A Network Metaphor for Learning

The rationale to approach the curriculum as integrated content is grounded in the observation that few problems encountered—and little of the information use in—the real-world conforms to the boundaries that delimit subjects in schools. Herrenkohl and Polman (2018) reason, “people do not experience the world from a singular disciplinary perspective” (p. 108), and they conclude organizing curriculum as integrated content “captures the range of human thinking and sense-making” (p. 109). Despite the fact that it is so familiar that it seems a natural part of the world, the “subjects” as are experienced in school are artificial and, in many ways, pose barriers to deeper learning.

For many educators who are used to approaching curriculum as an outline of topics, it is difficult to conceptualize integrated curriculum. Some find that a network provides a useful metaphor to understand an integrated curriculum. The nodes or vertices of the network a represent learners’ skills and knowledge; and the edges represent relationships, connections, and applications of those skills and that knowledge. When learners arrive in the classroom for the first session, they each hold a network that represents their existing knowledge and abilities to apply that knowledge.  

Through the intentional and guided process that we call teaching, learners’ networks are extended and the connects strengthened. New knowledge and skills can be visualized as new nodes that are added to the network; new knowledge can also result in nodes being edited or replaced (if misconceptions are clarified). What we have been calling deeper learning can be visualized as stronger and richer connections (both cognitive and emotional) between nodes. The metaphor of the network explains forgetting as well. Nodes that are weakly connected to the network or are lost or forgotten.

Frick (2018) concluded “integrated education should maximize strong connections among kinds of knowing (cognition), intention (conation), and feelings (emotion). Student learning which occurs during integrated education should result in more stable long-term memory, less likely to be forgotten as time passes” (p. 8). Frick reasons integrated curriculum leads to more stable memories as it reinforces foundational knowledge with the knowledge of how to apply what is known as with metacognitive understanding. Attentive readers will find application and metacognition to be familiar ideas that I have associated with deeper learning in this book. Given Frick’s observation that integrated approaches lead to longer and more stable memories, then it seems reasonable to conclude that those faculty who are motivated to ensure that students learn the content will adopt strategies to integrate their curriculum despite the counterintuitive nature of the decision to focus on details other than that content.

When organizing the curriculum as integrated content, faculty identify concepts are broad ideas that facilitate deeper learning within disciplines and themes facilitate deeper learning by finding connections between disciplines. In the metaphor of the network, concepts are those nodes that have connections to multiple nodes within the discipline. The richer one’s conceptual understanding, the more connections that exist between what it known. Themes are connections to nodes outside of the discipline (or traditionally outside of the discipline) as school is organized. The richer one’s thematic understanding, the more connection that exist to what has been learned on other situations.


Frick T. (2018). The theory of totally integrated education (TIE). In J. M. Spector et al. (eds.), Learning, Design, and Technology. Springer International Publishing.

Herrenkohl, L, & Polman, M. (2018). Learning within and beyond disciplines. In F. Fischer, C. Hmelo-Siver, S. Goldmand, P. Reimann (eds.). International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp.106-115). Routledge.