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Moving beyond the subject silo: Cross-curricular collaboration between the humanities

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GEORGE DAVIES-CRAINE, ACTING CURRICULUM LEAD FOR HUMANITIES AND SUBJECT LEADER FOR GEOGRAPHY, DR CHALLONER’S GRAMMAR SCHOOL, UK
JEN PANAYI, ACTING ASSISTANT HEADTEACHER AND SUBJECT LEADER FOR RELIGIOUS STUDIES, DR CHALLONER’S GRAMMAR SCHOOL, UK

This paper explores the approach taken in the humanities faculty to foster cross-curricular collaboration between geography, history and religious studies (RS). The approach focuses on three aspects: rationale, coordination and implementation. Impact on student understanding is reviewed in relation to the cross-curricular approach.

Rationale

Cross-curricular collaboration between subjects is a venture that should be undertaken more within schools in order to encourage students to consider interconnectivity between subjects (Murrieta-Flores and Martins, 2019; Price, 2010). Developing an integrated approach enhances students’ understanding of concepts and ideas, encouraging critical thinking beyond individual subject silos, which prepares students for the complexities of the modern world (Wilkinson, 2010). It enables students to have a more holistic understanding, giving them the skills to deconstruct and reconstruct the knowledge put before them – for example, viewing historical events or geographical concepts from a different subject perspective other than from the perspective of the subject being taught. Undertaking this process is part of critical thinking (Hooks, 2010). In essence, it is promoting a critical interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, enabling students to make their own connections and draw conclusions across the humanities subjects and beyond (Repko et al., 2019).

The development of cross-curricular links between subjects raises various issues in terms of teacher-led perceptions as to how subjects link and their understanding outside of their subject specialism (Rowley and Cooper, 2009). Therefore, connections between subjects need to be substantive; it is not the case that interdisciplinary courses are being created around themes such as ‘climate change’ and ‘migration’, as this would deconstruct subject-specific epistemological enquiry (Coventon, 2022). Furthermore, placing domain-independent skills (e.g. problem-solving and critical thinking) as links between subjects is a tenuous connection, and students may not achieve a true sense of academic mastery in a subject with these present (Kirschner and Hendricks, 2020; Myatt, 2018). Therefore, when coordinating cross-curricular links between subjects, subject-specific knowledge and content should be considered foremost.

Coordination

The starting point for coordination was a comparative discussion of units and content to discover interdisciplinary connections between the humanities subjects (see Table 1). This was mapped out as a faculty between the subject leaders, drawing on the curriculum plans of each individual subject. Through these discussions, themes emerged from discussions across each term (see Table 2). The embedding of these links was through the highlighting and teaching in class of these interdisciplinary connections between the humanities subjects. The themes were embedded through schemes of work and helped to inform lesson objectives. This was not a drawing together of vague concepts that have tenuous connections across the three subjects, nor was it a development of domain-independent skills.

This means that some topics are not directly related to the theme of the term, and to maintain individual subject integrity, units were not shoehorned into themes nor vice versa – this is a promotion of an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge for the students.

Subject Year 7 unit Year 8 unit Year 9 unit
Geography Understanding Africa Population and development Conflicts and challenges
History Pre-colonial Africa Russian Revolution Political extremism
Religious studies Natural theology – understanding nature and diversity in our world Prejudice and discrimination Does religion cause conflict?
Links Geography and RS both consider biodiversity and the idea of power over nature, such as the power of creation in RS. The connection of the history unit to geography is through power in terms of the slave trade, as both subjects cover this subject from different discipline perspectives. However, the connection with RS and history is through the idea of ‘power’ itself. The unit of population and development links to the Russian Revolution, as the reasons for Russia’s historical expansion eastwards are explored in the unit of population and development when understanding factors relating to settlement site and situation. All three units consider the nature of conflict in a variety of different ways. In history and RS, the clear link is in how extremism in both politics and religion causes conflict. In geography, conflict is considered in terms of space and place. There is a clear link with RS in terms of causes of conflict, and with history in terms of understanding the background behind the current war in Europe.
Table 1: A selection of links between units 

 

Year group Theme
Year 7 Power, control and identity
Year 8 Changing worlds
Year 9 Conflict and change
Table 2: Themes developed from the connections between units

Implementation

As history and, in part, religious studies both have a chronological axis in terms of their curriculum planning (Ashbee, 2021), the ‘lead’ was taken from history, as there was increased scope in geography to alter the timing of units across the year. The links between units were not necessarily between topics taught at the same time of the year, nor within the year group itself. Therefore, to interleave the cross-curricular links across Key Stage 3 effectively, the links were spaced out across Years 7, 8 and 9. After lengthy discussions, it was decided that topics would not move position, as this would effectively take on board the processes of ‘spacing’ and ‘desirable difficulties’, ensuring that long-term knowledge acquisition is embedded over time (Bjork and Bjork, 1992).

In addition to the discussion of links and themes, a common language was developed to ensure a shared notion of key terminology and definitions. The common language involved the creation of a shared writing frame for extended writing; this included stating clear points and developing these using evidence and explanation. Key terminology involved an understanding and essence of key terms, rather than a ‘word for word’ definition across the three subjects. For example, the key term ‘environmentalism’ has a slightly different meaning in geography than in religious studies; however, the links between the subjects in relation to the term ‘environmentalism’ were drawn out during class discussion. This allowed for a subject-level lens to analyse processes more readily, ensuring epistemological integrity and pedagogical harmony.

The links (Table 1) were embedded into lessons through the themes (Table 2) under the direction of each subject leader, in collaboration with their respective team. They were embedded through lesson objectives and activities. Revisions were undertaken over time through departmental and curriculum area meetings. This ensured that the approach was sustainable in the long term and maintained individual subject integrity.

There were some challenges to this; these included time, filtration of concepts and ideas to the departmental level, and assessment timing. This process took an academic year to embed, as discussions within departmental meetings took time to enable the curriculum links within lessons to be embedded.

Impact on student learning

Through discussing work undertaken in other humanities subjects, students built an interdisciplinary knowledge base, of which the impact on student learning was positive. Through discussions in subject and curriculum area meetings with students, the students were able to use their knowledge from across the humanities in their lessons. Teachers explicitly modelled the academic language required to draw out these connections between the subjects. Middle leaders worked closely together to ensure that students gained an understanding of the links between subjects. This enabled students to develop a skills base across the humanities.

Student focus groups were conducted to ascertain the positives and negatives of this interdisciplinary approach. When studying the Reformation in RS, analysing denominational differences within Christianity, all students had just finished learning about Martin Luther and Oliver Cromwell in their history lessons; therefore, they were able to bridge their understanding from history over to the study of modern-day Christianity in RS. Furthermore, students were able to draw on their knowledge of political equality in history when studying development geography. The only drawback of this approach was the limited depth to which the links were able to be developed in Year 7; however, over time, the more substantial links were able to be elicited. Overall, there was a clear positive impact on student learning using this approach.

This process was not undertaken in every lesson, as in some cases the material being taught and learnt may not have benefited from a cross-curricular approach. Such links must maintain individual subject integrity, while encouraging students to understand and critically analyse the links between subjects.

Developing the cross-curricular approach was constrained by time, and it therefore took the course of an academic year to analyse the links and embed them across respective subject areas. The coordination between departments in terms of planning and flexibility was taken into consideration, and there was a constant feedback process between middle leaders and their respective teams; this allowed for the development of meaningful links between humanities subjects that move beyond the subject silo. Moving forwards, the sharing of lesson resources between subjects will help to solidify the interdisciplinary links, enabling a further positive impact on student learning.

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