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Cross-Curricular Learningand Epistemic Insight



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?

A question - 5 mins




To understand the key themes of a cross-curricular learning and Epistemic Insight and research project

  • Explore key themes cross-curricular learning and Epistemic Insight
  • Identify theoretical foundations of cross-curricular learning and Epistemic Insight research
  • Examine strategies for cross curricular learning and Epistemic Insight research

The Curriculum

  • Should there be core subjects?
  • If so, which subjects should be core?
  • Justify your responses.

The Curriculum

  • Are some subjects more important than any others?

•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?

  • 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: 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).

Despite differences in terminology, both Ofsted (Spielman 2018) and the OECD (2019) highlight the need to develop both substantive and disciplinary knowledge within education. Substantive knowledge: Content knowledge - knowledge about the content within a discipline (what are pupils required to know to meet the content requirements within the National Curriculum). Disciplinary / Epistemic knowledge: Knowledge about disciplines and the questions, methods and norms of thought specific to them (what is it we do and what types of knowledge do we produce as a scientist, historian, mathematician or artist etc?).

Substantive and Disciplinary Knowledge


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)


Watch the video.What are the perceived benefits of cross-curricular learning for teaching and learning? Do these concur with your own thoughts. Does it have limitations?What factors are considered important for effective cross-curricular learning?


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)

What do you think the challenges might be for implementing cross-curricular learning within the classroom?


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

Cross-curricular learning


Barnes, J. (2018) Applying Cross Curricular approaches Creatively London: Routledge


In groups, can you think of an example of cross-curricular sessions (choose 2) based on the following disciplines:

  • History and English
  • Geography and Mathematics
  • Art and Science
  • English and Drama
  • Art and Physics
  • Physical Education and Mathematics
Produce an outline / plan for the sessions - what is the theme / topic? What activities would you include? What might be the benefits of this cross-curricular session?What might be the challenges?Can you think of any opportunities to include other disciplines within the session?

Shattering the Subject Silo: Cross-disciplinary learning and Epistemic Insight

Disciplinary / Epistemic KnowledgeTask:Examine your own disciplinary specialism. What are its general characteristics? Its methods, norms of thought, questions and type of knowledge?GIve an example and share it with a colleague.

The Epistemic Insight Initiative was a recent CCCU research and curriculum innovation project that combines research-engaged teaching with a national research project in schools. The initiative proposes an educational framework for schools and teacher education with curriculum objectives and teaching strategies ‘designed to detect and address gaps and misperceptions in students’ understanding that are associated with […] pressures and barriers [related to entrenched compartmentalisation]’ (Billingsley, Nassji, Fraser and Lawson 2018, p.1117). .

Citizens of the future...

Citizens of the 21st Century have to contend with big questions that address environmental, economic and social challenges such as climate change, disruptive technologies, and instability and cultural diversity within society. According to the OECD:Future-ready students will need both broad and specialised knowledge. Disciplinary knowledge will continue to be important, as the raw material from which new knowledge is developed, together with the capacity to think across the boundaries of disciplines and “connect the dots”. (OECD 2018, pp. 4-5)OECD (2018) The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development




History etc...

The Compartmentalised Curriculum

Research has identified that entrenched compartmentalisation tends to prioritise content knowledge and 'teaching to the test' that neglects students’ understanding of the methods and norms of thought affiliated with each discipline – such neglect restricts pupils’ capacity for recognising the strengths and limitations of different knowledge domains, a skill that will be essential for addressing big questions and developing a critical awareness within an increasingly interconnected world.

Science provides a methodology that generates specific types of knowledge based on measurable and repeatable observation. Arguably, subject compartmentalisation can lead to scientism with the view that science is the measure and standard of knowledge and understanding. Scientism is the view that science is the only valid way to construct knowledge and to understand the world. (Stenmark, 2013) The following were comments by 10 year olds: “Well, if it wasn’t for science we wouldn't know much about the world or anything, really.” “I only believe science and logical answers and theories” “I think the universe was up to science and science did everything.” (Billingsley, 2016) Pupils frequently conclude that science is always right and their experiment has ‘failed’ if it doesn’t get the ‘right answer’ (Billingsley et al., 2018; Longshaw, 2009).

When subject compartmentalisation becomes entrenched it means that organisational, social and pedagogical practices have become habits and now dictate students’ and teachers’ expectations about what should happen in the classroom. (Billingsley, Nassji, Fraser, & Lawson, 2018)

Big Questions




Children constantly face big questions about the world that provokes their curiosity. Big Questions are questions about the nature of reality and human personhood. Some examples include, can a robot be a good companion? Can and should genetic engineering be used to make better people? Why do life and the universe exist?

Big questions bridge science and the wider humanities and are frequently squeezed out of school education.And yet these are questions where great advances are being made and where the conclusions and outputs affect the lives of individuals and society.


