James Lewis

School Improvement Partner

  • All-round primary expert with specialist knowledge in Maths, English, History and Music.
  • Believes all education should be child-focused.

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Celebrating the Foundations: Cross-curricular learning in the primary classroom

One of our core beliefs at TT Education is that you should connect your learning.

  • connect to a context (to give our students purpose and motivation);
  • connect to other skills and ideas; and
  • connect to other parts of the curriculum.

We’re pretty good at the latter: we have engaging topics which provide content for our reading, writing and number work; we look for grammar and writing features that we can practise in Foundation subjects; we practise data collection and analysis in context. We use songs for times tables practice or to help with spellings; we do counting games and basic calculation in PE; we use measurements in DT and PE. But is there something missing?

It seems to me that cross-curricular approaches manifest themselves almost entirely in one direction; that is, ‘other’ subjects are used to inspire and enable better Literacy and Numeracy. This one-way traffic creates a rather rigid hierarchy of subject ‘importance’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sensible to prioritise the ‘three Rs’ because it’s through them that we’re held accountable – and in any case they’re clearly non-negotiables for a primary curriculum. But take a step back from subject content and look at subject skills, and you’ll find some amazing development opportunities in these ‘lesser’ subjects – skills, in fact, that aren’t much present in the ‘inner’ core.

Science

This core subject dropped down the pecking order when the SATs were abolished in 2009, and sampling tests suggest less than a quarter of children now reach expected levels. A case in point (if one were needed) that subjects lose status when they aren’t tested. However, the sampling and the old SATs both suffer from the same problem, that of testing subject content and not skills. The Science Curriculum lists its skills as: observing over time; pattern seeking; identifying, classifying and grouping; comparing, making fair tests and controlling investigations; collecting, analysing and presenting data; and researching using secondary sources. What a wish-list! It’s no surprise, therefore, that we recommend spreading out these skills across other subjects, normalising the language as you do so. For instance, when analysing the nuances of word meanings within a poem, ask your children to “hypothesise, test and conclude” about different synonyms.

Humanities

In History, Geography and RE we learn how to find and describe patterns and trends, analyse bias, empathise with people’s behaviour and beliefs, communicate our findings and opinions kindly, and listen politely to the views of others. We learn the life-skills of reading maps, timetables, graphs and diagrams. We move away from rigid opinions and start to appreciate that there isn’t always a right answer; we start to think and talk tentatively, which creates a fertile environment for reasoning and problem-solving. Through the humanities we develop empathy and respect, citizenship and humility.

PE

A character trait that we all hope to instil in children is resilience, and PE has learning opportunities in spades. In her excellent blog on football, Karen Thomson lists some of the skills that support this: respect, teamwork, dedication, inclusion, creativity and self-confidence. Children also emerge from PE lessons with fine and gross-motor skills, timing, observation skills, and knowledge of activities and strategies that will help them with fitness and wellbeing in the future.

ICT

Children learn to research, summarise and report; they learn to use a mouse, to type and use a keyboard; they learn coding and start to understand the ‘thinking’ processes of a computer; they use common software like spreadsheets, presentations, email and word processors which will be unavoidable in their working lives. It’s also the closest that school comes to working in an office environment. In ICT they normally work in pairs: sharing resources, taking turns and developing other social skills. They also learn about internet safety and wellbeing, and to judge the reliability of sources of information.

Music, Art and DT

Music and Art are often used in therapy, and this should open our eyes to their potential for improving the learning and wellbeing of children. They can be used for developing resilience, for providing safe spaces for counselling, for nurture activities. In Music, Art and DT children take turns, share resources and listen to complex instructions. They work in teams, develop their creativity, and evaluate the end-results. They show respect for artistic expression from other cultures and countries, and in genres and styles that differ from their own taste. In Music children learn to embrace silence, and control their breathing (which helps wellbeing). In DT they learn about healthy choices, about safety, about taking risks.

Languages

Languages are oozing with opportunities for broadening minds and developing critical thinking skills. They expose children to new ways of problem solving and being logical. Consider the method of writing: there are some languages where the script represent sounds (like Spanish); some where the script also represents word-origins (English); some where it represents syllables (like Japanese); and some that represent concepts (like Chinese). Each method influences its speakers in the way they think and problem solve. No way is ‘best’, but knowing (about) more than one way is surely good.

As an example: in the ‘logographic’ script of Chinese, the symbol for ‘woods’ is the symbol for tree, twice; ‘forest’ is tree three times; and ‘foundation’ is tree with a horizonal line underneath, like a plank. ‘Fool’ is tree with a box on top – perhaps someone who’s reliant on others, but is so boxed off that they don’t know it. What a wonderful exercise, for children to analyse the symbols and compare the nuances in meaning.

Move away from the writing system and look at grammars. In German some morphemes get split up in certain contexts, for instance zuhören (to listen) might become ich höre dir zu (I listen to you): can we attempt this idea in English (“can we tempt this idea in English at?”). The word order in Latin is generally subject-object-verb, which sounds bizarre in English, but perhaps it impacts on problem solving: did the Romans think about the end-point of a problem before they thought of the method (verb) for getting there? Would this have helped them relax when they embarked on Mathematical word problems? Latin, Greek and German nouns decline through many ‘cases’: perhaps this creates a discipline in linking concepts within an argument.

I’m not one to wax lyrical about the literary qualities of the National Curriculum, but the preamble to the Languages section has quite a beautiful opening sentence, and it summarises what I’m trying to illustrate: “Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures,” it says. “[It] should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world… It should also provide opportunities for them to… learn new ways of thinking.”

At the outset I said that our priorities will always be reading, writing and Maths. It’s right to focus on these, and it’s right that we should inspire and enable these subjects with Foundation content. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the ‘skills curriculum’ – much of which is actually found in the ‘lesser’ subjects. These are skills which we yearn for in our children, and which we struggle to develop in an overwhelmingly academic curriculum. So let’s carry on making our Literacy and Numeracy exciting by teaching it through interesting and engaging Foundation contexts, but let’s also celebrate those subjects in their own right and find the positives within them. Positives like fine and gross motor control, listening skills, reasoning and problem-solving, turn-taking, attention, self-confidence, resilience, body awareness, team-work, behaviour, kindness, empathy and respect. Let’s always try to make sure that our cross-curricular teaching has two-way traffic.

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If your school is looking for ways to improve cross-curricular learning, why not not take a look at TT Education's Raising Attainment Across The Curriculum CPD course.