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An Introduction to Cross-Curricular Learning


Abstract and Figures

This chapter will: • demonstrate the links between creative thinking and cross-curricular activity • draw attention to different approaches to cross-curricular teaching and learning • establish a range of methods through which cross-curricular activity can be used to raise standards in children's subject learning
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Chapter Aims
This chapter will:
• demonstrate the links between creative thinking and cross-curricular activity
• draw attention to different approaches to cross-curricular teaching and
• establish a range of methods through which cross-curricular activity can
be used to raise standards in children’s subject learning
The world beyond the classroom is cross-curricular. Through my window I see walls,
trees, people walking by, cars, birds, clouds and the occasional aeroplane – I understand
none of them fully from the perspective of just one curriculum subject. I describe and
appreciate the cherry tree outside using a combination of geographical, artistic, poetic,
Jonathan Barnes
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philosophical and historical vocabularies. Others might perceive the same scene by link-
ing thoughts from mathematics, science, design, music, movement or religious education.
We each look on the world, its objects, patterns and experiences, with different eyes.
Cross-curricular learning recognises these multiple viewpoints and seeks to build more
knowledgeable, lasting and transferable understandings of the world around us.
Cross-curricular teaching and learning has a long history. Plato referred to the
importance of linking emotional, practical and intellectual skills, combining music and
movement, drama and literature, philosophy and politics. The educational luminaries
of the Enlightenment, like Comenius, Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, each in their way
championed cross-curricular approaches. These ideas were developed in the late nine-
teenth and twentieth centuries by progressives like Steiner, Dewey, Montessori and
Isaacs. Like Hadow (1931), Plowden (1967) and the Education Reform Act of 1988
before them, the latest primary education reports recognise that the combined skills
and disciplines of a number of subjects are used in solving real-life problems. Today
many teachers continue to see cross-curricular approaches as motivating, enjoyable
and capable of building relevance and meaning into a curriculum sometimes seen as
narrowed (see NFER 2011; Robinson and Aronica 2010; Wrigley et al. 2012).
Links between curriculum subjects have also been closely associated with engender-
ing creative thinking (see Ofsted 2010; Roberts 2006; Thomas Tallis School 2013).
Influential psychologists Csikszentmihalyi (1997) and Sternberg (2003) established
such links, arguing that creative ideas frequently stem from interactions between sub-
jects or cultures. Making connections between subjects has, however, become
controversial. The new National Curriculum in England (DfE 2013) omits reference to
cross-curricular links while the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) lists:
focus on alternative curriculum days and themed weeks, with suspended timetable
opportunities for specialist off-site activities facilitated by parents and community
focus on adapting a published topic approach, modified according to context and
applied across schools to enable the sharing of resources and good practice
focus on a play-centred approach to learning,
among its recommendations for school leaders (NCSL 2012). Educationalists, such as
Gardner (1999, 2004, 2006) and Hirsch (2006), unusually agree on the importance of
learning the distinctive knowledge, language and skills of each subject discipline, but
Gardner sees their frequent integration as essential for profound and transferable
learning while Hirsch argues for a pure ‘knowledge curriculum’ of continued subject
separation. The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2010) stressed the dual impor-
tance of progression in subject knowledge and thematic curricula, though ex-Secretary
of State for Education Estelle Morris could not imagine the words ‘cross-curricular
theme’ passing the lips of Michael Gove, Secretary of State between 2010 and 2014
(Guardian 2011). Ofsted, in its rigorous appraisal of successful primary and secondary
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schools, makes clear that there is no necessary conflict between single-subject learning
and cross-curricular learning; both can exist profitably side by side (Ofsted 2010).
The Scottish and Northern Irish primary curricula are explicit on the value of cross-curricular
approaches. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, for instance, mentions interdisciplinary
work 28 times in its introductory documentation (Scottish Government 2008). The Scottish
curriculum groups some subjects together under: expressive arts, health and well-being,
social sciences and ‘technologies’. It also takes a single-subject approach to mathematics,
science, language and RE. In its introduction, the Scottish Government says:
Interdisciplinary studies, based upon groupings of experiences and outcomes from within
and across curriculum areas, can provide relevant, challenging and enjoyable learning
experiences and stimulating contexts to meet the varied needs of children and young
people. Revisiting a concept or skill from different perspectives deepens understanding
and can also make the curriculum more coherent and meaningful from the learner’s point
of view. Interdisciplinary studies can also take advantage of opportunities to work with
partners who are able to offer and support enriched learning experiences and opportuni-
ties for young people’s wider involvement in society. (Scottish Government 2008)
This chapter highlights evidence suggesting that cross-curricular approaches at their
best are highly motivating, inclusive and able to raise standards in all subjects.
The State of the Art in Cross-Curricular Pedagogy
Much learning is informal. Many of the most meaningful experiences for children hap-
pen outside the classroom. Casual, unplanned, social and multi-sensory modes of
learning are often as influential as any brilliantly planned and well-taught lesson.
