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James Beane and Democratic Classrooms

Chicago Public Schools, Curriculum, Educational Philosophy


James Beane and His Commitments to Teaching

This paper will focus on a brief overview of who James Beane is and some of the beliefs that he has on curriculum integration and democratic classrooms. Next I will move onto what the purpose of schooling is according to Beane as well as a general overview on what the purpose of a middle school is. I will then discuss what integrated curriculum and democratic classrooms are. Finally, I will close with how James Beane has influenced my classroom practices as well as my personal opinions on integrated curriculum and democratic classrooms.

James Beane – The Man

James Beane first became interested in curriculum integration in 1967 after reading texts associated with integration and the democratic process. He was interested in the ideas and began trying out the suggestions found within those texts such as teacher-student planning, problem-centered approaches, and the project method in his own classroom. The terms and ideas surrounding curriculum integration faded during the 1970s and reappeared again in the 1980s. However, Beane felt that the reemergence of the ideas did not seem to fit the progressive nature it once had. Since this time in the 1980s, Beane has written several books and articles on the topic of democratic schools and integrated curriculum.

Along with writing several books and articles on curriculum integration and democratic classrooms, Beane has taught in the middle and high school level. He was a professor at National-Louis University in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies in Curriculum as well as a Professor of Education in the Department of Administration, Supervision, and Curriculum at St. Bonaventure University. His scholarly goals are seeing the effects of schooling on personal and social development of young people and how to reconstruct curriculum organization. It is with these goals in mind that he has written and studied these topics.

James Beane – Educational Philosophy, Premises, and Commitments

James Beane first started to react to the idea of democratic schools and integrated curriculum as a response to the progressive, political and liberal climate of the Civil Right’s Era. He is a leading scholar and a very prominent voice in middle school education as this is where most of his work was linked. Ideas I find interesting are his idea of what the purpose of schooling is, curriculum integration and democratic schools.

What is the Purpose of Schooling and Middle Schools in Particular?

Beane believed that in order to understand and apply integrated curriculum and democratic classrooms, one first had to establish and agree upon a purpose for schooling. He asserted that, “A major reason for maintaining schools is to bring young people into contact with ideas beyond their immediate experience – ideas that connect them with other people, places, and events that are part of the wider human community” (Beane, 1997, p. 87). The job of a school is to prepare students for experiences beyond their K-12 education and be able to problem solve and contribute in a democratic society. During those years students should also be able to take a reflective look at their work and experiences. Beane believes that students should take part in issue-centered, meaningful learning. Only through this type of learning can students take what has been taught to them in school and apply it in their own lives. Then after they leave their K-12 schooling, students will be prepared for the challenges they will come across in the real world.

I personally need to keep in mind the purpose for middle schools and what my role is within them. According to the National Middle School Association there are certain characteristics that middle schools should contain. Some of these are having relevant and challenging curriculum, multiple teaching approaches that allow for diverse learners, assessments that promote quality learning, and adequate accessibility to support services. (National Middle School Association, 2003). Beane also aligns his definition of a middle school with the National Middle School association. He also adds that he works with middle schools in the capacity to, “Give more young adolescents more access to more knowledge, organize themselves to support quality relationships between and among teachers and students” (Beane, 2006, p.6).

Beane’s philosophy along with the statement of the National Middle School Association regarding the purpose of middle schools provides me with a frame of reference when ideas and discussions are held on integrated curriculum and democratic classrooms. The following sections discuss Beane’s ideas on integrated curriculum, democratic schools, and my personal reactions.

What is Curriculum Integration?

According to Beane, curriculum integration is “A curriculum design that is concerned with enhancing the possibilities for personal and social integration through the organization of curriculum around significant problems and issues, collaboratively identified by educators and young people, without regard for subject-area boundaries” (1997, xi). There are schools that attempt to integrate, though not many apply it in the pure sense that Beane explains. The multidisciplinary approach where each subject area contributes but boundaries still exist around disciplines is not true integration. According to Beane in this situation, “What passes for interdisciplinary is really multidisciplinary and certainly not integrative” (Beane, 1991, p.10). This type of integration which occurs most often involves mainly the four subject areas (math, science, social studies and English) without regards to classes like home economics, the industrial arts, music and others. Beane’s curriculum integration involves four aspects of integration: integration of experiences, social integration, integration of knowledge and integration as a curriculum design. Beane believes that these four dimensions of integration fit together to truly maintain an integrated curriculum.

