The master of linking different disciplines lived six centuries ago. Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings were a study in perspective and the science of light. His art encompassed models of engineering and anatomy; and his earliest known dated drawing, Italy’s Arno Valley, led him to suggest making the Arno river a navigable channel between Florence and Pisa. Suffice to say, Renaissance humanism did not consider the arts and the sciences to be mutually exclusive.
Given the obvious value of weaving different areas of learning into a whole, cross-curricular learning is now becoming increasingly popular in schools. According to Meredith Silburn, a Deputy Head of Primary at King’s College Madrid (Soto), “We take great care and pride in creating interwoven projects or topic-based learning. We believe that this approach allows us to increase student engagement while developing questioning and independent inquiry skills to a much greater extent than is possible with distinct subject content.”
If we are to make education relevant, it must be seen to cross boundaries. If, for example, we explore how the theory of splitting the atom led to the atomic bomb and the end of World War II, we can give it context and see its practical application.
A champion of cross-curricular learning, Peter Ransom MBE, education consultant and the Chair of Council of the UK’s Mathematical Association, advocates what he calls “a more unorthodox approach to lessons in order to engage pupils who have had no previous interest in mathematics.”
During his years as a Secondary teacher, he would do things like linking a Maths lesson to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. In this particular case, he asked his pupils to write a battle report for King George III in 1805 using the actual mathematical data that was available.
“The pupils used statistics to compare sets of data such as the fleet size of Britain, France and Spain, the number of men on each ship and the comparable firepower on board,” he says. “Analysing the data, the children wrote up their reports as an imaginary adviser to the king explaining the chances of success. I found that this shortened the actual time I needed to spend with them on textbook examples and also helped improve their general knowledge and cultural reference.”
With an eye on the future, there will be an increasing demand in the workplace for people with inter-disciplinary skills who spot connections and grasp the bigger picture, according to a UK Government report on the 2030 labour market which states that “Employees (and employers) will require the competencies to work across different disciplines.”
If this kind of versatility is introduced early on, making associations and constructing an integrated perspective can become second nature to students. King’s seizes on such opportunities, often cross-referencing the Humanities and Arts with Science with a view to intensifying the students’ knowledge of a topic.
As Sharmila Gandhi, Acting Head of King’s College Alicante, says, “In Year 5, children learn about the rainforest and they focus on where it is in the world, the environmental impact of deforestation, the history related to the rainforest and, in English, they might write poems or an explanatory text about the rainforest. In their Art lesson, children will create their own rainforests with the animals that live there. This kind of approach creates excitement, interest and opportunities for exploration and a deeper grasp of the subject. Children get as much learning out of it as possible.”
Meanwhile, at King’s College Madrid (Soto), Paula Parkinson, Head of the Primary Department, explains that there are many opportunities to make cross-curricular links particularly between Science and other subjects. “In Early Years and Years 1 and 2, Literacy topics are often used as stimuli for Science investigations. For example, in Year 2 they have been exploring the properties of materials, and have used their findings to design a new jacket for Paddington Bear, who lives in the rainy and cold city of London!”
The possibilities are endless, as Paula points out. “In Music we count beats and find patterns in the resulting numbers to help us follow a song with percussion or create raps using the number of syllables; and in PE we use mathematical measures to check distances,” she says.
At King’s College Alicante, the subject of chocolate has been expanded to become a complete mini-universe. “Children not only learn about the history and geography related to chocolate, but they explore the concept of fair trade, raise money for charity by creating chocolate cakes and selling them; and in Design and Technology, they build their own chocolate factories,” says Sharmila.
As the late celebrated paleopathologist Arthur C. Aufderheide once said, “All knowledge is connected to other knowledge, the fun is making the connections.”