Educationalists have begun to recognize the mass of connections children make to life
beyond curriculum and classroom (see Austin 2007, Barnes 2015; Fumoto et al. 2012;
Scoffham 2013; Wrigley et al., 2012; Wyse and Dowson 2009). We are reminded of the
often overriding significance of the inner priorities of children in their attitude to learn-
ing (for example Abbs 2003; Hicks 2006). Others ask us to listen to ‘pupil voice’
(Cheminais 2008, Desailly 2012; Ruddock and McIntyre 2007) or consider education’s
role in the intellectual, social and psychological health of young people (Clift and
Camic 2015; DH 2005; UNICEF 2007; WHO 2008). Research such as the Children’s
Society’s Good Childhood Report (Layard and Dunn 2009) and UNICEF’s Innocenti
Report Cards (UNICEF 2013) share many commonalities. Each report stresses com-
paratively high rates of unhappiness, stress, dissatisfaction and poor relationships in
young people in the UK. From them we learn that many children are preoccupied by:
their family and peer relationships
their own changing selves
their personal futures.
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Other researchers, for example Hicks (2006), find that young people are frequently
worried about global issues like sustainability, poverty, pandemics, global warming,
war, terrorism and natural disasters. They tend also to be very interested in new tech-
nologies, in particular communications technologies like mobile telephones, social
networking sites and computer games.
Despite the unsurprising nature of the above preoccupations, few feature centrally
in the curricula of our schools. Indeed, in the new national curriculum (DfE 2013)
‘issues’ like sustainability, global warming, and poverty are omitted from the primary
curriculum. In the world beyond the contrived settings of school, effective and deep
thinking and learning (see Marton and Booth 1997) take place on personal and emo-
tional as well as intellectual levels. It is to the sensory and personal inner world of
learning that neuroscience has recently turned its attention.
Neuroscience increasingly offers hard evidence that the insights and observations
of past psychologists and pedagogues may be valid. As neuroscientist and psycholo-
gist Gardner has observed:
the brain learns best and retains most when the organism is actively involved in exploring
physical sites and materials and asking questions to which it actually craves the answers.
Merely passive experiences tend to attenuate and have little lasting impact. (Gardner
1999: 82, my italics)
Building on such observations and in the context of all learning, Alexander (2010)
Neuroscientific research ... has shown … that learning is strengthened not only in relation
to how many neurons fire in a neural network, but also how they are distributed across
different domains, such as the motor and sensory cortices … multisensory approaches
(Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic rather than Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic) are to be
encouraged. (Alexander 2010: 96–7)
Translating neuroscientific insights into pedagogy is not a straightforward affair, but
neuroscience and education overlap in their belief in the importance of the sensory,
physical and exploratory impulses in human learning (Howard-Jones 2012). While
such findings do not point directly at the cross curriculum, they do suggest the need
for a multiplicity of approaches and contexts for effective learning.
Emotional engagement is also essential for meaningful learning. Neuroscientists
have for the past 20 years been pointing to research that shows that the human brain
processes stimuli (often unconsciously) at an emotional level well before it processes
them intellectually (Damasio 1994; Goleman 1996; Le Doux 2002; McGilchrist 2010).
If the human mind is to perceive something as important, it must first be aware of its
emotional importance. The message that ‘we feel therefore we learn’ (Immordino-
Yang and Damasio 2007) suggests that to activate neural systems across the brains of
learners, the teacher must construct emotionally relevant situations to help them learn:
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When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students’ emotions, we fail to
appreciate a critical force in students’ learning. One could argue, in fact, we fail to appre-
ciate the very reason that students learn at all. (Immordino-Yang and Damasio 2007: 9)
Bringing together evidence from across what Greenfield (2003) calls the ‘new science
of learning’, Alexander also suggests that children’s learning should be tied to:
existing experience of the world
multisensory activity
social settings in which language is used
metacognition (including pretend play)
ample opportunity to follow ‘what naturally interests them’ (Alexander 2010: 98)
I have argued (Barnes 2015; Barnes and Shirley 2007; Scoffham and Barnes 2009) that
cross-curricular pedagogies are best placed to motivate, sustain, be meaningful and
socially satisfying than a curriculum purely devoted to separated subject teaching.
Each item in Alexander’s list above, also implies a degree of cross-curricularity. Indeed,
the curriculum recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review include cross-
curricular themes like, ‘ethics and citizenship’, ‘the arts’ and ‘the social sciences’.
Retained, transferable and useful learning is more likely to result from experience
or exposure that has been genuinely entered into by the child. Abbs (2003) reminds
us learning cannot be conferred on the child, it has to be accepted by them. Learning
has to be made an existential experience; it has to have personal meaning to be
deeply rooted. Meaningful or ‘powerful’ experiences are possible in and out of the
classroom and are significant starting points for learning, as are opportunities to put
learning into practice (Perkins 2010).
The Importance of Powerful Experiences
An activity that ‘lights us up’ or makes our eyes sparkle is a powerful motivator.
Engaging experiences are not necessarily showy, complex or time-consuming, they
are simply activities that capture children’s senses, emotions, enquiring minds and
their desire to be active. Discovery, invention, physical involvement and creative activ-
ity often enthuse us and have probably always generated deep, committed and
transferable learning (Panksepp 2004). The quest for deeply involving, ecstatic (liter-
ally out-of-body) experience drives many of us. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi
(2002) calls such timeless moments ‘flow’ experiences. Flow he says describes an
optimal learning situation in which ideas and solutions stream from the unconscious
mind, self-consciousness, personal worries and self diminish and time seems to stand
still. We feel such sensations when we are doing the things we most love, perhaps
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reading, drawing, mountain climbing, jogging, singing, knitting. In such times both
body and mind work at their best and we feel fulfilled. We look back on such times
as happy times. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a teacher who maximises flow-inducing
activity in their classroom also maximises the learning of children.
