Cross-curricular learning

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.
For more up-to-date guidance see:

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Cross-curricular work offers a creative way to develop children's knowledge, skills and understanding while motivating them to learn through stimulating, interconnected topics. A study which crosses subject boundaries allows for investigations that engage children's imagination. It also gives teachers opportunities to encourage active enquiry, taking the initiative, and discussion and debate by children.

As history is above all the study of the human condition, it provides us with endless opportunities for fostering children's personal development.

In all cross-curricular topics, the history provides an ideal context for extending children's literacy, in speaking and listening, reading and writing. See History and Literacy.

Curriculum breadth and balance. This is considered at the long-term planning stage. Long-term plans exist to ensure that pupils receive their entitlement to the whole primary curriculum. They map the curriculum for the school over a whole year, and are generally the responsibility of the Senior Leadership Team.

Links between subjects. Make links real, not contrived. Choose areas where genuine connections between subjects occur naturally. Will the connections make sense to the children? On the school's long-term plan, look for any obvious links between subjects and areas. For example, if for geography you plan to study Mexico as a locality, and for history to study a world civilisation, choose the Aztecs, as this will create a genuine history/geography cross-curricular topic, into which you can build social understanding.

Coherence. Teaching cross-curricular topics does not mean doing the kind of unfocused topic work that was common before the introduction of the National Curriculum and was heavily criticised by HMI in 1978. Good cross-curricular topics can include several subjects, but there should be just one or two lead subjects. The lead subject provides a framework and focus for the topic.

Keep track of subject objectives. Use your medium- and short-term plans to map the learning objectives for each separate subject to be included in the cross-curricular topic. Even though the teaching may be integrated, objectives should be identified as history, PSCHE, geography, and so on. This is the only way to check your coverage of the primary curriculum overall, and to plan for progression in each subject.

Ensuring progression. There is a difference between children making progress in a subject and doing a bit of practice in it. For example, in a local study, asking children to make a key for a historical map does not in itself ensure progression in geography, though it will give the children the opportunity to use and apply geography knowledge, skills and understanding in a purposeful context.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Am I tackling substantive concepts, knowledge or skills in all the subjects included in the topic?
  • Will the children be making real progress in each subject? 
  • If not, will they be using and applying such subject knowledge in the course of a cross-curricular topic?


Framework and focus

You can give your cross-curricular topic a coherent framework through:

Key concepts
These are powerful tools for developing thinking and understanding.

At key stage 1, the key concepts of change and continuity could involve shopping, transport or school, comparing now with then - parents' or grandparents' generation - and involve geography (surveys, maps), art (such as collage of a street now and then) and maths (using and applying - pictorial graphs), as well as the key subject of history.

At key stage 2, studying aspects of British history provides an ideal historical framework for examining concepts of change and continuity. It could incorporate RE (new religions in Britain); geography (change/continuity involving a locality and/or a geographical theme - water, settlement, environment); music (continuity - classical; change - such as rock/punk/rap); ICT (now and fifty years ago), and so on.

A main theme (such as Our school, or The story of flight). The latter is an old favourite at key stage 1, and makes a good cross-curricular history-led topic, incorporating design technology and science (when we taught it, hot air balloons and paper aeroplanes were the focus of science and design experiments) See also Creativity.

A specific focus (such as Local study). Local studies are perfect for both key stages and are available to us all. Using the local area as the focus of learning can serve different subjects splendidly and naturally. Studying local history always involves geography (using maps and plans and looking at settlement and change) and social understanding, as children enquire into people's beliefs, attitudes and environment in the past. Local studies can also include art, design, science, RE and other subjects, as in our cross-curricular project on local urban parks and gardens. Here the two key themes are: The parks and their environs in the past and People, plants and animals in the parks. See Urban spaces.

Practical approaches

There are so many ways to teach exciting, enquiry-led topics that link history with geography and social understanding, as well as with subjects in Rose's other five areas:

1 History-led topic, e.g. investigating historical sites and buildings includes elements of geography; see e.g. Castles in KS1 and a Local Study in KS2. See also The Great Fire of London, which includes art, drama, story-writing and poetry.

2 Topic with two lead subjects, such as history and literacy. Most of our lessons include the teaching of literacy, but for those with particularly strong joint history/literacy objectives see: Boudicca, Haughmond Abbey, Slate mines, Two mining disasters, a Tudor Tempest, the two Archimedes and the Kings crown and Archimedes and the Syracusan War, and Great Fire of London lesson 1 and Great Fire of London lesson 4.

3 History could form one strand in a more general topic. See, for example, our Urban spaces investigation. Key stage 1 teachers have traditionally taught through topics. See these key stage 1 lessons for history taught as part of topics:

  • Flight: a science and design technology topic, with history stories providing a chronological thread and a stimulus to science and design technology activities Flight: cross-curricular lessons
  • People who help us: Florence Nightingale, a history and literacy sub-topic.
  • Local history: Magdalen Road, a geography, history, art and literacy topic.
  • Winter: Geography and history topic, focusing on weather, conditions for survival, and Scott and Amundsens journeys.
  • Water: The stories of Columbus and Magellan formed the history part of this topic. The history-focused lessons included discussion and debate, role play and design. See Columbus: was he a hero? Columbus the explorer: story-telling and Magellan(coming soon).
  • Toys and games: The topic focused on forces in science, storytelling in English and objects and pictures in history. See Toys and games.

Key questions

Drive your topic with key questions; they will provide a purpose for activities. For example in a Mexico/Aztecs, history/geography and social understanding topic:

  • How did the Aztecs keep control over their Empire?
  • What did the Aztecs believe in?
  • What were the roles of men and women? Were their roles similar to or different from those of men and women in Europe/Britain?
  • Why was the mighty Aztec Empire so quickly defeated?
  • How did the Aztecs grow their food? What foods did they give to Europe? How does Mexico produce food nowadays? 
  • What environmental factors did the Aztecs have to cope with? Are they the same for today's Mexicans?

Cross-curricular work

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