  • How do we know right from wrong?
  • To what extent are we each responsible for the decisions we make?
  • What, if anything, makes a person beautiful?
  • How should we address climate change?
  • How do we keep the planet safe?
  • Is it true that you are what you eat?
  • What does it mean to be alive?
  • Can a robot ever be considered a person?
  • Why are there different religions?
  • Can a computer think?
  • Why do we dream?
  • Why do many people believe in God?
  • Why do we feel pain?
  • What is time?
  • Where do morals come from?
  • What is the value of money?
  • What is a brain?
  • Do dreams have any importance in our lives?
  • What is our purpose as human beings?
  • Are families important?
  • What determines a person’s worth?

Relevance: An Example

In recent months, school pupils throughout the world (including the UK) went on strike to raise awareness of climate change and to demand that more action is taken by politicians and governments to curb ecological and environmental disaster. Pupils need to simultaneously consider various viewpoints and multidisciplinary perspectives (science, geography, history, ethics etc) if they are to effectively understand and response to the topic.




History etc...


By providing a curriculum in which bigger questions and multi-disciplinary perspectives are acknowledged and addressed, pupils will be better equipped to:

  • appreciate the knowledge types (epistemology) of different disciplines, as well as their benefits and limitations.
  • better understand an increasingly interconnected world that requires knowledge from multiple viewpoints and perspectives.
  • become more scholarly (critical, curious and discerning) and confident learners.

Epistemic Insight in the Curriculum

Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we can come to know things.

Let us put Epistemic Insight into practice. Which subjects might be relevant to answering the question? Why? Is a cross-disciplinary approach to the question beneficial to pupils' understanding of both learning topics and different disciplines? Justify your answer.

Epistemic Insight in the Curriculum

menti.com Code: 88 63

Is it true that 'you are what you eat'?

For each of the questions below, which subject disciplines might be relevant? How might they view the questions differently? What caused the Great Fire of London of 1666? What does it mean to be alive? Is it true that you are what you eat? The question ‘what caused the Great Fire of London of 1666?’ would be answered differently from the viewpoint of Science (observation and measurement) or History (testimony from the past). The question ‘what does it mean to be alive?’ would be answered differently through Science (biological definitions of what it means to be alive – the seven characteristics of life) and Religious Studies (spirituality, morality and ethics). The question ‘is it true that you are what you eat?’ would be answered differently through Science (biological definitions, observation and measurement), History (testimony from the past) and Religious Studies (ritual, morality and ethics).

Watch the short video here.A BBC introduction can also be found here.

What does teaching Epistemic Insight look like?


• Develop pupils' curiosity and capacity to address and express questions that bridge disciplines and subjects• Explain the characteristics, potential and limitations of a range of disciplines and areas of knowledge and how they interact to inform our thinking about questions • Design, conduct and evaluate enquiries that demonstrate a growing ability to think more deeply, compassionately and critically about Big Questions.

Research objectives



Click on the above images.

The Bubble Tool - Click here An example from science... The bubble tool for all subjects

A wild card... can you think of your own strategy?



Identify a Big Question - i.e. Is it true that you are what you eat? How do we keep the planet safe? What does it mean to be alive? How should we manage the coronavirus?Identify those subject disciplines that are relevant to the Big Question.Devise a strategy(ies) to engage pupils with the Big Question within a range of subject disciplines.What do you consider to be the advantages of teaching the topic in a cross-curricular way?How will your strategy address the characteristics of each subject discipline and generate a recognition within pupils of the methods and norms of thought specific to them?


During this session we have:

  • Explored key themes cross-curricular learning and Epistemic Insight
  • Identified theoretical foundations of cross-curricular learning and Epistemic Insight research
  • Examined strategies for cross curricular learning and Epistemic Insight research


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: Sage Billingsley, B., Nassji, M., Fraser, S., & Lawson, F. (2018). A Framework for Epistemic Insight. Research in Science Education, 48(6), 1115-1131. doi:10.1007/s11165-018-9788-6CUREE (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

Discipline Hats

Organise the pupils in teams of five and assign a discipline hat to each: science, geography, history, and so on. Each group is now formed of scholars in their assigned discipline. Ask the pupils to analyse and interpret the question through their assigned discipline.What questions might be asked by the discipline to address the bridging question? What methods might be used in the discipline to address the questions?

History and English: Historical Fiction WritingStudents study a historical period in their history class and then write historical fiction narratives in their English class. This helps them synthesize historical knowledge while enhancing their writing skills.Geography and Mathematics: Mapping and Scale Geography students learn about map reading and scale. In mathematics, they apply their knowledge to create accurate scaled maps of their local area, integrating concepts from both subjects.Art and Science: Scientific Illustrations Students study biological organisms in science and then create detailed scientific illustrations in their art class. This enhances their understanding of biological structures and fosters artistic skills. English and Drama: Shakespearean Performances English students study Shakespeare's plays, and in their drama class, they perform scenes from the plays. This provides a hands-on understanding of the language, culture, and literary techniques of the Elizabethan era. Art and Physics: Kinetic Sculptures Students can learn about physics concepts such as motion and forces in their physics class and then apply that knowledge to create kinetic sculptures in their art class. This project integrates scientific principles with artistic expression.