In today’s schools, it’s widely understood that the curriculum covers a wide range of subjects, topics, learning outcomes and rationales. Planning for all these subject areas and finding the time to teach them in meaningful ways presents challenges to the classroom teacher. When discussing this with teachers at various conferences and workshops, it became clear to us that the challenges extend across provincial and territorial borders. With this in mind, a recommended teaching strategy for Canadian elementary school classrooms is in the “connecting of subject areas” when possible and appropriate for student learning. It is, after all, imperative for our students to recognize that their learning in one subject can be connected with others (e.g., science and physical education). Hence, this article is intended to share a few ways to successfully connect subjects.
Whether it is referred to as subject integration, cross-curricular connections or curricular integration, this planning, teaching, assessment strategy occurs when various curricular learning outcomes become connected and understood in meaningful ways by both the teachers and students. Integration refers to coordinating, blending or fusing individual components into a functioning, unified and harmonious whole (Alberta Education, 2007).
At their best, integrative activities highlight the most unique aspects of each subject and fuse them, so that they reveal relationships among subjects that would not have been understood had each subject been taught alone. (Rauschenbach, 1996)
Integrating subjects has been found to help students develop meaningful connections to their learning. Research has verified that fusing learning outcomes from various subjects results in academic performance equal to, or better than, students who are exposed to discipline-based programs (Drake & Reid, 2010). In a similar fashion, Rauschenbach (1996) contended that discovering cross-curricular connections and developing cross-curricular activities is helpful for “increasing teacher collaboration and student motivation” (p. 49).
Benefits include higher levels of student engagement, increased teacher collaboration and professional growth, and more opportunities to differentiate learning. (Drake & Reid, 2010)
In addition to students becoming more engaged in class and less prone to attendance and behaviour issues (Drake & Reid, 2010), other such benefits emerge when cross-curricular connections exist in the learning environment. According to Alberta Education (2007), making cross-curricular connections:
- Promotes flexibility: teachers can plan for the development of primary skills and understandings that transcend individual strands and subjects
- Builds upon prior knowledge/experiences: helps students build on their diverse prior knowledge/experiences
- Unifies student learning: enables students to acquire a unified view of the curriculum to broaden the context of their learning beyond single subjects
- Supports how students think: supports how young students process information (e.g., children take in many things while processing and organizing them at one time)
As teacher educators, we have experienced pre-service teachers explore and discover the possibilities of connecting cross-curricular learning outcomes within their planning. Three ways in which our pre-service teachers have connected Social Studies and Science for student learning (learning outcomes – Alberta Curriculum) include:
Grade 5 Science & Social Studies: Weather & Geographic Regions of Canada
- One of the selected Learner Expectations from the Weather Watch is to understand that climate refers to long-term weather trends in a particular region and that climate varies worldwide.
- This Science outcome links well to critical examination of the physical geography of Canada (Social Studies) by exploring and reflecting upon the following question: What are the factors that determine climate in the diverse geographical regions of Canada (e.g., latitude, water, mountains)?
- The students learn about key geographical concepts (Social Studies), while also linking the weather and climate trends (Science) of each region.
Grade 4 Social Studies & Science: The Regions of Alberta & Waste Management
- As students learn about the people and use of land in specific regions of Alberta (Social Studies: geographic knowledge), they also address Science outcomes related to Waste in our World.
- The students learn about the ways different regions of Alberta manage waste, as well as support sustainable types of work or industry for particular regions.
Grade 3 Science & Social Studies: Animal Life Cycles & Global Citizenship
- Students are led through a series of activities that develop their understanding of Animal Life Cycles and how Human Activity (through pollution or climate change) affects Plants and Animals.
- The potential of plant or animal extinction is a global issue, and this invites children to consider how their activities could have global impacts (connecting Science and Social Studies).
Subject Integration Model
While exploring and discovering the many possibilities of cross-curricular connections, these pre-service teachers used the following Subject Integration Model. The model asks to identify selected learner outcomes for two (or more) subjects and to identify the expected conceptual and procedural knowledge students must use in order to participate and learn through the activities.
Conceptual Knowledge refers to general models, structures, categories or generalizations and is illustrated by students classifying living and non-living things (Pedretti, Bellomo, & Jagger, 2015).
Procedural Knowledge refers to specific skills or knowledge of how to do something, such as reading or following safety procedures (Pedretti et al., 2015).
Assessment Considerations requires teachers to consider how student learning would be captured so that fair judgements about the learning could be made.
Potential Activities provides opportunities to identify ways the knowledge could be introduced, practised and learned by students.
