Integrative Education

Putting the pieces together in a working model

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 44
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Barbara Clark and her co-workers have done a remarkable job of synthesizing much of the new research on human learning into a, by now, well-tested and workable model. The following is excerpted from her wonderful book,
Optimizing Learning: The Integrative Education Model in the Classroom. (Copyright © 1986 Merrill Publishing Co., Columbus, Ohio. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.) She can be reached at Division of Special Ed, California State University, 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032 or 213/224-3711.

– Robert Gilman

In the Spring of 1979 a new class convened at California State University, Los Angeles, a class which brought together current Master’s candidates and graduates from the area of gifted education. In this advanced studies course the students explored current brain research implications and the new theories for education of the gifted. At the end of the quarter the group did not want to end their inquiry and continued to meet informally throughout the following summer and into the next academic year.

By late fall these students decided that it was necessary to try out these new teaching strategies for gifted children. The environment, they decided, would have to be one of total teacher and student support, and would have to forgo traditional education structures and limits. In June of the following year the first session of a six-week summer project school was held, a project sponsored by Cal State Los Angeles and staffed by the group of Master’s degree graduates. Since then the project has been repeated each summer, and from this experience the Integrative Education Model and its components have evolved.

In this article, I will first describe that model and then describe the summer school program that has been our laboratory.


The Integrative Education Model uses data from such diverse fields as physics, psychology, and the neurosciences. This interactive system involves the learner’s thoughts, feelings, senses, and intuitions. As the model evolved from a theory to actual practice, seven key components became apparent. While parts of the Model can be used effectively without all components in place, the most effective use will include all seven.

Key I: The Responsive Learning Environment * This component requires educators and parents to develop new, supportive attitudes toward learning. The roots of this organizational plan are buried deeply in the works of Plato, Socrates, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Dewey, Montessori, Piaget, and other innovative educators, and strives for a unique learning experience for each individual. Participation, necessary to learning, is encouraged to insure the assimilation of concepts. While the responsive learning environment has a different format for each group of learners there are some basic characteristics:

1) There is an open, respectful, and cooperative relationship among teachers, students, and parents, a relationship that includes planning, implementing, and evaluating the learning experience.

2) The environment is much like a laboratory or workshop: rich in materials with simultaneous access to many learning activities. The emphasis is on experimentation and involvement.

3) The curriculum is flexible and integrative. The needs and interests of the students provide the base from which the curriculum develops.

4) There is a minimum of total group lessons, with most instruction occurring in small groups or between individuals. Groups centered around needs or interest can be formed by teachers or students.

5) The student is an active participant in the learning process. Movement, decision- making, self-directed learning, invention, and inquiry are encouraged both inside and outside the classroom. Students may work alone, with a partner, or in groups. Peer teaching is important.

6) Assessment, contracting, and evaluation are all used as tools to aid in the growth of the student. Frequent conferences keep student, teacher, and parents informed of progress and provide guidance for future planning.

7) Cognitive, affective, physical, and intuitive activities are all valued parts of the classroom experience.

8) The atmosphere is one of trust, acceptance, and respect.

The responsive learning environment is highly structured and presents a complex learning organization to the student. This environment has the ability to meet all learners at their present level of cognitive, social-emotional, physical, and intuitive development and to help them move from that point.

Key II: Relaxation And Tension Reduction * If the integration of mind and body is to succeed, relaxation techniques must be learned to allow the body to cooperate with the mind’s energy. At least six systems of relaxation are available: Autogenics, hypnotic suggestion, biofeedback, progressive relaxation, Yoga breathing and meditation. Students gain by exposure to several methods, and they can choose the one that works best for them.

Physical environment, too, can play an important part in facilitating or inhibiting the reduction of tension. The use of calming music and colors can aid in reducing anxiety and tension. Also order in a classroom is meaningful and especially appreciated by children who are sensitive to their environments.

Key III: Movement And Physical Encoding * One of the most curious observations made by brain researchers is that physical movement is important to learning. A child’s movement is quite natural until entering school, where there is less and less opportunity to integrate movement and physical sensing into the learning experience. Among the few disciplines that retain this important aspect of learning are the arts and the physical sciences. Laboratories are used for physics and chemistry, but not in mathematics or history. Why? Though some efforts have been made by psychology and sociology teachers to incorporate experimentation and real life involvement, the teaching process has relied on students sitting at desks listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration in order to develop knowledge of the area being taught.

