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Integrating Knowledge
How a very slight change in Summer School
(High School or College) can make for a huge
positive gain in educational outcomes

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

A very slight change in summer school procedures, even without formal change in most teaching methods nor in the responsibilities of most teachers, can be used to create considerable and cumulative improvement in learning. Anyone interested in improved or accelerated learning should investigate the integration of knowledge in the school curriculum.

Jerome Bruner and others made a highly respected case on behalf of organizing a core of structured principles of understanding which are common to all fields of knowledge or study. In Bruner's concept, each core principle would be revisited more formally at each rung up the educational ladder. A fundamental issue in education is the transfer of learning, from initial to subsequent contexts.

Without an integrated base of understanding, few students remember the contents of their courses for very long, much less transfer their learning to where it can serve them usefully in either the learning of subsequent courses or in living. With such a core of integrated understandings, most students will be able to do all these things and much more — very much in keeping with the goals of any educator interested in improving long-term and even short-term educational outcomes.

We propose here a simple, easy summer-school procedure for college or high school, by means of which to induce a richly productive integration of knowledge in its students, even where none of the school's teachers or administrators or texts are themselves equipped with such a core!


"All knowledge is my province."
Roger Bacon



The other end of Bruner's Spiral — An easy way to integrate knowledge without disturbing school procedures

The Problem
A serious complaint by some of the more intelligent among seniors and graduates is that most schools "teach each subject in a box." Each subject is taught so isolated and separate from any other subject that there is little transfer of learning from one course to the next, even in closely related fields. Worse, for many, there is little long-term retention of learning. An apparent waste of most of the schooling effort. Nothing comes along to reinforce what was already learned at such effort and cost. Hence the oft-quoted definition that "an education is what you have left after you've forgotten everything you've been taught."

Decrying this condition, many have argued on behalf of integrating the school curriculum around a common core structure of knowledge, with the contents of all subjects taught as examples of the common core principles in operation. Historically, some, from Aristotle on, have concentrated mainly on identifying a core of structural principles around which the body of existing knowledge can be encyclopedically assembled and organized. Others, from Oliver L. Reiser[1] to Mortimer Adler and his "Propedia"-based Encyclopedia Britannica, have focused on compiling some identified core knowledge and principles in more accessible or teachable form.

Swamped by other issues, educators nowadays appear to feel that to consider how to integrate knowledge is but an intellectual luxury, one to at best be looked at some other time when classroom learning generally is in less immediate prospect of extinction. Indeed, interest in this topic may have peaked in the Sixties with the war cry of "relevancy" — which war cry was, alas, instead used mainly to demolish old scholastic and academic standards without replacing them with genuine improvements.

Bruner's Spiral
At about the same time, on a far more respectable level, around the time he was leader of Harvard University's Institute of Cognitive Studies, Jerome Bruner proposed an integrated "spiral" structure of all knowledge in the curriculum. Further, he argued that "any idea, no matter how 'advanced,' can be taught in intellectually respectable form to any child at any stage of development" if it is put into that child's current cognitive vocabulary...if it is put into the structure of basic codified experiences with which he then processes other experiences[2].

Ford and Pugno[3], among others, assembled not only such arguments but proposals by various writers for integration within particular curriculum areas — math, English, social studies, and the natural sciences. More recently, this writer found the most widely accepted behavioral law of psychology to be a central descriptive principle not only for animal behavior but for vegetative — indeed, extending beyond lifekind to be a major structural and physical issue in the material universe[4], which experience lends some further impetus to the consideration that we live in one universe with one set of "natural laws" which, once understood, render understandable also the contents of any academic or scientific specialization.

General Theory of Systems
Perhaps the most promising area for integration of knowledge has been through the general theory of systems, the study of how things work together. Because the dynamic principles of the interactions of things are consistent from physics to sociology to art and poetry, general systems theory represents an especially convenient set of descriptive physical principles around which can be assembled and organized the contents of all other academic fields.

Indeed, in a tradition consistent with Wiener[5], von Bertalanffy[6], Laszlo[7], Kuhn[8], and Miller[9], among others, this writer has argued that, once equipped with a basic understanding of the general theory of systems, many or most learners should become able to transfer virtually 100% of everything learned in any one particular subject context into any other particular subject context(s) and into general usefulness[10]. However, very few faculty even at college level have any acquaintance with general systems theory, and virtually none at high school level, rendering problematic this most obvious solution for educational improvement in this topical context.

Yet the case for integrating the contents of the school or academic curriculum has not in any apparent regard diminished over the years — only the interest of current educators in that case. An encyclopedic review of what now amounts to a mere faded lesson in the history of education is not the intent of this brief. These few references were only to indicate that the case itself is respectable and was respected.

Further, we submit that this should still be a central issue to any professional who desires better methods of teaching and learning, or who seeks better educational outcomes. If such an integration, however arrived at, can

  • reinforce prior learning;
  • improve current and future learning;
  • result in higher long-term retention of learning, and
  • make what is learned more useful to subsequent pursuits,
then such an integration must become a central interest and concern for any quality-minded educator. Don't go back to sleep on this one!!!

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