The ideas that people form come from personal experiences therefore meaning is constructed out of these experiences. A part of integrated curriculum calls for meaningful and reflective experiences. In this way, the knowledge that is presented to students should help them integrate new information with existing knowledge. “The more meaningful, the more deeply or elaborately processed, the more situated in context, and the more rooted in cultural, background, metacognitive, and personal knowledge an event is, the more readily it is understood, learned, and remembered” (Beane, 1997, p.5). These will stay with the students and deepen their understanding of the material. Integrating information with students’ prior experience helps achieve mastery. When students can relate and connect information they are learning in school to a personal experience, the likelihood of that student remembering the information and making it meaningful becomes higher.

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Integrating social experiences is important in integrated curriculum as well as being part of the democratic purpose of schools. It allows students to collaborate with each other providing shared educational experiences. “The inclusion of personal issues along side social problems follows from the democratic possibility of integrating self and social interest” (Beane, 1997, p.6). Students become more invested when there is a personal and social interest at hand in the learning. For example, students may want to help the community in its efforts to raise more money for the schools. The students can come together to learn about taxes, property, budgets, environment and many other areas. This is in the curriculum but allows the students to decide what issue they want to learn about as well as help solve.

One practice in schooling that hinders true curriculum integration is the breaking up of knowledge into subjects and contained in strict boundaries. Integrating knowledge is the third aspect that Beane believes will lead to pure integrated curriculum. The separate subject approach that is found in so many schools across the country and it limits how students can see the information. As he maintains,

When knowledge is seen simply as a collection of bits and pieces of information and skill organized by separate subjects or disciplines of knowledge, its uses and its power are confined by their boundaries and thus diminished” (Beane, 1997, p.7).

Beane instead suggests organizing curriculum around self and social issues that are relevant to

everyday life while using knowledge that is relevant to those issues. In real life, when problem

solving, most adults do not determine what subject they need to use, such as math or social studies, to look at the issue. They simply use the information they know to come up with a solution. In the same way students should be exposed to pertinent information as it applies to the material they are learning, not based off of or bound to what subject they are in.

The final aspect to pure integration as Beane would describe it is to use a curriculum design. This means that applicable projects and real world experiences are in the curriculum. This creates the opportunity for students to integrate prior experience with new knowledge while learning the democratic way of problem solving. There are four ways to create an integrated curriculum design. Beane states that first the curriculum is organized around problems or issues that hold personal and social significance in the real world. Second, learning experiences are planned to integrate relevant knowledge in the context of the organizing center. Third, knowledge is used and developed to address the organizing center presently under study as compared to a later test or grade level. Finally, the emphasis is placed on substantive projects and other activities that involve authentic application of knowledge (Beane, 1997).

Finally, Beane argues that in order for true integration to take place students must be involved in the curriculum planning. He feels it is important to know how students would frame issues and how they feel about topics and concerns involved in the curriculum. For instance, students can suggest studying an environmental issue in their neighborhood. They would help decide what to study, where, what materials they would need, what students would take on what roles and much more. This allows the students to create their own curriculum based around a need they saw in their community. They also share power and authority with each other and the teachers in deciding what is to be studied and how. Beane advocates that “Curriculum be developed from the interests of the students themselves” (Drake, 2007, p.41). They can then bring in the experiences they think can help to solve problems. Ultimately students who are involved in the curriculum planning are also involved in the democratic process.

In these ways schools can attain a true integrated curriculum according to Beane. Admittedly, Beane says it is hard work and much effort has to go into the process. However, the rewards that students and teachers alike reap are worth the work. Nonetheless, many school systems and teachers are hesitant to attempt this approach to teaching. Beane explains this when he states, “I suspect there is one crucial reason why many people, educators included, criticize and resist the idea of teaching the democratic way. They have never experienced it” (Beane, 2005, p. 130). A majority of people in this country were educated through the use of standards or teacher directed curriculum, and with very defined subject areas not integrated together, so democratic and integrated classrooms are new territory for most.

My own belief is that because there is so much emphasis on the standards and new teachers are being taught to align their teaching to the standards in college, it is easiest to continue with this practice, with what is comfortable and normal for them. Integrated curriculum can also be overwhelming to a new teacher about to enter the field who may not be prepared to teach in this way. To try to teach democratically and integrate curriculum is new and would take effort that cannot come from pulling a ready-made lesson plan from a filing cabinet. Many teachers settle into a groove of how they would like to do things, partly because this is encouraged as long as the standards are being met. Because of this, countless teachers do not have the energy or initiative to rethink the way they are approaching their curriculum. This is something that I can already relate to in my third year of teaching, along with other teachers in my building. Until districts can reorganize classes away from subject boundaries and give less focus and pressure on state mandated tests, unfortunately for most schools in K-12, true integration will remain an ideal idea.

What is a Democratic School?

“Democracy is a way we choose of being together with others, a way of living, learning, and making our lives better. Like any other community, a democratic community lives by certain norms regarding how people relate to each other and how certain things get done” (Beane, 2005, p.62). This is the way in which Beane understands and writes what a democratic society would look like, which ultimately then would transpose to how a democratic school similarly would run.

