The Case for Teaching Integrated Skills vs Separate Subjects

I think that we need to have deeper discussions about the importance of teaching and integrating skills versus teaching separate subjects. This is important to help children experience success in school and beyond.

We should learn more about how to best teach the skills for learning across the disciplines vs the disciplines themselves.

This is..

  • NOT just because of the growing support for curriculum that involves application and communication,
  • NOT just because many students are bored studying topics in isolation,
  • NOT just because many businesses are advocating for key skills like problem solving for the future, and certainly
  • NOT just because it promotes more organic and authentic assessment opportunities….

BUT because the wicked problems we face in the world cannot be solved out of a single discipline of knowledge.

For example, our students won’t find much on the internet that merely pertains to one discipline.

This is not to say that studying the disciplines are unimportant. Indeed, subject specific areas are a means of obtaining a strong knowledge base, and answering essential questions.

In addition to this knowledge base, skills are the thread that brings knowledge and experiences together, and helps us to apply them to new situations.

That is why I think we need to seriously begin to look at the skills we need that help students to look at the world across disciplines.

When we help students to harness the skills, we help them to identify and recognize problems as meaningful contexts for knowledge. Students are then able to take different kinds of perspectives, and create new knowledge and solutions.

This is not without some serious issues however.

Here are some of the problems we face when we try to teach the skills across the disciplines vs separate subjects:

  1. It adds layers of fatigue for us educators. Let’s face it, our report cards require us to make sure we have helped our students to succeed with the specific roles inherent in each subject area. i.e., experimenters in science, essayists in writing, analysts in social studies and history. We barely have enough time to cover and assess the disciplines let alone start integrating them.
  2. Integrating skills across the disciplines is no quick fix. It requires greater planning and knowledge of the disciplines ourselves. It requires us to recognize and help students to draw upon the roles and characteristics of each discipline.
  3. We need to understand the main disciplines all at once to help students identify and create essential questions.
  4. There are no ‘thematic units’ available, with worksheets and final assessments and measuring tools at the ready. Measuring skills requires infinite flexibility, and no guarantee that all curriculum will be covered with each student.
  5. Ensuring that our students are well versed in choosing various assessment methods can be challenging. Particularly when we focus on specific assessment methods for each discipline. Students then need to be taught different ways of presenting their learning. Each discipline has its own ‘way’ of conducting assessments. ie., Writing up a science experiment, analyzing a text, writing a test – (I bet you can guess which subjects those forms of assessment could possibly fit into.) Empowering students to choose the best one for the skills they are demonstrating is challenging.

We can overcome these problems by:

  1. Ensuring that students co-create the success criteria of each skill, and that we always refer to them.
  2. Harnessing each discipline to help create essential questions for students. Prompting students to recognize when they have their own questions and let them come up with imaginative answers.
  3. Visually showing how the ‘Big Ideas’ connect to the problem students are solving. Then have students explicitly identify the skills they are using in each area.
  4. Recognizing that all disciplines are flexible. They are always changing based on new research, society and politics. Knowledge is ever-growing and changing. Students have knowledge to share. Student knowledge changes as they grow and mature.
  5. Allowing students to be assessed in different ways. Each student does not have to conduct the same assessment to demonstrate their growing knowledge.
  6. Harnessing the feedback that your students are already giving each other, and teach them how to do it effectively. Continually helping students to give and receive feedback. Make feedback part of the daily social fabric of the classroom. Make it a #feedbackfriendly classroom.
  7. Connecting the feedback with the vocabulary of specific skills that students use. Words matter.
  8. Helping students to have a growth mindset. We can do this by giving them appropriate scaffolds to help students improve their skills no matter what they are learning. The onus is on us here.
  9. Helping students take risks, and manage frustration. Too much frustration won’t help anyone. Teach students the skills to manage frustration, and understand that some frustration is essential to the learning process.
  10. Organizing our lessons around problems that need to be solved, then drawing upon specific disciplinary knowledge to help students solve those problems.
  11. Helping students plan for dealing with new information. Mental models work great here – not as a means to an end, but as an ongoing process.


What you can expect is that students will begin to talk and converse in ways that involve the key words, sentence starters and conversations that highlight skills. They will start to recognize that they have questions in the first place. They will ask questions that are meaningful to them, without worrying that they are asking the wrong questions. In this way, they will begin to engage more freely in problem solving, they will collaborate more with others, take more initiative with their learning.

Students will also begin to take more ownership of their learning, and begin to feel respected as individuals. Students will begin to understand that what they are learning has real connections to the outside world and what they are interested in. When they search the internet, for instance, they will realize that no topic is ‘just’ about science, or math, and that all issues are interrelated, and that they have it within themselves to ask questions, manage frustration, integrate their own knowledge, values and experiences, and make a plan for moving forward.

At the end of the day, the most important ‘answers’ are those that have come from the students themselves, based on their own skills. Not the answers from a specific discipline.

My call to action is for us all to consider how we can integrate skills within and across subject areas for our students. How will we help them to be successful in the world?


Deborah McCallum

c 2017

2 thoughts on “The Case for Teaching Integrated Skills vs Separate Subjects

  1. Pingback: The Case for Teaching Integrated Skills vs Sepa...

  2. Pingback: This Week in Ontario Edublogs | doug --- off the record

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