, some very serious rethinking is called for. Questions are already being asked about schooling and the classroom, and the changes are needed. The traditional system of education is being criticised and huge changes are being considered. Why? We have become used to fragmented and disintegrated learning models of education with subjects studied in unrelated silos. Integration is the need of the hour.  

Early Asian educational methods were naturally integrated models drawn from real life. Even when formal learning forms were employed, these traditional systems had clear objectives which followed a particular path. Traditions had to be preserved, harmony in the community was to be sustained or religious practices were to be observed and passed on to the next generation. Skills were developed. The Gurukul system, before the arrival of British rule, served as South Asia's primary educational system of imparting education to younger generations. Confucius and the noble goal of raising responsible citizens are still revered. These were integrated systems concerned about real life.

Some background influences

Let’s delve deeper into the background factors that could help reshape education making it more integrated. The first in my vocabulary is the word 'integration' itself. The word comes from the Latin 'integer,' meaning whole or entire. It has become an integral part of conversations at various levels and disciplines within education. No longer do professionals approach problems from a narrow micro perspective. Psychologists and psychiatrists treat the personality as being closely bound together as a whole. Integrated approaches have become the basis for treating various human disorders.

Even ecologists will argue that deforestation, population, pollution and a host of other factors over centuries are all contributing in an interconnected manner to the crisis we face at present. Our environment needs to be studied as a whole. The recent COVID pandemic has shown us even further the integrated world we live in, how every part of our world, as well as we as individuals, operate in an integrated way. These realities need to, therefore, impact our learning.

Integration leads us to another word - 'holism.' This is basically the relation between the parts and the whole. The understanding of the whole and parts has been around ever since the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but the concept has been revived widely in recent times. The great philosopher defined it as "The whole is more than the sums of its parts." The term is derived from the Greek word 'holos' meaning whole. The Oxford English Dictionary defines holism as “[the] tendency in nature to form wholes that are more than the sum of the parts by ordered grouping.” The theory emphasizes both the whole and the interdependence of its parts.

And then, a third is the concept of 'synergy' from the Greek 'synergia,' meaning joint or cooperative action. Synergy must be understood in relationship to holism, in that combined forces produce much more than individual efforts. Synergy can refer to both students as well as teachers working together and discovering that there is greater effectiveness in fulfilling our learning goals and outcomes together.

If all we needed was to produce pure engineers, doctors, community workers or social activists, then specialized isolated programs would be appropriate. However, in the present context where even the relevance of a traditional three-year degree is being questioned, we need professionals with integrated holistic perspectives plus skills. Teachers and departments must interact frequently to establish connections and explore real-world applications. Energies must operate together.

What then is Integrated Learning?

First, let us note that children are capable of learning the things that they need to know as long as they have the right environment. It was Maria Montessori, an Italian educator, who first demonstrated this. Her bold claim was that children learn more directly from their own environment and relatively little from listening to a teacher talking to a class! This led to the Montessori education method which is characterized by self-directed activity on the part of the child with a close observation from the teacher.

The second area of Integrated Learning is the integration of theoretical knowledge and concepts to real life. Here, we must carefully look at the content that our students are required to learn. Most of this tends to be conceptual learning; however, such concepts are not only learned better but remembered longer, when they are related to real contexts. Most teachers will have used Bloom's taxonomy, the set of three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives. These were the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains. It was holistic, but unfortunately, our systems only concentrate on the cognitive. 1

The third area of integration is for learning to be related to the particular gift of the learner. Not all of us grasp concepts, and similarly, not all of us enjoy accumulating facts and figures. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposed by psychologist Howard Gardner pointed out that each individual possesses varying levels of different intelligences. He originally identified seven core intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal. In 1999, he added naturalistic as the eighth intelligence. The theory first appeared in Gardner’s book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. 2

The fourth area of integration is the relation of one area of learning with another, helping break down the walls we build in our artificially segregated curriculum. Students will learn better if he/she connects what is learned within one particular situation or discipline to another. There are some obvious natural connections, while others can be created. For instance, one may be learning Geography with natural references to mathematics, biology, language etc. and seeing this could enhance learning appreciably.

Fifthly, considering on-line learning, integration must employ various modes of educational deliveries. Such modes may transcend the classroom for total learning to take place. We have erroneously confined the learning experience to monologues in classrooms and in doing so have focused solely on the teacher as the giver/conveyor and the student as the receiver/container. Learning is much more complex and may take root in a variety of environments. All kinds of formal and informal, campus and off-campus, on-line and off-line methods must be utilized to fully maximize an Integrated Learning process.

Where do we start?

We must start with the actual content matter of our teaching - curriculum and syllabuses. Let’s look at the definition of an integrated course which will reflect this holistic approach we are advocating:

An integrated course is one that is organized in such a way that it cuts across subject-matter lines, bringing together various aspects of the particular subject in interaction with other areas of study in order to achieve the stated objectives and outcomes of the program. It views learning and teaching in a holistic way and reflects on issues in the real world making courses meaningful within their particular as well as wider contexts. 3

Integrated courses will, therefore, be cross-curricular and curriculum-interrelated. Experts see outcomes become far more observable and therefore more accurately measured. As we develop on-line models of teaching, we must deliberately seek to integrate multi-modes, cut across subject barriers, and navigate the child’s mind into real learning rather than the theoretical or cognitive inputs we continue to stress.

True Value of Education restored

Integrated learning is bringing new life into the meaningless routines of many educationists. This must be expected, as learning is discovering its place in real life, rather than only terminal value in the completion certificate at the end of the course. Students must be trained to see every bit of learning as relevant to their life and service. It will take into account all the experiences we encounter in our COVID-stricken world.

Online education has further underlined the need for integration in our whole approach to learning, making us employ more active rather than passive forms of learning. Active Learning is an instructional approach that actively engages students in learning through an integrated set of activities - videos, writing assignments, group discussion, reflection activities, and any other task that promotes problem-solving and critical thinking about the subject. 4 In contrast to the traditional form of education, where information was merely transmitted to students, active learning makes sure it is applied and used productively.

The curriculum must certainly change to educate children to fit into our current context. The content of skills and knowledge we share with students must be integrated into the learner’s real-life experience. It is this that will make education a rich 'social experience.' Someone said, “Education is, not preparation for life; education is life itself.”  And I add, “Life is education!” When education and life get integrated, the possibilities are unpredictable. Learning in this sense becomes one’s own possession which soon will turn into an unappeasable passion. And this passion will translate into very meaningful ministries.

FOOTNOTES:

1. Blooms Taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom, chaired the committee of educators who came up with the taxonomy. “Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals.” Ed. Benjamin Bloom

2. Howard Gardner. “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences” 1983. New York: Basic Books

3. Betty Jean Eklund Shoemaker 1989. “Integrative Education. A Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century.” “OSSC Bulletin” 33, 2(October 1989). P 5

4.  Active learning is a form of learning in which teaching strives to involve students in the learning process more directly than in other methods. Charles Bonwell and James Eison (1991) ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.

About the author:

Dr Ken Gnanakan is an Indian educator, author, environmentalist and theologian. He's the Founder President and Chancellor of Acts Group of Institutions and is currently working with the Karnataka Government on an eco-friendly solution to Waste management for rural development providing Food and Energy for poverty alleviation. As an Environmentalist, he has pioneered the PEAS school movement in India.

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