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Although Beane gives a definition for a democracy, it is sometimes difficult for others to define what a democratic school is because defining democracy itself is sometimes a challenge. However, according to Apple and Beane (2007), a democratic school is much like a democratic society as described above. Three different aspects of this commitment are worth mentioning. First, in a democratic school, all those who are involved in the school, adults and students alike, participate in the decision making process. Secondly, teachers and students collaborate in the classroom on concerns, goals, and interests of all in the class. Third, in order for this to happen, schools must operate within democratic principles. In the school this means that there is equal access for all which eliminates tracking and biased testing as to ensure equity for all students and teachers alike.

Another condition that must exist in a democratic school and society is faith in the group to be able to come up with solutions to problems. The members of the school or society must be willing to seek the common good for all to gain. All must be willing to develop their voices and multiple views must be heard, regardless of people’s position in the group. All must have the understanding that universal agreement is not common and decisions can be changed. Finally, all must understand that democracy is an evolving concept but be willing to participate in a democratic way. The members must also not align with or agree on policies or decisions that contradict that way of decision making. (Beane, 1990). This would mean allowing a few to step forward and take charge, making some members’ participation unequal.

To make a school democratic, members of the school community must also adopt a democratic curriculum. This entails the school having, “access to a wide range of information and the right of those of varied opinions to have their viewpoints heard” (Apple & Beane, 2007, p. 14). Given this commitment, a democratic core curriculum asks students, “What questions or concerns do you have about yourself? What questions or concerns do you have about the world?” (Beane, 2002, p.26). Themes taught in a democratic school are centered on issues that can be found in the world at large and engage students in real-life situations. Some examples Beane talks about are issues surrounding conflict and violence, the economy and health, diseases and life expectancy. Students in the classroom or school decide on the themes that will be focused on throughout the school year. However, just because themes are set beforehand does not mean there is no room left for small discussions, different topics and projects along the way in the year.

A democratic school also prizes diversity. Democratic classrooms use diversity as strength within the group. Different themes and questions often are centered on gender, race, cultures, sexual orientation and class which lead to more authentic learning versus texts on those subjects. Aligned with these goals, a democratic classroom also demands that powerful questions be asked. This is because students live in a world with real concerns and questions which need to be addressed.

Students in a democratic classroom also will be expected to do in-depth work and research. Students will be asked and will ask powerful questions to help solve real world problems. They have opportunities to come up with themes and questions, create projects and develop reports. This takes more time and energy than standard workbook exercises found in many classrooms. Though a democratic classroom is not intentionally focused around standards, the work and lessons taught will most likely meet standards. For example, as students use content knowledge to help solve questions and work on the themes throughout the year, ultimately, content knowledge standards can be met through this process. Finally, the democratic school and classroom aim to educate students in the “affective dimension” (Beane, 2002, p.28) as students work collaboratively together which calls for respect, equal contribution and a creation of a classroom community. This helps educate the whole person, not just the mind.

One example of a school and teacher who organizes his classroom in a democratic and integrated way is Brian Schultz of Bryd Community Academy in Chicago Public Schools. In 2005 his students examined the problems they saw in their community. They decided to focus on getting new school buildings in the Chicago Public Schools and started Project Citizen. Together the students with their teacher came up with an action plan to research and come up with solutions. This plan became the curriculum for their classroom for the entire year. All subjects, those beyond the four main, were utilized when it was called for depending on the aspect of the problem the class was working on. Test scores went up, attendance rates were high and discipline problems were low. They wrote to their senator, presented in front of the Illinois State Board of Education and set up a website to track progress of their project. Although ultimately, they did not get a new school, the kids and teacher in the class felt a sense of accomplishment. They implemented and designed their own learning and the content was still covered. The class held a phrase during the project, “the process not the product” which really symbolizes the democratic classroom overall. It is important how students work and learn together, not necessarily always the final product. This is one example of a classroom where the students and teachers followed Beane’s idea of a democratic classroom. The teacher and students worked hard, worked together and created the curriculum together in a democratic manner.

Having a democratic classroom can be possible, as the above proves. Again, though, it would mean that teachers would need to relinquish a lot of control in their classrooms. Working with students and having students plan curriculum with the teachers is an approach many are hesitant to try. Democratic classrooms would be a great way to prepare students to enter into a democratic society. However, many teachers and schools may not be ready for this type of classroom. This may be so as stated before that in college teachers are taught to align strictly with standards, teachers were not taught this way therefore this is a new and foreign approach, subjects are too defined and it takes a lot of work and planning.