A curriculum built around the concept of flow would require the planning of a
series of experiences likely to be so powerful and emotionally significant that the vast
majority if not all children in a class feel involved in them. An emotionally powerful
experience need not be spectacular, it may be a well-read story, a visit to the play-
ground pond or reminiscences by the school ‘lollypop lady’. It might equally be a trip
to the swimming pool, museum or the local wood. Powerful personally involving
experiences do not have to be placed at the beginning of a course of study, they can
come in the middle or the summation of the work done in a unit of work. Such expe-
riences should, however, make real contact with the lives and feelings of both children
and their teacher, and require the application of knowledge and skills from several
curriculum subjects. Again, many of the most powerful of these experiences occur
outside the classroom (Austin 2007; Knight 2013).
Neuroscience shows that emotions are the starting point of most learning. Social
scientists since Vygotsky claim that learning is primarily a social and cultural activity
(see Noddings 2003; Rogoff 2002; Wenger 1998). Problems and challenges are more
easily faced and learned from when tackled in teams and creative advances are usually
made in collaborations (John-Steiner 2001). Neuroscientific and social scientific
insights come together in suggesting that lasting, transferable learning in both pure
subject and cross-curricular contexts is generated by:
emotional relevance
engagement in fulfilling activity
working on shared challenges with others.
These three features are likely to become a reality if learning is planned around shared
and engaging experiences. The scientific evidence (as well as the professional experi-
ence of many teachers) suggests that powerful, personally involving experiences,
planned as part of a lesson or for a series of lessons, provide the best chances of
including and improving all learners.
Creativity and cross-curricularity are linked. The publication of the All Our Futures
report by the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education
(NACCCE, 1999), resulted in a renewed interest in creativity, creative thinking, crea-
tive teaching and creative learning. It recommended the setting up of partnerships
between innovative workers in the community and schools. Such partnerships were
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not to be based on one-off arts projects but on using creative approaches to trans-
form the whole school. Creativity was not seen as only connected to the arts;
innovative practice was to include work in all subjects and across subjects. When
the Creative Partnerships programme was set up in a range of economically deprived
areas of England, the positive results of creative collaboration soon became apparent
in a wide range of studies (for example Brice Heath and Wolf 2004; Cremin et al.
2009; Parker 2013; Roberts 2006). Most Creative Partnerships links with schools
lasted for a year, some for three years, and in that time cross-curricular approaches
naturally dominated in the combined work generated by creative practitioners,
school staff and children.
The range of publications supporting teachers in developing creative approaches
to learning also multiplied in this period. Led by Beetlestone (1998), Craft (2000,
2005), Fisher (2005), Jeffrey and Woods (2003), creativity was brought into the core
language of pedagogy. Many examples of creative approaches to teaching and learn-
ing rested on cross-curricular projects. Government advice via the now defunct
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) also stressed cross-curricular
approaches to creativity (QCA 2005). Usually involving two, or at the most three,
subject areas, these projects used the connections between different subject mindsets
to promote creative thinking. Cross-curricular practice can be defined as: ‘when the
skills, knowledge and attitudes of two or more subjects are applied to a problem,
theme or idea’ (Barnes 2015). The limitation to two subjects (English is developed in
any cross-curricular pairing) arises from research into the effectiveness of interdisci-
plinary methods (for example Roth 2000).
The year 2011 marked a change in government rhetoric. Creative Partnerships, the
biggest creative education project in the world (Thomson 2014), was disbanded and
the subsequent 2014 National Curriculum in England (DfE 2013) hardly mentioned
the word ‘creative’. Links between subjects are not specifically recommended, but the
rationale behind the new ‘slimmed down’ national curriculum left it to teachers to
devise the most suitable teaching approaches. Many schools continue to plan for
cross-curricular and creative experiences because they appreciate their motivational
and inclusive qualities.
Innovation does not automatically engage all children. Well-planned, creative and
shared cross-curricular experience alone will not capture every child’s interest. The
wise pedagogue will devise a range of easily accessible and practical entry points to
maximise the chances of mental, sensory and social involvement. I have collected a
number of easily resourced and flexible entry points called ‘focus exercises’ to help
children concentrate on their physical and emotional interaction with place, idea,
story, object or person (Barnes 2015). Focus exercises are seen as the initial contact
with an experience, they are not tied to specific subject disciplines indeed subject
labels ought to be avoided when using them. Neither should they be too focused.
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Too sharp a focus can have the effect of directing the child to only one class of expe-
rience; the focus exercise should lead to multiple interpretations. The aim is simply
for the learner to ‘get to grips’ with the experience in a personal, sensory way.
Drawing, for example, is not used as an art activity but as a means of focusing the
mind and brain and increasing the use of language (Brice Heath and Wolf 2004, 2005).
Collections are not seen as a science, art or design and technology activity but simply
a means of involving children in their own choices or sharpening the use of their
senses. Sight, sound, smell or emotional trails may use maps but they are not initially
intended to extend understanding of geography, neither do reflections necessarily link
to religious education. The focus exercises use touch, taste, smell, sight and feeling to
motivate. They give a sense of control within clear, structured activities. Individual or
group motivation arising from the focus exercises can then be used to develop and
progress thoughts, connections, skills and knowledge within chosen subject disci-
plines. The essence is that each of these exercises is designed to help the learner
engage in a ‘present tense’ way with a subject, place, person or object. Each focus
exercise is also open-ended; the data collected could be used in many different ways.