If we are to better educate students then we must acknowledge the importance of movement. The purposeful change of place, position or posture as part of the learning process, and physical encoding – the learning process which uses the physical body to transfer information from the abstract or symbolic level to a more concrete level – are integral to this movement, and can produce more precise learning with a higher rate of retention. Encoding techniques might consist of the use of rhythms, role playing, physically manipulating materials, and the creation of situations or actual events.

Key IV: Empowering Language And Behavior * When a student says, “I can’t figure this out, so what do I do next?” a teacher who asks, “What would be some of the possibilities?” or “What could you do that might help?” will allow the learner to retain the power and enable this student to experience thought processes while feeling supported. This is an example of empowering language. Giving a student undivided attention and indicating you are listening when that student is sharing a concern or achievement is an example of empowering behavior. Sparling tells us that these verbal, nonverbal, and overt physical responses result in competence, support, closeness, appreciation, and helpful feedback.

Empowering language becomes an important part of classroom communication between teachers, between student and teacher, and between students. Students who are given opportunities to work in an environment in which empowering language is valued become more responsible, more motivated, and exhibit a positive self-concept. All of these characteristics can be shown to enhance academic achievement. The risks involved in creativity are taken, the highest levels of cognitive production made possible. The results of attention to this component of the Integrative Education Model enrich all phases of the student’s world.

Key V: Choice And Perceived Control * During the past decade many researchers have found that choice and the resulting perception of control are significant factors in student academic achievement and self-concept. Interestingly it is not just the choice or control allowed students that makes the difference, but their perception of that choice. Unless students clearly see those choices and believe that they can really make an acceptable decision, the positive effect will be missing. Good decision-making must begin with opportunities for choice and alternative thinking. To become skilled at making appropriate and positive decisions students must have opportunities for guided practice.

These decision-making skills also help young people establish values by which they can live, that work effectively and lead to satisfying, fulfilling lives.

Key VI: Complex And Challenging Cognitive Activity * One of the components of the Integrative Education Model that has been given the most attention by educators is the concern for the development of complex and challenging cognitive activities. Many models have been developed to aid in meeting this concern.

There remains, however, a most important matter. Since cognition can no longer include only the specialization of only half of our cortical function, we must integrate the other cortical specialization: the spatial, gestalt processes. Of even more concern is the theoretic construct which encourages only one of the four brain functions to be developed. Cognition, even in its expanded definition, only involves the function of the cortex, leaving the brain stem (physical/sensing) and the midbrain, limbic area (feelings), as well as the prefrontal cortex (intuition), completely out of the learning process. Integration of all functions must be accomplished to allow the most effective development of the human potential.

By including all the models now available, planning for optimizing education has an excellent starting point, a cadre of valuable tools with which to begin. If we include all human function in our concept of learning, we can plan for more effective and meaningful learning experiences.

Key VII: Intuition And Integration * This last component of the Integrative Education Model involves both an area of brain function and total brain process. The brain is organized in a highly integrated manner, most of its area composed of associative tissue. The brain system is biologically designed for high levels of synthesis, and as educators incorporate these processes into their educational systems, learning experiences will become more effective and efficient, the students more motivated and successful.

The intuitive function has been the least recognized by educators, but attitudes toward intuition seem to be changing. Since it has been shown that brain functions are biologically different, a new effort is being made to bring the right brain’s holistic, integrative, inventive ways of knowing into the learning process to provide a more balanced education. Breakthroughs in brain research and physics have caused the very nature of reality to be reconsidered. New findings on human energy, meditation, personal space, fantasy, imagery, and dreams have much to offer educational programs. If, as Barbara Brown insists, all learning is subconscious, intuitive abilities need to be developed.

These seven keys allow a view of the Integrative Education Model from several vantage points, including the physical and emotional setting, the attitudes and communication skills of teachers and learners, brain compatible strategies and techniques, and the demand for function integration. From these components come tools students can use to help them become better learners.


