Implementing a cross-curricular approach

The phrase ‘cross-curricular' is often referred to in schools as a concept to implement, but a lack of clarity about this amorphous term remains. What is cross-curricular, why is it important and how can it be implemented?

Schools and curriculum are often organised by Knowledge Learning Areas (KLA's) and politicians and education authorities create a hierarchy of knowledge giving precedence to some areas over others – such as numeracy and literacy. However, research into student achievement continually demonstrates that the significance of knowledge to students is a key factor in students demonstrating development and understanding. Significance has both a psychological and a socio-cultural basis, as both these aspects of students' lives are the basis from which students build meaning (NSWDET, 2003).

Connecting and segregating knowledge and skills

The connections between the silos of knowledge and skills as social constructs in learning can both inhibit and allow for understanding. As school educators, we need to be clear about when segregation of areas is needed. Too often in our schooling system such segregation is to such an extreme that the boundaries prevent multidisciplinary learning.

Knowledge and pedagogy are not as unique as teachers often wish them to be. Perhaps one of the reasons for the promotion of distinct KLAs as such is the competitive nature of school subjects tied to staffing, so that in a neoliberal society teachers are not encouraged to collaborate. Hopefully recent developments from AITSL (the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) in the requirement for mandatory participation in classroom observation for professional development and accreditation, will encourage further breaking down of these barriers.

That said, there have been a number of attempts to share cross-curricular ideas in Australia, such as Queensland's ‘New Basics' and Tasmania's ‘Essential Learnings'. When cross-curricular does happen, it can positively change the learning process.

‘Two things happen. First, young people are encouraged to integrate learning experiences into their schemes of meaning so as to broaden and deepen their understanding of themselves and their world. Second, they are engaged in seeking, acquiring, and using knowledge in an organic – not an artificial – way.' (Beane, 1995)

There is additional motivation for schools to undertake meaningful cross-curricular integration – it makes the job of teaching easier.

In the ancient world through to the 1800s, educators and learners were polymaths, in that knowledge was interrelated and connected together. Education was philosophy. Socrates and Aristotle were not described as mathematicians or writers but as philosophers. Leonardo Da Vinci was a painter, but he was also an engineer and a scientist.

Through integrating knowledge we will no longer need to reteach knowledge that students have already learned elsewhere. Schools and students are complicit in a ‘pedagogy of poverty' where we silently agree to accept activities in the classroom that are but repetitions of previously learned skills (Haberman, 1994).

Making the links explicit

The student of History who is taught research skills may well already have learned such skills in English, or Science or Music. However, for the student to make the connections between those subjects and shared skills, it must be made explicit. The actual, factual knowledge to be undertaken may be subject specific, but the pedagogical skills needed to implement it are shared.

As teachers, we need to start communicating with each other, to make our lives less stressful. Any fact can be found through technology – try looking up ‘grooming for dogs'. You don't need a teacher to learn facts, but you do need a teacher to develop the skills to use those facts.

In Science you learn about the lungs and breathing. However, you also learn and apply this knowledge in PE/PDH, Drama and Music. The impact of air quality is studied in Geography. Furthermore, there are implications for Mathematics in measurement and statistical analysis, and English supports the skills to communicate the learning clearly and succinctly.

As the adult, a teacher should be able to see the KLA links in any task they undertake. Make it explicit. If you are teaching lighting in a Drama classroom, reference the planning needed (Mathematics), the lens focus (Science), the ground plan required (Geography), the health and safety (Personal Development and Health), the need to know the purpose of the lighting to further the performance (English), the positioning of performers (Dance and PE), the link to other performance aspects (Music), the significance and meaning of colour (Visual Art and RE) (Roy, Baker, & Hamilton, 2015). Make these links explicit to the students.

To support cross-curricular – in our time-poor, financially-strapped schools – why don't different subject departments and experts start talking to each other? Share what we teach, observe each other's techniques, recognise repetition of learning. A bored student is a discipline issue waiting to happen. I am bored if three different people teach me the same thing again each year.

Share your topic planning

Have staff year group meetings to share what is being taught in different subjects this year so that discussion can be held to ascertain if other subjects have already engaged in these topics. Admit areas where students lack skills – a colleague in a different KLA may have a successful technique to support the challenge, and if no one has the answer, work across KLAs to have a unified school approach.

When students see teachers coming out of their silos, communicating and working together they get scared – in a good way (Hattie, 2008). They realise the complicity of a pedagogy of poverty will be gone. We can all work together, students and teachers.

A certain mobile phone company used to say, ‘it's good to talk'; to raise achievement – it is.


Beane, J., A. (1995). Curriculum Integration and the Disciplines of Knowledge. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(8), 616-622.

Haberman, M. (1994). The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching. In E. Hatton (Ed.), Understanding teaching: Curriculum and the social context of schooling (pp. 17-25). Sydney: Harcourt Brace.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning. London: Routledge.

NSWDET. (2003). Quality Teaching in NSW Public Schools: Discussion Paper. Ryde: Department of Education and Training Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.

Roy, D., Baker, B., & Hamilton, A. (2015). Teaching the Arts Early Childhood and Primary Education (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Think about a topic you’re teaching next term – what opportunities are there to make links to different subject areas? How will you include this in your planning? How will you make these links explicit to your students?

How often do you share your planning with colleagues in other subject areas? How often do you observe their teaching techniques?