In addition to pointing to the importance of powerful experiences I have developed
a series of focus exercises aimed at provoking creative and cross-curricular thinking
at all levels. These I outline below.
Focus Exercises to Launch Creative and Cross-Curricular Thinking
Make your own map of a short journey you have taken. Show significant landmarks
(buildings, plants, shadows, street furniture, any unexpected things which strike you
as important). Use your map in one of the following ways:
(a) emotional maps: How do you feel in each place? Mark on your map with words
or colours the emotions you feel in different places. For example: which place
makes you feel small, lonely, excited, frightened, cold, happy, or sad?
(b) sound maps: What are the dominant sounds in different areas of your map?
Draw symbols or write words that capture the locations of different sounds in
the environment.
(c) smell maps: What smells can you identify in this place? Mark on the
boundaries between different dominating smells. For example: Where
does the food smell strike you? Where is there a more natural smell? How
are the smells different?
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Figure 13.2 A child and his teacher drawing a big picture
Figure 13.1 Student teachers making a sound map
Big picture
On a large sheet of paper (A1 or A2) each of four people draw a big impression of
the skyline in front of them. One person should draw the skyline looking north, one
east one south and one west. Use bold colourful felt pens. The four should then join
their drawings to make a continuous collaborative image of 3600 of the skyline.
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Emotional frames
Everyone is given a viewfinder with a different key word written on it (for example
red, sad, lonely, awesome, dangerous, circle). Using your viewfinder to frame it, look
around for details (small ones are usually best) that visually illustrate or summarise
that key word. Capture your decision in a photo and also include the key word on
your viewfinder in the photo. This will remind you of the theme. Take five different
photographs using the same word.
Figure 13.3 Child’s emotional frame photo
Repeating patterns and measurements
Use a marked piece of string as a measure. Measure and draw one of the repeated
modules that make up a building, floor or design. Label the drawing with the measure-
ments made with your measuring string. Make a drawing to show how the shapes fit
Story and journey sticks
Individually use a story stick (a piece of card or a real stick with double-sided tape
on it) to collect five small items from your walk. Do not collect any living creature.
Theme your collection (such as life, decay, colour) or relate it (same colour, same
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Colour match
Collect coloured paint samples showing a range of shades of a single colour (available
from DIY shops). Stick double-sided tape to each card and ask children to collect
natural and made colour matches from the environment. Attach as many examples of
each colour to its corresponding paint colour.
In your group discuss answers the following questions:
What would you like to leave here as a gift?
What would you like to take back with you if you could?
How many people high do you think that building or tree is?
How do you feel in this place?
noun but different examples, such as leaves) or make it a random collection of things
that catch your eye. Map your journey when you get back to class, showing where
you found your objects. Discuss your choices with your team.
Figure 13.4 A child’s journey sticks
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How many different shades of [colour] can you find?
What natural life can you see?
What soft things can you see/What hard things are there here?
If you worked here what would you have to wear?
If you owned this what would you wear?
Fridge magnet poems
Fold a piece of A4 paper in half, four times to make 16 folded rectangles. Make a
short journey around the school (or playground, forest or street) collecting 16
random words that strike you. Come back to class. Tear out the 16 rectangles and
arrange on the desk and try to make a sentence or poem out of at least nine of
the words. You can add in any extra small words like the, and, of, under, above
and so on.
Creativity differs from innovation. Creative ideas often appear completely new to the
child, or the group, or class. Innovations are usually novel improvements to existing
ideas. The open-ended nature of the focus exercises listed above often generate
surprising and highly creative connections. Connections between the exercises and
the previous experience of the child are common and frequently lead to original,
valuable and imaginative ideas. With support children can turn these ideas into
products or performances: posters, talks, tables, collections, art exhibitions, dances,
dramas, debates or compositions. The transferable nature of the skills developed
through the focus exercises shows in wide variety of outcomes recorded in a num-
ber of studies (for example Barnes and Shirley 2005, Dismore et al. 2008, Scoffham
Focus exercises can be used as a sensory and personally controlled starting point
for learning in subject-led directions too. The ‘emotional frames’ exercise for instance
has been used at the beginning of a modern languages project in French, where chil-
dren tested the meaning of words like tranquille, claire, laide, belle. Frames were also
used for a history project where groups took mutiple photos of ‘eighteenth-century’,
‘Victorian’, ‘late medieval’ houses in a single street. In mathematics one teacher wrote
short number sentences on each frame and children had to collect photos of the cor-
rect answer from aspects of the environment. These examples point to a form of
cross-curricular practice where subject learning in a number of different subjects can
arise from analysis of the same experience. However, there are other ways of being
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A Taxonomy of Cross-Curricular Approaches
My own research into cross-curricular pedagogies has identified six common and con-
trasting ways of using more than one subject to respond to a problem, theme or issue.
These styles of cross-curricular teaching and learning have different aims, depend upon
a range of planning strategies and result in different learning opportunities:
tokenistic cross-curricular approaches
hierarchical cross-curricular teaching and learning
multidisciplinary cross-curricular teaching and learning
interdisciplinary cross-curricular teaching and learning
opportunistic cross-curricular teaching and learning
double focus cross-curricular teaching and learning.
Each suggested category places a different emphasis on combining subjects; each has
a different aim.
Having used focus exercises like those above to maximise interaction with an expe-
rience the teacher should choose the cross-curricular approach best suited to the
learning they wish to promote in their children. Each approach has a different aim.
