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Monday, September 11, 2017

Benefits of Cross-curricular Learning

This post was commissioned by Kids Discover Online.

In the course of a typical day you probably find yourself using knowledge and skills from a wide variety of areas. Figuring out how to pay your bills? Math. Taking the shortcut to avoid traffic? Geography. Writing an email to your boss to explain why the shortcut didn’t work and you were late to work? Creative writing. The point is that we apply diverse knowledge and skills to problems in our lives on a daily basis. Yet too often we teach skills in narrowly defined subject areas. That’s why cross-curricular lessons should be a part of our teaching practice.

When I was a first-year teacher I was fortunate to be placed on a team with teachers who were experienced though not so experienced that they didn’t want to try new things. One of the things that we tried that year was to collaborate to create projects in which our students had to draw on the knowledge learned and skills developed in math, science, social studies, and language arts. Thirteen years later I still have former students (now in their late 20’s) comment to me about the project in which they had to make proposals to either increase or decrease spending for Mars exploration. This project was the final one of the year. As the final project it required that students draw on the knowledge and skills they had developed throughout the year. I’d love to say that all of the groups made awesome proposals, but they didn’t. However, it did help many students see that even though they weren’t “math people” or “weren’t science” people, they could use math and science concepts in a way that wasn’t just “solving a problem.” (Bonus fun fact: to celebrate the conclusion of that project we all watched the horribly cheesy Capricorn One in which OJ Simpson played an astronaut).

So why don’t we see more cross-curricular lessons in schools? “Lack of planning time” is a common answer. It often takes more time and, in the case of cross-curricular teams, more coordination to plan a cross-curricular lesson than say a lesson on the Pythagorean theorem. Fortunately, a resource like Kids Discover Online can help you put together a cross-curricular lesson. Kids Discover Online offers units of articles aligned to standards in multiple subject areas. Every article is offered in three versions to accommodate differing reading abilities.

Not every cross-curricular learning activity needs to fall into the category of multiple week projects in order to be effective. In fact, much can be gained from including short cross-curricular lessons on a regular basis. In 2010 National Teacher Research Panel, UK published a paper that included the points that cross-curricular learning can improve students’ comprehension of problems. It can also improves students’ recognition of “thinking skills” tasks. And cross-curricular learning can improve students’ ability to pose multiple responses to problem stimuli.

In reading Cross-Curricular Learning 3-14 written by Jonathan Barnes I learned that cross-curricular learning can can strengthen “left brain - right brain” connections through cross-curricular learning leads to enhanced problem solving abilities. In turn strengthening the sense of achievement that students feel at the completion of a learning activity. In other words, it can help remove the feeling of “I’m not a math person” or “I’m not a history person.” While reading that section of Barnes’s book I was reminded of a video clip that Dr. Gary Stager showed during a presentation about Dr. Seymour Papert’s work. In the clip, available here, Papert suggests that if we all learned mathematics in “Mathland” we would all learn mathematics perfectly well. Papert also thought that teaching the “the three Rs” was an outdated methodology.

Seymour Papert on "Mathland" excerpted from the Squeakers DVD from Gary Stager on Vimeo.


To help students to see topics and problems as more than just a “history lesson” or a “math problem” Kids Discover Online offers a feature called Discover Maps. Discover maps can help students see the connections between social studies topics, math topics, and science topics. It is one of the tools that exists today that I wish had existed when my students undertook the Mars project years ago. Discover Maps are essentially interactive webs of discovery. Students can select any topic in a web and instantly see a new web of more related topics. The webs display related topics from the fields of science, social studies, and math. Each time a student clicks on a topic a new web is generated. Of course, each web also contains links to multimedia articles for students to read.


If you have been thinking about developing cross-curricular lessons, consider availing yourself of the resources provided by Kids Discover Online. It’s not as hard as you might think and it can provide excellent benefits to your students.