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Cross-Curricular Teaching: Helping Students Make Connections

Traditional methods of teaching have often focused on the subjects as self-contained disciplines. Kids learn math during math class, science during science class, etc. However, this approach often overlooks the interconnected realities of life after education. Most people use multiple disciplines in their daily life and work, and even professional scientists require literacy skills to write scientific papers.

Cross-curricular teaching is an approach that challenges the traditional view of education and invites teachers of different subjects to collaborate and bring multiple disciplines into a single course of teaching. The benefits, advocates say, include that students learn to think more critically, improving their ability to problem solve and work collaboratively.

Here, we explore the key ideas of cross-curricular teaching, as well as looking at some strategies that educators can try in their own classrooms.

What is Cross-Curricular Teaching?

Sometimes known as interdisciplinary learning, cross-curricular teaching is an educational approach that has teachers incorporating multiple disciplines into lessons. Leah LaCrosse, Sphero Hero and 8th-grade science teacher at McCormick Junior High School in Ohio, explains cross-curricular teaching as “the thoughtful weaving together of various content areas to support student understanding of the connectedness of knowledge.” 

Jennifer Jensen, an Innovation Lab Specialist at Clear Sky Elementary in Colorado, describes the method as “an intentionally planned opportunity for students to learn, practice, and transfer problem-solving skills,” in which “teachers from multiple disciplines come together to plan their instruction.”

Why is Cross-Curricular Teaching Important?

Cross-curricular teaching is important because it invites students to exercise several different approaches and draw from different knowledge bases when considering a topic. This mirrors the diverse thinking and creative problem solving that happens in the working world while enabling students to see the interconnectedness of knowledge and gain deeper insight into various topics. 

“By taking an active role in their learning,” says Jensen, “students can create more personalized connections and make sense of what they have learned.”

Cross-curricular teaching also increases student engagement. Not only does it offer a chance to inspire students that are indifferent to one subject by harnessing their passion for another, but it also makes academic subjects feel more realistic and relevant. Nurturing students’ ability to make connections between the subjects in the classroom becomes an effective way to teach students transferable problem-solving skills, give real-world meaning to school assignments, and increase engagement. 

Furthermore, by making these connections through cross-curricular learning, students are equipped with the mental toolkit to problem solve independently and use information from one discipline creatively to address the challenges of another. 

Cross-curricular teaching or “deeper learning” is essential to building the connections necessary for students to navigate the modern world. It allows them to think critically about the information given to them, and to go beyond the one-track mindset that can hold people back. The cross-curricular method teaches students to break down boundaries and ultimately, creates innovative adults ready to make a difference. 

That said, cross-curricular teaching has its challenges. It is more time and resource-intensive than traditional learning approaches and requires close collaboration between teachers. This could also be viewed as a benefit, by encouraging teachers across subjects to work and learn together, but it’s not an easy process. LaCrosse encourages educators to view it as an ongoing process, whereby teachers “build up their strategies, tools, knowledge, and skill set over time.”

Blurring the boundaries between subjects also raises questions about how student progress should be assessed. Should modules that combine creative and analytical components, for example, be examined with numeric or artistic criteria? The answer is likely a mixture of both, but this poses questions of weighting and how exactly both can be measured simultaneously.

Cross-Curricular Teaching and STEAM Education

Cross-curricular teaching also fits naturally with the principles of STEAM education.

“STEAM education and cross-curricular teaching emphasize making connections,” says Jensen. In her view, cross-curricular activities equip students with well-rounded skill sets and lead to them becoming more productive members of the workforce.  Additionally, both STEAM education and cross-curricular teaching expose students to critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, innovation, and leadership.

“‘When will I ever need this?’ is a question every teacher has heard more than once,” Jensen adds. “STEAM education is the perfect conduit in answering that question. Learning is enhanced when students are provided with opportunities to make connections between various skills and their application in everyday life when cross-curricular teaching is used.”

Cross-Curricular Activities

Journaling Students’ Progress

According to Jensen, one simple cross-curricular teaching example is to have students write a combination of long and short-form pieces relating to the subject matter as they progress through a course. 

Prompts could include a set of step-by-step directions, reflections on the process or skills they used to complete their work and how these can be applied to different situations, a short story that is then turned into code for a robot, a written explanation of the code they have used in a project, or a poem highlighting their new knowledge. Any of these will improve students’ literacy skills even as they deepen their understanding of the subject matter.

Scientific Pen Pals

Similarly, find a scientific pen pal program that encourages students to write about their discoveries in letter format. This not only connects literacy skills to STEM subjects, but it’s a fun activity that helps students connect with other kids. The letters’ prompts can be a mix of creative and knowledge-based information, allowing the students to build both interpersonal and cross-subject connections.  

Give it a Theme

Most cross-curricular teaching programs begin by deciding a theme or concept for students to learn about, around which they can conduct further research and make new connections.

In her book EDC Sphero SSB (free on Apple Books), LaCrosse gives the cross-curricular teaching example of students learning about tectonic plates, seismic activity, and post-quake response. The lesson has students learning about convection currents, creating a public service announcement video, and coding a Sphero BOLT to simulate an earthquake, all within a single course on a consistent theme.

Cross-curricular teaching is a forward-thinking approach to education that takes into account the cross-functionality and critical thinking that not only enables students to direct their own learning but equips them with the range of skills they will need once they leave education.

Check out Sphero’s range of education kits and coding robots, and start planning your next cross-curricular lesson!
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