Stuck in the Middle?

A short story about one Massachusetts middle school deciding between a layered or integrated curriculum format

I’m going to date myself by stating this, but as a middle schooler, I used to love those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that gave you the power to choose how the story unfolded.  Remember those?!  If not, the short of it was that at various points in the book you could make choices as to what direction you wanted the story to go.  The choices you made affected the fate of the characters and how the book ended.  If you didn’t like the results, you could go back and make different selections until you created an ending that pleased you.  It was awesome!  So this leads me to the question…What adventure are we choosing for our students?

“Create Your Own Adventure”

As middle school educators, we are also given a choice of story direction when we decide how and what we teach.  Collectively, we are responsible to tell the complete science story by providing essential chapters for our students as they move from one grade level to the next.  So, as it pertains to content delivery, what path is best for your students?  Does an integrated curriculum format lead to better story comprehension for your students versus if they experienced a layered approach?  Proceed with caution: you will not find the answers to those questions here!  Sorry, it’s not my place.  This is more of a food for thought piece that will provide you with a little insight into the curriculum transition experiences of one Massachusetts middle school.

To give you some background, I am a seventh grade science teacher and I also serve as the science academic coordinator at my school.  Two years ago, our department began to look at the proposed draft of the new MA standards and it didn’t take us too long to realize that we were going to have a decision on our hands.  Should we stay with the “layered cake” format that we have been utilizing for years or do we make the change to a spiral/integrated approach?  Both formats have benefits, but which option is the best fit for our students?  The Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) recommends an integrated curriculum delivery but leaves the decision in the hands of the districts.  For those districts that are considering to spiral, a range of approaches are provided.  These include:  Both feet in (e.g., all grades 6-8 start at the same time), phase in by grade level (e.g., gr. 6 one year, gr. 7 the next, …), phase in units/topics (e.g., everyone change a few units this year, a few more next year), phase in science & engineering practices first, then content later, and/or plan for different structure (e.g., move to ES science specialists; MS science teacher looping).  To help us make our decision, we focused on the vision of the new standards.

The science and technology/engineering standards are intended to drive engaging, relevant, rigorous, and coherent instruction that emphasizes student mastery of both disciplinary core ideas (concepts) and application of science and engineering practices (skills) to support student readiness for citizenship, college, and careers.  

We also took a look at several documents provided by the MA DESE to help us understand the shift in vision from that of the MA 2001/06 standards.  You can find these documents here.  A few of the resources that we relied heavily on were:

A Vision of Science and Technology/Engineering Education

Qualities of Science and Technology/Engineering Education for All Students

Student engagement with science and technology/engineering is a critical emphasis that can only be achieved through quality curriculum and instruction. The standards attend to relevance, rigor, and coherence, each of which has a corresponding implication for curriculum and instruction:

Emphasis in STE Standards

Implication for Curriculum and Instruction

Relevance: Organized around core explanatory ideas that explain the world around us

The goal of teaching focuses on students analyzing and explaining phenomena and experience

Rigor: Central role for science and engineering practices with concepts

Inquiry- and design-based learning involves regular engagement with practices to build, use, and apply knowledge

Coherence: Ideas and practices build over time and among disciplines

Teaching involves building a coherent storyline over time and among disciplines

Guiding Principles for Effective Science and Technology/Engineering Education

The goal of the Guiding Principles is to help educators create relevant, rigorous, and coherent STE programs that support student engagement, curiosity, analytical thinking, and excitement for learning over time. Educators, administrators, and curriculum designers can refer to the Guiding Principles to develop effective pre-K–12 STE programs. The Guiding Principles are organized to reflect the need for relevance (Principles 1–2), rigor (Principles 3–5), and coherence (Principles 6–9) in STE programs. Strong STE programs effectively support student learning so they are prepared for a dynamic world.

Strand Maps of Science and Technology/Engineering Standards

The standards reflect coherent progressions of learning that support the development of core ideas across grades. This makes it useful to visualize how concepts progress across grade spans and are related across disciplines when planning and aligning curricula (horizontally and vertically).  Strand maps are designed for this purpose. Learning is facilitated when new and existing knowledge is structured around core ideas rather than discrete bits of information. The strand maps show the conceptual relationship between concepts in standards within and across grades.

Individual teachers can use strand maps to identify concepts that should be the focus of pre-assessment, to convey to students how the standard they are learning will contribute to future learning, and to cluster standards into effective units of study. Schools and districts have found strand maps to be particularly useful in vertical team meetings, curriculum mapping workshops, and interdisciplinary meetings. Planning an STE curriculum at any grade level is most effective when it is known what students have already been taught and what they will learn in subsequent years.

Sample STE strand map showing linked concepts from pre-K (left) to high school (right)

The Case for an Integrated Approach for Pre-K-8

The goal of a quality STE education is to produce scientifically and technologically literate citizens who can solve complex, multidisciplinary problems through analytical and innovative thinking in real-world applications needed for college and career success. An integrated model for the Massachusetts pre-K to grade 8 STE standards reflects:

  • That science is complex and multidisciplinary.
  • Research on learning in science that shows expert knowledge develops through interdisciplinary connections, not isolated concepts or practices.
  • Effective research-based practices for curriculum and instruction in science and engineering.

In the end, we came to a consensus and decided to make the switch to an integrated curriculum.  After many years of using a layered format, we felt that an integrated model would be the better choice to build a coherent storyline over time for our students.  We are currently in year one of a three-year rollout plan.  Our 6th grade teachers have implemented the new curriculum and it will roll up with the students next year when they enter 7th grade and then again when they head to 8th grade.

One of our 6th grade teachers summed up the transition process best when she said, “A successful transition is not possible without time, patience, and commitment.”  It is a lot of hard work, but it’s good, fulfilling work.  The level of collaboration that I have seen among the 6th grade teachers has been amazing…inspirational, really.  As a department, we have also increased our vertical collaboration.  We’ve had some fun during professional development days learning (and relearning) material that we will soon be teaching.  The process seems to have re-energized everyone, including our most veteran teachers.  


Teachers trying out a new engineering design challenge (EDC) before it hits the classroom.  This was done during a “Test Lab” PD day.

So how are you going to tell the science story to your students?  Like I said, it’s not my place to answer that for you but I will leave you with this…remember to keep the decision process student-focused.  Go (or stay) with the format that you feel is best for your students and their comprehension the complete story.  If you do that, you just might have a bestseller on your hands.

The End

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The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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2017 STEM Forum & Expo
Kissimmee/Orlando, July 12–14

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Baltimore, October 5–7
Milwaukee, November 9–11
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