All can be used with all subject disciplines. There are at least six different ways in
which they manifest themselves.
Tokenistic cross-curricular approaches
Token cross-curricular approaches are only cross-curricular in name. They do not make
real connections between subjects or develop learning in more than one subject. Perhaps
a song might introduce a history topic but nothing is made of the song and little done to
enhance learning in music, the only aim is to bring some extra interest to a history theme.
Hierarchical cross-curricular learning
Hierarchical cross-curricular learning occurs when ideas from one subject are used to
enhance learning in another. The aim is for learning in a dominant subject, perhaps
English, mathematics or science, to be enhanced by the introduction of a subsidiary
subject, perhaps art, music or dance. If the linkage is genuinely cross-curricular there
will measurable learning in both subjects. Songs, chants, rhythms and timbres, for
example, might serve as aids to mathematical or language learning but the teacher
must establish clear new learning aims within music even if the main intention is to
enhance learning in the dominant subject.
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Multidisciplinary cross-curricular learning
Multidisciplinary cross-curricular learning, on the other hand, gives parity of impor-
tance to two subjects. Two sets of disciplines taken from the curriculum subjects may
be used to throw light on a single experience. The aim of multidisciplinary cross-
curricular learning is to use a single stimulus for two distinct purposes. Despite arising
from the same experience, the subject disciplines do not necessarily meet or affect
thinking in each other, learning within the subjects is kept separate. The teacher plans
progression, vocabulary, specific skill acquisition in two subject disciplines that are
most relevant to the experience. It is important for the teacher to name the subjects
chosen and to make the children aware of the new learning that has occurred. English
is likely always to be present in cross-curricular learning because speaking and listen-
ing are always generated, and often writing and reading are necessary for extending
the thinking generated by an engaging experience.
Interdisciplinary cross-curricular learning
In interdisciplinary cross-curricular learning the intention is to connect or combine,
often creatively. New learning in two subject disciplines is put together to generate an
original and valued product, presentation or idea. In this kind of cross-curricular
approach the intertwining of the disciplines deepens the response to a single experi-
ence and adds an important element of unpredictability and imagination to the results.
To assess learning the teacher often uses some kind of ‘performance of understanding’
(see Blythe 1998) where learning in each subject is some kind of presentation.
Teachers should plan appropriate means of integration of the two subjects and be
clear about the objectives for each discipline, therefore this approach is more com-
plex, and perhaps more risky, than multidisciplinary.
Opportunistic cross-curricular learning
In opportunistic cross-curricular learning the child leads. Planning is done in response
to children’s responses to a shared experience; the teacher may have only a vague
subject expectation. Typically children and teacher share a powerful personal experi-
ence, such as a visit, visitor, or other powerfully presented stimulus. The teacher, or
teaching assistant, listens carefully to children’s reactions, observing changes in behav-
iour. Children may be asked what they would like to do to understand or express the
experience better. Opportunistic methods are generally the preserve of the most con-
fident and experienced teachers because they involve a degree of risk and uncertainty.
The aim of opportunistic cross-curricular methods is to use children’s natural curiosity
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and enthusiasm to motivate learning. The adult role is to add challenge, new skills
and new knowledge to existing interest. In Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, the added chal-
lenge or newly taught skill is more likely to ease the child from attention and interest
towards a state of flow.
Double focus cross-curricular learning
Double focus cross-curricular learning attempts to establish a balance. Research has
shown (for example Roth, in Wineburg and Grossman 2000) that cross-curricular
approaches can sometimes sacrifice progression and deep, subject understanding in
favour of simple enjoyment. Cross-curricular learning is generally effective in securing
progression only when the teacher’s subject knowledge is secure and children are
aware of their growing subject understanding. The ‘double focus’ suggests two differ-
ent modes of learning operating simultaneously, one subject-specific and the other
cross-curricular. The separate subject curriculum continues throughout the year, how-
ever the year is punctuated with frequent opportunities to put newly learned skills and
knowledge into action in cross-curricular contexts. In double-focus approaches teach-
ers should plan a string of powerful experiences for every year group in and out of
school. Separate subject studies will use imaginative and engaging pedagogies to
extend the disciplinary vocabulary, skills and knowledge; the greater the pure subject
or discipline input, the more value each subject will have in a cross-curricular setting.
Pure subject skills and knowledge are quickly put into action in ‘real world’ and
relevant contexts. Ideally these powerful personal experiences should be every six
weeks or so and consist of field trips, special visitors, visits to galleries, theatres and
museums, themed weeks, science fairs, investigative maths days and so on. Each con-
text can become the subject of a two-subject analysis, and again English will inevitably
be extended in all responses. Through the school year each curriculum subject should
have its turn in helping make sense of and extending the experience. Curriculum plan-
ning for double-focus cross-curricular learning starts with planning the powerful
personal experiences and matching particular experiences to two different curriculum
viewpoints (see Barnes 2015).
Additional Perspectives on Cross-Curricular Teaching and Learning
Planning, progression and assessment are central to ensuring challenge and progress
in school learning. Successive governments have been right to emphasise the seamless
links between assessment and good quality learning. Cross-curricular learning is more
effective when these aspects of teaching are given attention. But teachers’ attitude and
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approach, the classroom atmosphere and learning environment they construct, their
particular pedagogical style, also strongly affect the learning dispositions of children.
Cross-curricular approaches can provide an engaging new perspective for children
and equally for their teachers.