Designing the most effective learning environment possible was first a job of articulating long held dreams. Whatever factor the group (that had grown out of the gifted education class) believed to be important and could be shown to have a reasonable theoretic basis could be included. The only limits were those of the creators. There were, of course, funding constraints, but the most difficult limitations to overcome were the old teaching and learning habits that held all these creators subtly in their bounds. The goal was to implement all of the key components of the Integrative Education Model and to focus on the process of learning, giving students tools with which they could become successful and responsible learners. While content was still important it was deemed imperative to give the students ideas and activities that would help them best educate themselves in any subject area.

To give more flexibility and choice to the students a cross-age grouping was devised: Toddlers (ages 2 to 3), Early Age (ages 3 to 6), and Cross Age (ages 6 to 16). Each unit is organized in parallel structures with a decentralized plan appropriate to the age group involved, and all units have faculty teaching teams.

The overall program can be illustrated by the Cross Age program, which parallels the structure of the other two, but the choices are wider and include work in several laboratory settings staffed by different faculty teams. Sample settings are:

  • a science lab, such as biology, neurophysiology or physics;
  • a writing lab, which could include writing and producing plays, novels, and poetry, learning the art of illustrating and calligraphy, making paper, and developing the skills of the critic;
  • wilderness classes in which the children learn to live in nature and understand the role of humans in the natural ecology, a study culminating in a four day trip to the High Sierras or to a nearby island in the Pacific Ocean;
  • a math lab that allows students to pursue a wide variety of math usage at their own pace.

All offerings include experiences that integrate the four brain functions; each lab is decentralized with a variety of levels of activity available. Children between 6 and 16 are free to choose any offering they wish to pursue. This wide age range allows the teachers to group students flexibly depending on learning needs and allows students to move at their own pace. Students enjoy the mixing of ages and there seem to be many benefits to such a cross age structure.

The Cross Age Program meets from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm and follows a set daily structure. From 8:30 to 9:00 is Community and Families, a meeting of all children age 6 to 16 in the auditorium. Here announcements are made, a thought for the day is discussed, a brain teaser is presented (and the children present the solution to the one given the day before), and a group relaxation activity is conducted. The group then separates into Families, i.e., like age groups. These groups spend 15 minutes to a half hour building social-emotional and communications skills, discussing personal experiences, and learning skills to develop strong, positive self-concepts.

From 9:00 to 10:00 Session I provides students with the first academic class they have chosen from the many labs offered. The students reconvene in families from 10:00 to 10:20 for sharing. After a break, Session II meets from 10:45 to 11:45 for the students’ next academic choice or a synthesis of those already investigated. From 11:45 to 12:00 the students again meet together with an opportunity for scheduled students to share their expertise with the group. Lunch is from 12:00 to 12:40, from 12:40 to 1:00 the students are involved in thinking skill-building games and experiments. Session III meets from 1:00 to 2:15 and includes art, music, drama, and wilderness classes. The students end their day in their family grouping, talk about the events of the day, and join together for a closing activity.

The plan for the week includes:

  • Monday: The two morning sessions provide one-shot experiences. Students are presented with a wide range of activities which will be available only one time, such as a mini-workshop with a visiting novelist, an open science lab with a visiting heart surgeon, a craft class in soap carving, a music composition class with a professional composer, a class in creating computer games, etc.
  • Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: The regular on-going academic choices are available.
  • Friday: Trip day. All students who wish may attend field trips designed to involve the community in the learning experience. The botany class may go on a trip to a nature reserve, or the drama class might attend a dress rehearsal of the Music Center Repertory Company, or perhaps the math class will visit a session of the Stock Exchange in the financial district. Many special events involve the entire population of the school, including parents.

By the last day the students, faculty, and parents are a cohesive, caring community of learners. In six short weeks much change and much learning occurs. Most important, however, is how much the students have grown. An unusual amount of positive change takes place as the faculty focuses on the intuitive, affective, physical, and cognitive growth of the students. When those who attend or visit compare the Project to other educational systems they have known, they consistently make the following observations:

  • the students are more relaxed, more at ease with themselves and
  • they are more caring and respectful of each other and of the faculty;
  • they are more creative, try more unusual solutions, and engage in more
    alternative and higher level cognitive activities;
  • they initiate more learning activities and are more enthusiastic about
    their learning;
  • they are more highly motivated toward learning;
  • they are more independent and responsible.