Assess Your Curriculum and Courses Using Harden’s Taxonomy of Curriculum Integration

Posted on July 28, 2010



Author:  Sanjay Goel,





Roger Schank told a very interesting story [1] about the ineffectiveness of the so called broad based curriculum that includes  inputs from multiple disciplines.    As per this story,  a hypothetical country  was badly overrun by dragons. The government formed a high power committee of  multi-disciplinary experts  (engineering, arts, biology, physics, chemistry, medical, law, business, defence, etc.) to create a  solid  master’s program on ‘dragon slaying.’  The experts worked ‘hard‘ to create a new curriculum and came with the following well balanced broad based 2 year curriclum:

Sem I Introduction to Dragonese, Basic Legal Concepts, Introduction to Photography, Introduction to Anatomy, Strength and Materials.

Sem II: Introduction to Dragonese II, Civil Liberties and Animal Rights, Introduction to Drawing, The Anatomy of Dragons, Projectile Physics

Sem III:  Basic Negotiation, History of Warfare, Introduction to Ethics, Evolutionary Biology, Introduction to Map Reading

Sem IV:  Introduction to Public Policy, Basic Marketing, Basic Finance, Introduction to Computation, Logistics

The program produced several graduates with high honors but failed to free the country from dragons.  Some graduates killed their peers and  ran away. Few  others never found any dragon to test their skills.  Some were eaten by dragon. Some others became agents of dragon. Some others formed new companies to train dragon slayers. Off course some went into other fields. 

The curriculum had all the necessary ingradients even then it failed to produce the desirable results. The reason was that the ingrdients were not well integrated.   Course ‘X’ did not bother to relate with course ‘Y’.   There was no exchange of ideas between the facvulty of different disciplines. there was no insentive or complusion for the faculty to do such integration.   The task of integrating was completed left to students. The faculty continued to study, teach, and research within the  boundaries of  their core disciplines.  

There may be some exaggeration in this story but it is an excellent  alligory about most curriculum. 


Lethbridge’s study [2] showed that the about 200 practicing  software engineers felt that subjects like theoretical computer science, mathematical topics in computer science, other hardware topics, general mathematics, and basic science did not contribute any single topic to the list 25 most influential topics.   Further,  they also felt that these areas are overemphasized in the curriculum.

In my view [3], lack of integration of different concepts from different areas is the common problem in both the cases mentioned above.

 A Solution Approach: Harden’s Taxonomy of Curriculum Integration

Building upon various earlier works on curriculum integration with more specific focus on school education, in 2000, Harden [4] proposed a taxonomy of curriculum integration wrt medical education. In my view, it is good model that can be used by all programs of higher education.  Harden has structured this taxonomy as an eleven stage ladder given below:

Subject based teaching

1.  Isolation: Integration is not explicitly facilitated and is left to students themselves.

2.   Awareness: Teachers avoid duplication across subjects. Integration is left to students themselves.

3.   Harmonization: Teacher may make some explicit connections within the subject area to other subject areas.  

4.   Nesting: Content from different subjects may be infused to enrich the teaching of one subject.

Higher levels of integration

5.       Temporal co-ordination: Related topics in different subjects are taught concurrently but separately

6.         Sharing: Overlapping concepts of different subjects are used as organizing elements for joint teaching of shared concepts in complementary subjects.

7.        Correlation: An integrated teaching session, course, project, assignment is introduced in addition to the subject-based teaching to bring together related topics. 

8.        Complementary program: The integrated sessions now represent a major feature of the curriculum. Running alongside the integrated teaching are scheduled opportunities for subject-based teaching.

9.      Multi-disciplinary: New courses are developed around integrating themes, problems, or issues. The courses may include a structured body of knowledge but which transcends subject boundaries. The theme or problem is the focus for the learning, and the subjects demonstrate how they contribute to the students’ understanding of the theme or problem. The subjects give up a large measure of their own autonomy.

10.     Inter-disciplinary: Content of many subjects, is combined into a new course. There may be no reference to individual disciplines or subjects, and hence a loss of the subject or discipline specific perspectives. 

11.   Trans-disciplinary:The curriculum transcends the individual disciplines. The focus with trans-disciplinary integration for learning, however, is not a theme or topic selected for this purpose, but the field of knowledge as exemplified in the real world.

The disciplines that form part of a curriculum sometimes have significant differences in their approach [5].  Deep learning  requires synthesis of varied concepts into a well integrated  whole [3].  Hence, higher level integration as per Harden’s taxonomy  is one of most imporatant aspects of excellence in higher education.

Often many academics  casually use  the term  ‘multi-disciplinary’ and ‘inter-disciplinary’ even if  they actually operate at ‘isolation level,’   leaving the entire integration responsibility to the students.    Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches can only emerge in a systems, if the faculty members themselves start looking beyond the boudaries of their disciplines.  As researchers, many  faculty members interact with their peers across national boundaries. However, very few engage in  traversals and exchanges across the disciplines.   Even when they do, it is often across disciplines of same or nearly same Biglan category [5].  

The education managers, curriculum designers,   and faculty  need to ask themselves as what do they do to ensure higher levels of integration.    The students need to ask themselves as what kind of integration have they experienced.  In the absence of frequent  experiences with  higher level integration, the  learning  is superficial. 

Harden’s  taxonomy has been incorporated into the  proposed multi-dimensional framwork [6] for designing pedagogical engagement in software development education.   Some steps have also been taken to facilitate higher level of integation as per this taxonomy [7][8][9]. 


1.  Roger C. Schank, Every Curriculum Tells a Story,

2.    A Perspective from Industry about Most Important and Influential Topics in Software Development Education

3.   Phenomenon of Learning – A Unified Explanatory Theory

4.  Ronald M Harden,   The integration ladder: a tool for curriculum planning and evaluation, MEDICAL EDUCATION, Vol. 34, Blackwell Science Ltd, pp 551-557, July 2000.



7.    Software Development Education: Two Experimental Courses for Interdisciplinary Integration with Selected Elements of Human Sciences

8.   Nurturing the Artistic Talent of Engineering Students through Multimedia Courses

9.   Do we not need to urgently make the base broader and interdisciplinary? – A Concept Note for starting 4 year BS (Interdisciplinary Informatics) in India


Keywords:   Software Engineering Education, Computing Education, Computer Science Education, Engineering Education, Information Technology Education, Information Systems Education, College Education, Higher Education, Professional Education


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