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Cross-Curricular Learning


Rethinking Teaching, Learning & Assessment




To understand the key themes of cross-curricular learning

  • Explore key concepts of cross-curricular learning
  • Identify theoretical foundations of cross-curricular learning
  • Examine strategies for cross curricular learning

Think about the world our pupils are going to live in - make a list of key features and topics.What types of skills, knowledge and understanding are going to be most relevant to them? Why?Add your thoughts by clicking on the button here:

A question:

Think about your responses - how many of them require thinking across a range of disciplines? This raises the important issue of preparing our students to be able to forge connections and think across disciplinary boundaries.

A question:


Cross curricular learning is the organisation of the curriculum to help learners recognise natural connections between separate subjects. Bringing together concepts and skills from different subject areas under a major theme or topic.

What is it?

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).

A cross-curricular approach to teaching is characterised by sensitivity towards, and a synthesis of, knowledge, skills and understandings from various subject areas. These inform an enriched pedagogy that promotes an approach to learning which embraces and explores this wider sensitivity through various methods. (Savage 2011, p.8-9)

The Curriculum: Subjects or not?

  • Should the curriculum be organised into subjects and areas of learning, or organised according to themes or topics?

The following outline a range of academic views: Children should be educated in discrete forms of knowledge as each has its own logical structure. Paul Hirst (1973) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge Literacies, skills and disciplines ought to be pursued as tools that allow us to enhance our understanding of important questions, topics and themes (Gardner 1999, p.159) Gardner, H. (1999) Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligence for the 21st Century New York: Basic Books

The Curriculum

  • Should there be core subjects?
  • If so, which subjects should be core?
  • Justify your responses.
Add your thoughts here by clicking on the red button. Click on the document icon to view the responses.

The Curriculum

  • Is one subject more important than any others?
  • Click here to see the ways in which one subject might enhance or complement another.

•Participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by 17%•Learning through arts and culture can improve attainment in Maths & English•Learning through arts and culture develops skills and behaviour that lead children to do better in school.•Students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/03/school-results-music-bradford How to improve the school results: not extra maths but music, loads of itAbiha Nasir, aged nine, walks quietly into the small classroom, takes a seat, adjusts her hijab and picks up the drumsticks. A shy smile spreads...the Guardian

The Curriculum: Subjects or not?

Do children learn best when the curriculum is fragmented into subjects?

Amanda SpielmanHead of Ofsted September 18th 2018

The new Ofsted education inspection framework (Ofsted, 2019) is calling for a change of focus from an education designed to get good test results to a more holistic view of the curriculum. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) emphasises the importance of equipping young people with the expertise, attitudes and values that they will need to contribute to and benefit from an inclusive, diverse and sustainable future. The OECD explain that future-ready students will need several different types of knowledge. (OECD, 2018, p. 5). They will need a working knowledge of how disciplines can work together to address real-world questions that bridge the sciences and wider humanities.

Education for the 21st Century

OECD (2019) Conceptual Learning Framework: Knowledge for 2030, Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD (2018) The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Spielman A (2018) HMCI commentary: Curriculum and the new education inspection framework. London. Available at: gov.uk/government/speeches/hmci-commentarycurriculum-and-the-new-education-inspection-framework (accessed 23 March 2020).


Pedagogy of cross-curricular learning allows children to be more involved in their own learning, choosing the experiences that THEY deem important. (Driscoll, Lambirth and Roden 2012)Cross-curricular learning recognises [...] multiple viewpoints and seeks to build more knowledgeable, lasting and transferable understandings of the world around us. (Barnes 2015, p.261)United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child expects children to have a say in what and how they are taught.

[Ensures] greater breadth and balance, potentially giving each child the opportunity to find what they call their 'element'. (Robinson and Aronica 2009)Teaching itself is creative, never formulaic. The aim is 'creative learning', with children coming to own their own knowledge and skills, being enthused and changed by the process, and having some control of the learning process, but under teaching guidance (Jeffrey & Woods 2003, p,3)


Poor links between too many subjects means that little progression is made. (Alexander et al 1992)In the hands of a teacher with poor subject knowledge and a lack of understanding of how children learn, cross-curricular methods can be counter productive. (Alexander 2010)


Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in EducationCross-curricular approaches proved to be effective when they either were ‘context based’ (i.e. centred around a particular theme/dimension) or connected the school-based curriculum with young people’s experiences more widely (e.g. in the home and the community). The positive impact of cross-curricular approaches on pupils was noted in terms of their motivation, discursive language and potential to collaborate with each other. More negatively, the damaging lack of consideration to how this approach would build on pupils’ existing ‘conceptual understanding’ was noted. It will be important that new innovation in curriculum planning and development is constructively linked to pupils’ current range of experiences and understanding.At the level of curriculum design, flexibility and ‘time and space’ for development is required. The need for excellence in teachers’ subject knowledge is a priority.