A Community of Learners
Cross-curricular learning promotes authenticity in teaching and learning. Using the
powerful personal experiences described, teacher and class can quickly enter the
world of ‘real world learning’ (Lucas et al. 2013). Authentic learning experiences
involve adult and child learners together. Full teacher participation in the learning
process does more than motivate children. Through the mirror neurons the quizzical
looks on teachers’ faces provoke deeper enquiry in children as they mirror their
teachers’ curiosity. The process of learning alongside children also generates high
degrees of sustained job satisfaction and increased awareness of personal creativity
(Barnes 2013a; Barnes and Shirley 2007; Cremin et al. 2009). A pedagogy and teacher
development programme that works towards genuine co-learning contributes sig-
nificantly to the resilience of teachers and their capacity to give more to their roles
(Barnes 2013b).
Cross-curricular learning is not without its dangers. In past manifestations spurious
links were often made between too many subjects, and little sense of progression or
subject record keeping was possible (see Alexander et al. 1992). The current focus on
progression and rigour has served to remind all teachers of the importance of chal-
lenge and a sense of personal growth in learning. Subject progression will perhaps be
more difficult to assess as attainment levels have been taken from the foundation
subjects in the new national curriculum for England, but establishing learning targets
remains vital to the sense of personal development. Progress towards particular sub-
ject objectives is not easy to manage even when only two subjects are involved and
detailed planning towards clear and achievable objectives is central. Teachers can map
out the direction of planning by asking, ‘What new learning, new vocabulary or new
skill do I want each child to understand by the end of this lesson?’
New words hold new concepts. Well-chosen vocabulary can often provide the
‘backbone’ of the well-planned lesson. After deciding upon the experience children
will share teachers should identify words in each chosen subject that hold the new
ideas, skills or processes they want their children to understand. These new words,
highlighted, used frequently and pointedly through out the session, can provide the
14_Driscoll_Ch 13.indd 275 12/8/2014 6:09:06 PM
framework. New vocabulary also holds the new knowledge and gives children a sense
of their own progress towards a goal.
If we want to avoid the ‘bland broth’ (Roth 2000) that results from some cross-curric-
ular approaches, detailed forethought is essential. Planning progressive objectives in
knowledge and skills requires the teacher to have a secure understanding of the
unique skills and core knowledge of the discipline. Children equally need to be aware
of progress in themselves. The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2010) uses
international and strong evidence to remind us that cross-curricular learning mirrors
the way children’s minds work, but teachers also need to be aware of how the learn-
ing brain thrives on challenge and difficulty and how the sense of genuinely seeking
an answer stimulates the capacity to find one. Knowledge of the ways in which the
new science of learning can help us plan new challenges and lasting learning is essen-
tial to every teacher (see Claxton et al. 2010). While joy and engagement are vital
motivators and sustainers they cannot alone generate secure subject development (see
House of Commons 2007, 2010). The levelled statements in the pre-2014 curriculum
in England, and those in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, remain valuable
sources of guidance on the detail of subject progress in addition to the new progres-
sion frameworks devised by the national curriculum subject expert panels.
Staff Development
Effective pedagogy demands teachers who see themselves as flourishing people.
Successful cross-curricular activities need enthusiasm and commitment on the part of
the teacher. Teachers might start by considering how they may become enthusiastic
learners in their own right. They may share staff development that frequently exposes
them to real, relevant, positive and life-changing experiences themselves. Staff who
share creative and cultural experiences and who feel they are developing their own
creativity are more capable of sustaining a fulfilling life in education (Barnes 2013b).
As a result of meaningful professional development, teachers may be better able to
plan a series of powerful experiences to span the year for each class, and those expe-
riences must also be potentially life-changing.
Child-Led Learning
The pedagogy of cross-curricular teaching and learning might include a readiness to
allow children to choose the experiences they deem important or it may mean planning
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a series of events with children’s preoccupations in mind. The United Nations Convention
on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF 1989) expects children to have a say in what and
how they are taught. The outcomes from powerful experiences, focus exercises and
different forms of cross-curricular thinking in many case studies have been greatly
enriched because pupil-led responses were encouraged (Barnes and Shirley 2005, 2007;
Cremin et al. 2009; Engaging Places website). Teachers in these contexts have been far
from redundant. Their role was primarily to teach the skills and knowledge demanded
by the children as projects developed but simultaneously they supported, and
co-reflected as well as provided the security and safety elements that adults should.
Harvard’s Project Zero has offered an adaptable format for planning and assessing
such experiences (Harvard website). I have adapted the Harvard format for cross-
curricular purposes and included an example three-session plan in Figure 13.5. The
‘teaching for understanding’ approach is founded upon providing plentiful opportuni-
ties for children to put their learning into practice in authentic situations. In asking
children to apply their new knowledge and skills to real and engaging challenges the
successful pedagogue helps ensure the existential, meaningful and satisfying condi-
tions required for deep learning. In planning both feedback and a yardstick for
progression the teacher uses their experience and knowledge to make assessment part
of a pleasurable and enriching learning journey.
Assessment Definitions
Overarching Understanding Goal (OUG): The essential understanding you wish to
develop as a result of the teaching. This is usually values or ‘big-picture’ based: for
example, that the children understand the importance of examining several different
types of evidence before arriving at a conclusion (a history OUG). That the children
understand that specific combinations of sound and silence can express emotions as
well as words (a music OUG).