Responses from pre-service teachers indicated that the Subject Integration Model was useful in conceptualizing and developing integrated lesson plans (e.g., identifying and incorporating explicit outcomes into their planning)
Subject Integration Model
(Pre-service Teacher Example – Grade 2)
Exploring Liquids (Reflect and Interpret)
- describe what was observed, using captioned pictures and oral language
- describe and explain results; explanations may reflect an early stage of concept development
- identify applications of what was learned
- identify new questions that arise from the investigation
Student Conceptual Knowledge
- role of water for living and non-living things
- recognize human responsibilities for maintaining clean supplies of water, and identify actions that are taken to ensure that water supplies are safe
Student Procedural Knowledge
- observing | recording | describing | explaining
Assessment Considerations (Case Study/Problem Solving)
- create two different scenarios and have students talk about the liquids in each case
Social Studies Outcomes
Demonstrate Skills of Oral, Written, and Visual Literacy
- prepare and present information in their own words, using respectful language
- respond appropriately to comments and questions, using respectful language
- interact with others in a socially appropriate manner
Students will: analyze how the community being studied emerged, by exploring and reflecting upon the following questions for inquiry:
- What characteristics define their community?
- What is unique about their community?
- What are the origins of their community?
- What were the reasons for the establishment of their community (e.g., original fur trade fort, original inhabitants)?
- What individuals or groups contributed to the development of their community?
Student Conceptual Knowledge
- role of water in the development of a community/town
Student Procedural Knowledge
- reading | discussing | explaining | questioning
Students are able to describe what role water played in a specific community:
- e.g., a river flowing through the community was used for trade or business
- e.g., the community was originally built around a water well
Develop a case study approach in which students identify key elements of how communities were established (beginning with their local community) and how the water supply is maintained and kept healthy.
How About Connecting Science & Physical Education?
Pond Studies & Orienteering: Science learning outcomes generally include topics like nature field trips or pond studies as structured activities to enhance student knowledge about natural phenomenon. Physical education learning outcomes related to alternative environment activities can be linked easily to such science activities. For example, simple orientation skills can be used to plot and locate specific science phenomena to be examined. This kind of integrated learning experience addresses multiple learning outcomes.
Students must be made aware of their responsibilities when engaged in integrative learning activities; their responsibilities lie in the learning outcomes from both subjects which can result in countless benefits (Rauschenbach, 1996).
How About Connecting Math & Physical Education?
Counting & Fundamental Movement Skill Development: Fusing mathematic concepts with physical education learning outcomes may assist in children’s ability to count by 1s, 2s, 3s, 10s, etc. through various hopping-type activities. Or, when students are asked to solve math problems, they could also be asked to demonstrate their answers by “throwing beanbags at cells in a number grid” (Rauschenbach, 1996, p. 51).
Early childhood educators and educational researchers know that young children perceive the world as a connective whole rather than in isolated segments. Although the curriculum is primarily divided into individual subjects which possess their own distinctive knowledge and understandings, skills, values, attitudes, etc., these subjects include learning outcomes that are common to other subjects and grade levels (Alberta Education, 2007). Along with the need to develop physical literacy, numeracy, etc., teachers need to address other initiatives such as environmental education, character education, the new literacies (e.g., media, technological). Hence, with so many curricular expectations to cover and assess, it should not be surprising that teachers sometimes feel overwhelmed (Drake & Reid, 2010). In knowing this, regarding student learning and teacher needs, developing integrative activities across different subjects (making cross-curricular connections) is an effective way to foster student learning, while maintaining high levels of motivation, creativity and discovery, and to help teachers with effective planning and delivery practices. After all, research has stated the benefits are plentiful and multi-faceted when teachers make cross-curricular connections.
For your grade level, which learning outcomes, from different subjects, can be connected?
Alberta Education. (2007). Primary programs framework – Curriculum integration: Making connections. Alberta, Canada: Alberta Education.
Drake, S.M., & Reid, J. (2010). Integrated curriculum: Increasing relevance while maintaining accountability. The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. (September 2010).
Pedretti, E., Bellomo, K., & Jagger, S. (2015). Explorations in elementary school science: practice and theory, K–8. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada.
Rauschenbach, J. (1996). Tying it all together: Integrating physical education and other subject areas. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (JOPERD). 67(2), 49-51.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Brent Bradford (PhD) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University of Edmonton. With extensive teaching experiences at the elementary and junior high school levels, Brent served as a Teacher Educator from 2009-2014 (University of Alberta) while studying at the graduate level. Brent’s teaching has been recognized with awards at both the school and university levels. Brent serves on PHE Canada’s Advisory Board for Physical Education and Physical Literacy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Edgar Schmidt (DSS) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Concordia University of Edmonton. Edgar has extensive experience as a teacher, principal, senior administrator and superintendent of schools. His most recent research is a critical discourse analysis of government messages related to school-based wraparound services for vulnerable children and families. He is interested in helping pre-service teachers develop skills at integrating cross-curricular student learning outcomes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Apr/May 2016 issue.