A cross-curricular approach to teaching is characterised by sensitivity towards, and a synthesis of, knowledge, skills and understandings from various subject areas. These inform an enriched pedagogy that promotes an approach to learning which embraces and explores this wider sensitivity through various methods. (Savage 2011, p.8-9)Savage, J (2011) Cross-curricular Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School, London: Routledge

The purpose of Cross-curricular teaching and learning (Savage 2011, p.42)

  • motivate and encourage pupils’ learning in a sympathetic way in conjunction with their wider life experiences;
  • draw on similarities in and between individual subjects (in terms of subject content, pedagogical devices and learning processes) and make these links explicit in various ways;
  • provide active and experiential learning for pupils;
  • develop meaningful co-operation and collaboration between staff leading to the dual benefits of curriculum and professional development;
  • contribute towards a broad range of teaching and learning opportunities located within individual subject teaching, across subjects and in relation to specific external curriculum themes or dimensions;
  • promote pupils’ cognitive, personal and social development in an integrated way;
  • allow teachers the opportunity to evaluate and reflect on their teaching and to be imaginative and innovative in their curriculum planning;
  • facilitate a shared vision amongst teachers and managers through meaningful collaborations at all levels of curriculum design.






Plato perceived cross-curricular education as essential to the development of character, serving a higher goal than simple disciplinary instruction: ‘Anyone who can produce the best blend of the physical and intellectual sides of education and apply them to the training of character is producing harmony in a far more important sense than any mere musician’ (Plato, Republic, p. 155).

Enlightenment: Nature and experience are at the heart of learning. Czech philosopher, Jan Comenius, The Great Didactic published in 1649: The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree. (Comenius, 1967, p. 82) Jean Jacques Rousseau, Émile ou de l’éducation (Emile, or On Education), 1762: Education was needed in order to learn how to live and that the best learning was accomplished very near to the natural world. Rousseau felt that experience was the starting point for learning. He saw education as a meeting of the natural, the practical and the cultural.

Lev Vygotsky’s and Jerome Bruner’s work on the centrality of social intercourse in helping children make sense of the world has had profound impacts upon classroom organization (Bruner, 1968, 1996). Under their influence, many school sessions have introduced forms of ‘scaffolded learning’. Learning is seen by these psychologists as primarily a social activity: ‘making sense is a social process; it is an activity that is always situated in a cultural and historical context’ (Bruner and Haste, 1987 p.4). John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education is based on his notion of Pragmatism – learning is primarily a social phenomenon: I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. (Dewey, J., My Pedagogic Creed in The School Journal, vol. LIV, no. 3 (16 January 1897),pp. 77–80)

Robin Alexander (2010) reports: 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) 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
  • ample opportunity to follow ‘what naturally interests them’ (Alexander 2010: 98)
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. The list above implies a degree of cross-curricularity. Social scientists claim that learning is primarily a social and cultural activity (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). 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 National Curriculum in England (DfE 2013) hardly mentions 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.


tokenistic cross-curricular approaches

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 teaching and learning

Hierarchical cross-curricular learning Hierarchical cross-curricular learning occurs when ideas from one subject are used to enhance learning in another dominant subject. 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.

multidisciplinary cross-curricular teaching and learning

Multidisciplinary cross-curricular learning Multidisciplinary cross-curricular learning gives parity of impor­tance 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.

interdisciplinary cross-curricular teaching and learning

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 experience 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’ 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 complex than multidisciplinary.

opportunistic cross-curricular teaching and learning

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 experi­ence, such as a visit, visitor, or other powerfully presented stimulus. The teacher, or teaching assistant, listens carefully to children’s reactions, observing changes in behav­iour. 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 con­fident 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 and enthusiasm to motivate learning.

double focus cross-curricular teaching and learning

Double focus cross-curricular learning Double focus cross-curricular learning attempts to establish a balance. Research has shown 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 differ­ent modes of learning operating simultaneously, one subject-specific and the other cross-curricular. The separate subject curriculum continues throughout the year, how­ever the year is punctuated with frequent opportunities to put newly learned skills and knowledge into action in cross-curricular contexts.

Six approaches:

Barnes 2015


Watch the video.What are the perceived benefits of a cross-curricular approach for teaching and learning? Does it have limitations?What factors are considered important for effective cross-curricular learning?Add your thoughts here:

Cross-curricular learning

Reading list and resources

Click here to access a reading list and resources


During this session we have:

  • Explored key concepts of cross-curricular learning
  • Identified theoretical foundations of cross-curricular learning
  • Examined strategies for cross curricular learning


Alexander, R (2010) Children, their Education: Final Report and Recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review. London: Routledge. Barnes, J (2015) An introduction to Cross-Curricular Learning in Driscoll, P, Lambirth, A and Roden, J (2015) The Creative Primary Curriculum, London: SageCUREE (2009) Review of Individual Studies from Systematic Research Reviews: February 2008– August 2008. Coventry, CUREE. Available from http://www.curee-paccts.com/our-projects/ qca-building-evidence-base [last accessed 19 Sept 2020]Driscoll, P & Lambirth, A and Roden, J (2010) The Primary Curriculum. London: Sage. Jeffrey, B & Woods, P (2001) The Creative School. London: Routledge.Robinson, K & Aronica, L (2009) The element: How finding your passion changes everything. London: PenguinRowley, C & Coope, H ed. (2009) Cross-curricular Approaches to Teaching and Learning. London: SageSavage, J (2011) Cross-curricular Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School, London: Routledge