Photo by Jim Martin

Integrated Teaching: The Student-Directed Investigation

by Jillian Whitehill

s educators, our goal is to increase the growth of each of our students, foster their passion for learning, and best prepare our students for the real world. While there are many different pedagogies aimed at achieving these goals, I would argue that one of the most important factors is integration. In the context of this paper, integration describes four main elements. The first of which is integrated curriculum, which is a more applicable style of learning that shows students how to connect and apply concepts across various subjects to solve everyday problems (Beane, 1997). In this sense, skills and facts are only taught when they are needed to solve the problem.

The second component of integration is in relation to student ideas. It is important that the central topic or problem addressed in each lesson, is rooted in the students’ interests or issues that are relevant to their lives because it makes the lesson more engaging. It is also important that students are able to arrive at their own ideas or conclusions independently of the teacher. Thirdly, integration emphasizes experiential learning. Theorists such as Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget, have all argued that experiences are a central role of the learning process because they help students to: apply their knowledge and understandings to authentic experiences, reflect upon how their mind processes information, and engage socially, mentally, and physically in an activity.

Finally, to achieve these factors of integration teachers are best to design their lessons backwards, with the desired result at the forefront. This creates much more intentional lessons that often give students accountability for their learning. A student-directed investigation is a clear example of the elements of integration at work. Thus, I will outline three case studies to show how to facilitate a student-directed investigation and as well as how each incorporated the factors of integration.

Within a student-directed investigation, the students create the investigation question as well as the procedure. Putting this much responsibility into students’ hands can be intimidating, but by preparing scaffolding questions and allotting sufficient time, any group of students can take on the challenge. From the three examples that I will present, one can see that there are different ways to facilitate a student-directed investigation. That said, the teachers in my case studies all noted that they focused upon their end goals before planning their assessments and activities. I believe that this commonality of planning backwards helped each teacher achieve their desired results. It is also important to note that these groups of students had conducted at least one student-centered investigation prior to this, so they were all familiar with the investigation process.

To start the investigation, teacher number one outlined what makes a question investigable; in other words, something that requires students to collect data and can be tested within a specified timeframe given the tools provided. She then let her students free explore and asked them to write down every investigable question they could think of. Teacher number two followed a slightly different process by picking a central theme for the students to focus on while free exploring, in this case it was water. She gave her students 10 minutes outside to write down everything they observed about water. Teacher number three also prompted her students to hone in on their observation skills while they free explored, but differed by providing the sentence stems, “I notice…” and “I wonder…” As one can see, all three of these teachers provided some sort of structure for their students to follow while exploring outside, whether it was with a theme or sentence stems, but also allowed their students to follow their interests.

At this point all three of the instructors brought their students together to share what they had observed outside and started to form their investigation questions. Teacher number one put the students into groups of three and asked them to share amongst each other the investigable questions they wrote down while free exploring. They would them decide upon one question that they would investigate as a small group. Teacher number two brought her whole class together, outlined what made a question investigable, then gave them 10 minutes as a class to come up with as many investigable questions as possible, guided by what they had observed about water. She then asked them to decide upon one question to investigate as a class. Teacher number three brought her students together and asked them three consecutive questions in relation to their observations. “What do scientists do? What types of tools do scientists use? What can these those tools measure?” By the third question the students began to produce many investigable questions, of which the students were asked to narrow down the list to their top three choices and divide into groups of three or four to explore each question.

Each teacher elicited student ideas through scaffolding questions and prompts but allowed the students to guide the direction of the investigation questions. While all strategies required the students to work together, the students of teacher number one and even more so teacher number two, had more practice compromising given that they had to agree upon an investigation question once they were in a predetermined group, rather than being placed in group dependent upon their interests. Both cases are valuable, depending upon the objectives and goals of the lesson

Once the investigation questions were set, the teachers moved to the next step of creating the procedure. Teacher number one and three asked their students to consider the order of steps, how much time each step would take, what tools they might use and how, and what role each person would take on the team. Beyond this, they did not alter any part of the students’ procedures but instead asked their students to consider how they could improve their procedure once they had finished their investigation. This analysis component is valuable as it ties into experiential learning, asking the students to reflect and improve upon what they learned.

For the sake of time, teacher number two provided the students with a procedure to follow then divided the class into smaller groups to conduct the single investigation. Once the procedure was set, all the teachers gave their students an investigation chart to record their data and sent them off to host their investigations. During this time, all three of the teachers floated between groups to observe their progress. Each noted that they were careful to remain as bystanders throughout this process, merely acting as a safety monitor. This relates to the second element of integration in that it allows the students to arrive at their own ideas independently of the teacher.

At the end of the investigation all three teachers brought their students together to finish filling out their investigation charts and asked their students to find the average of their variables. While teacher number two had her students do this as an entire class, teacher number one and three gave an example and then asked the students to do this within their individual groups. Once this was complete, the teachers asked their students to create a conclusion statement based off their averages. They all emphasized the importance of having evidence to support claims and provided their students with the sentence stem “I believe ___ because ___.” At this point each teacher hosted a debrief, asking questions such as:

  • Based on your data, what conclusion did you come to?
  • Was this how you thought the investigation would turn out? What surprised you?
  • What could have influenced the data?
  • What new questions do you want to investigate?
  • What skills did you practice during this process? How can you use these skills in other areas of your life?

In total, the student-directed investigation took each of these teachers three to four hours to host. Each teacher noted valuable components of the lesson that encompassed the factors of integration. For example, all three of the teachers felt that the student-directed investigation allowed their students to chase their curiosity, which produced much more engagement throughout the process than they had witnessed during student-centered investigations.

In addition, they noted the benefits of integrated curriculum. They felt that their students learned concepts and practiced skills from multiple subjects, such as scientific processes, mathematics, listening and communication skills, creative thinking, organizational planning, problem solving, and critical thinking. Teacher number two added that she only taught skills once they were needed, such as when her students were unable to decide upon a single question to investigate. This summoned a valuable lesson around communication norms, including collaboration, compromising, listening, and using the right tone and language with peers; which would have otherwise gone unstated. This is a key part of integrated curriculum.

Teacher number three agreed that her students practiced invaluable skills that she had not anticipated. She found that through the student-directed investigation, her students began to take responsibility for their learning. During the debrief, she had asked her students to present their findings to the group and was delighted when, unprompted by her, they followed-up each presentation with questions, proposed next steps, and a diagnosis of what may have influenced their findings. This reflective component is a primary element of experiential learning, as it cements the skills learned through hands-on activities.

Teacher also number one mentioned the value of experiential learning, but in relation to creating the procedure. One group of students was investigating the relationship between the amount of rainfall and location. In their original procedure, they planned to measure each location for 30 seconds. Once they started their investigation they realized that this timeframe was too short to gather an accurate reading, so they adjusted their procedure and restarted the investigation. The teacher was pleased to see her students reflect upon their process and apply their new ideas.

In conclusion, these three examples of student-direct investigations highlight the four elements of integration. In student-directed investigations, teachers give their students the ability to choose the topic they want to learn about, students must draw on skillsets from various subjects, and students are able to reflect upon their learning process through hands-on experiences. All of which are best achieved when teachers plan with the desired results and goals at the forefront. This style of instruction increases student engagement, information retention, and applicability of skills, better preparing our students for the real world.



Kolb, David A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Beane, James (2005). Curriculum Integration: Designing the Core of Democratic Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, second edition. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.



Jillian Whitehill is attending the IslandWood Graduate Residency EEC Program in Bainbridge Island, Washington.