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My Own Position on Curriculum Integration and Democratic Classrooms

While scholars call for integrated curriculum along the K-12 continuum, I believe it is especially crucial for middle school children who are entering into the world as young adults and are seeking to make meaning of themselves and this social dynamic. Middle school children are often passionate and vocal about their perspectives and what they perceive to be unfairness and this makes them especially suited to addressing social, personal and political issues.

At the middle school level I feel also that students are becoming emotionally and mentally ready to hold discussions about issues and concerns in the world. Students would also have had the sufficient foundations of separate subject area knowledge to bring into this environment. Along with subject area knowledge, experience and practice being involved in the decision making process in their elementary classrooms will serve beneficial to students as they enter into a democratic classroom.

Middle school is also a time where many students are beginning to become more aware of school, community and world issues and can start to relate to those issues as well. This will allow students to be able to come up with ideas and activities that will be useable in the integrated classroom. The students are getting to know themselves, their world and their community better which will allow for a wide range of problem solving opportunities. The issues will also be more meaningful to the students.

Since I feel that integrated curriculum should be utilized in the middle school, integrated curriculum should be continued into high school as well. This will make for a smooth transition and students will be able to be more productive and have more experience with this approach. Thus, project-based learning, simulation, problem-based learning and many other strategies Beane discusses are more likely to be successful and meaningful with students who have been exposed to these concepts before. I also feel that by being exposed to integrated curriculum from middle to high school, students will be more prepared for college and the democratic society they will be entering.

My personal opinion of the use of curriculum integration in my own classroom is still being formed. I am still contemplating the advantages and disadvantages of personally using curriculum integration. Beane has made some great arguments for the use of this teaching method in classrooms. However, I am also very aware of the possible backlash from parents, administration and community members and even consequences of using this method in my classroom. It may not seem suitable to use in many parents and administrators’ eyes as it is not traditional.

In order to have a successful integrated classroom there needs to be a supportive environment. Informing parents and other educators on the topic of integrated curriculum may help the effort. Presenting the drawbacks to traditional strict boundaries to parents and administration may allow them to see why curriculum integration offers more opportunity for academic success in schools. By incorporating authentic, meaningful and issue centered curriculum, integrated curriculum helps students to be more prepared after they leave K-12 schooling. Informational reading may also help some opposed to curriculum integration be more informed and therefore more open to the possibility. However until this happens and people are willing to spend the time becoming informed, I feel that many will still see education as needing to be tied to strict subject boundaries as well as tied to strict standards. Curriculum integration may be too progressive even in this age for some.

As a teacher I know this approach is well worth the time and effort, however I have to think about if I would be willing to go into discussions and ideas that I may not be comfortable discussing with my students. I can also see myself having issues with control. Although I have only been in classrooms for a few years, I have grown accustomed to being the facilitator and having control over what is being taught and discussed in my classroom. A lot of this control has to be relinquished in an integrated and democratic classroom. I feel this is something that a lot of teachers worry about when introduced to or are contemplating the concept of integrated and a democratic curriculum. I feel that more reading and researching into the ideas, concepts, advantages, and disadvantages, will help me to see if curriculum integration as Beane describes it is something that is right for my classroom.

Overall, through reading Beane’s ideas and his plan for an integrated curriculum and democratic classrooms, I feel I have really been exposed to a whole new view on education. I have begun asking myself questions about how our current national education system is working and how I as a teacher am a part of the process. Curriculum integration and democratic classrooms are concepts I look forward to reading and learning more about as I consider this method in my and other classrooms around the country. Beane truly gives anyone involved in education or curriculum reform something to think and reflect about as they consider the education of today’s youth.



Apple, M.W. & Beane, J.A. (Eds.). (2007) Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education

(2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Beane, J.A. (1990). Affect in the curriculum: Toward democracy, dignity, and diversity. New

York: Teacher’s College Press.

Beane, J. (1991). The middle school: The natural home of integrated curriculum. Educational

Leadership, 49(2), 9-13.

Beane, J.A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education. New

York: Teacher’s College Press.

Beane, J. A. (2002). Beyond self-interest: A democratic core curriculum. Educational

Leadership, 59(7), 25-28.

Beane, J.A. (2005). A reason to teach: Creating classrooms of dignity and hope. Portsmouth,

NH: Heinemann.

Beane, J. (2006). Pickle in the middle. California English, 12(1), 6-8.

Drake, S. (2007). Creating standards-based integrated curriculum (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks,

CA: Corwin Press.

National Middle School Association. (2003). This we believe. Retrieved April 12, 2008

from http://www.nmsa.org/AboutNMSA/ThisWeBelieve/tabid/1273/Default.aspx.

Project Citizen. (2005). Room 405 Website. Retrieved April 26, 2008 from