Understanding Goal (UG): what specific skills or knowledge you want children to
learn as a result of this unit (this will be tied to attainment levels in the national cur-
riculum). Performance of Understanding: these are opportunities throughout the unit
of work, for children to demonstrate the level and depth of their understanding and
whether they have reached the OUG or UGs. The teacher will teach the required skills
or knowledge and then give children a chance (independently or in groups) to use
their new learning to solve a problem, create a product, presentation, collection, exhi-
bition, performance or composition. This is both an assessment opportunity for
teachers and children and a chance to understand the usefulness of the new learning.
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Sequence of events Performances of understanding
(opportunities for children to show the
current level of their understanding)
(How will you know that
children have engaged,
sustained interest, and
achieved new and transferable
Day 1: A powerful personal
experience – a visit,
visitation, story, event, or
surprise designed to fully
engage the whole class.
Followed up by focused
questioning and direct
teaching that arises from
the experience)
‘Introductory performance(s) (showing
the knowledge children have already)
What did we see/hear/taste/smell/feel?
What do we already know about these
things? Use brainstorms, mind maps,
diagrams, lists, searches, drawings,
e.g. Visiting a castle: In groups of 4/5
look around you: what can you see/
photograph/record/draw, beginning
with the letter: ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ etc.
Formative feedback: Instant,
informal and oral, by peers and
teacher, on spoken, written or
drawn reections by children
Criteria: Developed
collaboratively by children and
Day 2: Developing a
theme – teaching new
knowledge, skills and
attitudes related to t wo
curriculum subjects and
directly connected to the
powerful personal
‘Supported performances’
(demonstrating in groups and with
help from teacher/others, the new
skills and knowledge acquired during
the module)
e.g. Back at school after the castle
visit: After history teaching and
learning, each table of 6 pupils makes
a brief presentation about a given
aspect of: castle life – domestic,
defensive, attacking, building, modern
day function
After science teaching and learning,
each table gives a brief presentation on:
forces, decay, strong structures,
materials, mural ecology
Formative feedback:
Instant , informal and oral,
given by peers, teacher,
visitors including parent
helpers whilst children are
working AND from self during
and after the supported
Criteria: Negotiated, children
complete a summary sheet
about their learning
Day 3: Applying new
knowledge – more
teaching in the chosen
curriculum subjects,
culminating in the setting
of a real problem or
challenge, that requires the
new knowledge to be used
‘Culminating performances’
(showing how combined knowledge
and skills can be applied to a new
e.g. End of module event: Each group of
6 is set a task: (a) plan a history/science
eld trip to the local church/shopping
centre/street etc. What would you want
the children to learn? How would you
make sure they learned it? How could
they share their learning with a younger
class? (b) plan and shoot a video that
shows the science and history to be
found in the school building/street near
the school, local church etc.
Formative feedback: From
the groups themselves during
and after performance, then
formalised written evaluations
(two items of focused praise
and one question)
Criteria: Matched against the
prescribed knowledge in the
national curriculum and the
progression suggested by the
subject associations
Figure 13.5 Sample planning sheet for cross-curricular three-day module adapted from Blythe (1998)
Powerful shared experience: see above, ‘The importance of powerful experiences’.
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This chapter ends with a series of provocative questions. Both Plowden (1967)
and Alexander (2010) recognised that in the hands of teachers who did not have
good subject knowledge and good knowledge of how children learn, cross-
curricular methods can be counter-productive. Enjoyment is not the only aim of
education; we aim at excellence too, but many children do not discover what they
will be excellent at unless they first feel a sense of pleasure in school. Cross-
curricular learning as described in this chapter will generate enjoyment, but it is
for the best teachers to use that enjoyment to build motivations towards new and
deep learning.
Reflection Points
1. How do we as teachers gain the levels of subject knowledge that will give us
confidence to approach subject learning in a cross-curricular way?
2. Is cross-curricular learning motivating for all children?
3. Is it true that cross-curricular methods stimulate creative thinking and learning?
What evidence do you have?
4. Why do you think that not all children respond well to a purely separate subject-
based curriculum?
Further Reading
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Fisher, R. (2005) Unlocking Creativity: A Teacher’s Guide to Creativity across the
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Robinson, K. and Aronica, L. (2009) The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes
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Wineburg, S. and Grossman, P. (2000) Interdisciplinary Curriculum Challenges to
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Abbs, P. (2003) Against the Flow. London: Routledge.
Alexander, R. (ed.) (2010) Children, Their World, Their Education: Final Report and
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... A cross-curricular approach is when teachers draw links between subjects (Barnes, 2015a) and combine (Barnes, 2015a;Johnson, 2014;Purcell et al., 1998) skills, disciplines, "knowledge and competences" (Timmerman, 2017, p. 20) from several subjects to problem-solve real-life situations (Barnes, 2015a;Earley, 2019;Kerry, 2015). Learning occurs when these elements are applied to a theme, problem, concept or experience (Barnes, 2015b). ...
... A cross-curricular approach is when teachers draw links between subjects (Barnes, 2015a) and combine (Barnes, 2015a;Johnson, 2014;Purcell et al., 1998) skills, disciplines, "knowledge and competences" (Timmerman, 2017, p. 20) from several subjects to problem-solve real-life situations (Barnes, 2015a;Earley, 2019;Kerry, 2015). Learning occurs when these elements are applied to a theme, problem, concept or experience (Barnes, 2015b). ...
... Learning occurs when these elements are applied to a theme, problem, concept or experience (Barnes, 2015b). It thus becomes a means for students to make connections in their learning (Barnes, 2015a(Barnes, , 2015b. ...
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The article is based on a case study. The collection of empirical material took place within a Development project. The focus is on the emerging insights of a group of Finnish-Swedish didacticians and practitioners collaborating on subject integration. The empirical material consists of text documents, audio and video recordings from collaborative meetings between the project participants. The article highlights conducive conditions to consider when implementing interdisciplinary teaching. The article illuminates insights that can act as catalysts for changes in practice for both didacticians and practitioners.
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Το παρόν διδακτικό σενάριο απευθύνεται σε μαθητές/ήτριες Στ’ τάξης, είναι εξ ολοκλήρου εξ αποστάσεως και σύγχρονο μέσω της webex και η εκτιμώμενη διάρκεια είναι οι επτά διδακτικές ώρες. Οι μαθητές/ήτριες μετά το πέρας του παρόντος διδακτικού σεναρίου θα είναι ικανοί/ες να επιλύουν ζητήματα αναφορικά με τη διατροφή τους και το αποτύπωμα αυτής στη Γη αναπτύσσοντας παράλληλα την κριτική τους σκέψη, τη δημιουργικότητα, τη συνεργασία και την επικοινωνία, την αυτορρύθμιση της μάθησής τους και την ευαισθητοποίηση σε κοινωνικά ζητήματα. Οι μαθητές/ήτριες εμπλεκόμενοι σε βιωματικές και ομαδοσυνεργατικές δραστηριότητες, ανακαλύπτουν το οικολογικό αποτύπωμα της διατροφής τους καθώς και τρόπους για να κάνουν τη διατροφή τους πιο υγιεινή τόσο για τους ίδιους όσο και για τον πλανήτη.
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The paper combines an autoethnographic approach with a literature review of general and discipline-specific research linked to the theme of cross-curricular citizenship education ("CE") from the 1990s to the present. It identifies 20 reasons why cross-curricular CE struggles to take flight in secondary schools. These reasons are organized into four categories: structural, epistemological, attitudinal and pedagogical. While the focus is mainly upon citizenship education in England (and, to a lesser extent, in Australia), the paper suggests that the barriers identified exist in most nations.
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If one of the main purposes of education is to prepare young people for the future then where in education are they given the opportunity to explore that future? In this thought provoking book, David Hicks shows the future to be a neglected dimension in education and argues elegantly and persuasively for a more futures-orientated curriculum. Available to download at
What does an integrated primary curriculum look like? How can cross-curricular work help children to learn more effectively? With practical ideas on how to join-up the primary curriculum, Cross-Curricular approaches to the primary curriculum uses history and geography to explore different contexts and strategies for making links between subjects, so that learning is more integrated and relevant to learners. It also demonstrates how these subjects can serve as the basis upon which values can be developed in the curriculum. There are powerful case studies, including examples of pupils' work and talk, and teachers' reflections. A companion website contains further examples. Chris Rowley and Hilary Cooper bring together a group of practising teachers and university tutors who offer suggestions on cross-curricular approaches to teaching, keeping values education at the heart. This book will be invaluable to practising primary teachers, student teachers and all those involved in curriculum design. Chris Rowley is in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cumbria and is a Member of the Geographical Association and SAPERE, The Society to Advance Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education. Dr Hilary Cooper is Professor of History and Pedagogy at the University of Cumbria Ambleside Campus.
When parents are asked what they want for their children, they usually answer that they want their children to be happy. Why, then, is happiness rarely mentioned as a goal of education? This book explores what we might teach if we were to take happiness seriously as a goal of education. It asks, first, what it means to be happy and, second, how we can help children to understand it. It notes that we have to develop a capacity for unhappiness and a willingness to alleviate the suffering of others to be truly happy. Criticizing our current almost exclusive emphasis on economic well-being and pleasure, Nel Noddings discusses the contributions of making a home, parenting, cherishing a place, the development of character, interpersonal growth, finding work that one loves, and participating in a democratic way of life. Finally, she explores ways in which to make schools and classrooms cheerful places. Nell Noddings is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University. She is past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and of the John Dewey Society. In addition to twelve books, she is the author of more than 170 articles and chapters on various topics ranging from the ethics of care to mathematical problem solving. Her latest books are Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (University of California Press) and Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education (Teachers College Press), both published in 2002.
Pupil consultation can lead to a transformation of teacher-pupil relationships, to significant improvements in teachers' practices, and to pupils having a new sense of themselves as members of a community of learners. In England, pupil involvement is at the heart of current government education policy and is a key dimension of both citizenship education and personalised learning. Drawing on research carried out as part of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, Improving Learning through Consulting Pupils discusses the potential of consultation as a strategy for signalling a more partnership-oriented relationship in teaching and learning. It also examines the challenges of introducing and sustaining consultative practices. Topics covered include: • the centrality of consultation about teaching and learning in relation to broader school level concerns; • teaching approaches that pupils believe help them to learn and those that obstruct their learning; • teachers' responses to pupil consultation - what they learn from it, the changes they can make to their practice and the difficulties they can face; • the things that can get in the way of pupils trusting in consultation as something that can make a positive difference. While consultation is flourishing in many primary schools, the focus here is on secondary schools where the difficulties of introducing and sustaining consultation are often more daunting but where the benefits of doing so can be substantial. This innovative book will be of interest to all those concerned with improving classroom learning.