The Interconnected Curriculum – the difference between bricks and mortar
Individual subject teaching, or subject specificity is currently very much the topic du jour. The EIF, despite its associated protestations to the contrary, is very much an advocate of single subject teaching and the recently published subject reports make very little or no reference in their descriptions of the early stages of their subject’s learning to topics or themes.
No one would argue that a clouded and muddled, homogenous curriculum littered with tenuous links and forced alliances between subjects is a good idea. No one would argue that a lack of clarity on progression or sequencing is the way forward or that drawing on what we know about excellence in each subject’s individual discipline is to be ignored and cast aside in favour of some kind of sickly tutti frutti style magical mystery tour of a curriculum.
What we cannot do though is ignore both common sense and what we know about learning.
Not ignoring how we learn – Rome wasn’t built in a single lesson
We know that in order to make sense of the world and its associated knowledge and concepts, rich schema need to be developed. These are deeply interwoven and interconnected and, as we know, “neurons that fire together, wire together” as Donald Hebb states so neatly. So why, especially in primary, is there a focus on and a deafening current narrative around the promotion of the boxing off rather than the weaving together?
For novices and young children to learn anything new they need to situate it amongst, against and within what they already know. As young children are novice in so many areas of the curriculum, their individual subject knowledge needs to rest on interconnected pillars constructed from understanding in other subjects.
Let’s take for example two sentences from History which can be found in most non-fiction History books for young children.
The Roman Empire began in Rome, in Italy. The Roman Empire began in 27BC, which is over 2000 years ago.
If you are an adult or an older student, you are encountering this information and most likely inferring or drawing on some or all of the following information from your existing associated schema.
- Rome is a city
- Italy is a country
- Italy is in Europe.
- Rome and Italy are not in England/not part of where we live
- Rome and Italy are not close to where we live
- BC means “Before Christ”
- An Empire is a group of states or countries with one ruler
- Understanding of the concept of “2000” and understanding that this is a great number of years
- Understanding the duration of a year (12 months, understanding months)
- That an Empire is not an individual place, person or thing, nor is it static – it can change over time.
So these 2 short sentences from the History curriculum not only draw on the associated knowledge and skills of reading, but also from Geography and Mathematics. So in two sentences from one subject, we actually have to draw from at least 3 other subjects.
If we were to not draw on the Geography curriculum to understand what is meant by a city and a country and the relative proximity of the two aforementioned places to the children’s current position, there is the potential for immediate misconceptions within History.
Likewise with Maths. If the children do not understand what 2000 looks like and have a concept of just “how many” 2000 is, then to them, the Roman Empire could have simply been last week. Also very early mathematical information such as how many months in a year will be drawn upon as children may not have a concept of just how long a year is.
Without drawing on these interconnected areas, the grass roots of the initial History attempting to be taught cannot take hold and these green shoot concepts are therefore falling on stony ground.
In the rush to plan individual subject routes and progression maps, we run the risk of ignoring that developing individual bricks does not in itself build solid structures. Efrat Furst’s model of how we construct understanding (see image) not only applies to how we develop understanding within individual subjects but also how we build and make sense of the individual subjects by a secure underpinning of the interconnected and underlying knowledge from other subjects.
Careful sequencing of a curriculum in primary is not a reverse process of unravelling a rich curriculum to stage in individual threads, it is about a lacing together of carefully interwoven and complementary knowledge and skill, and recognising that initial early skills and knowledge are heavily reliant on each other.
Riding the curriculum bike
Take for example, riding a bike. We do not teach children the knowledge and skills of riding a bike in isolation. We do not do a lesson on steering, a lesson on braking, a lesson on balancing, a lesson on going up hills, a lesson on how to position your body on the saddle and handlebars. In order to get going with cycling, children are having to draw on multiple elements of knowledge and skill all at once. If we try to separate out each individual element then the child can never get started on riding the bike and it becomes a forced, stilted and ultimately unhelpful process. What we cannot ignore though is that during that early riding process we need to recognise the interconnected elements in which the novice rider may need more support. They may need stabilisers (training wheels), or a hand on the back of the saddle or an adult to run alongside and help steer or catch them if they should tumble. We recognise that success in riding the bike depends very much on interconnected learning; we anticipate this; put in appropriate scaffolds; and allow them to develop their knowledge and skill within cycling. We do this having clearly identified and developed the interconnected and supportive elements which need to be in place in order for them to ride independently.
When we look at our individual subject curriculums how much thought has been given to the interconnectedness and inter reliance of that subject with other subjects? Has each unit of work been planned not only with the individual knowledge and skill having been mapped but also what knowledge and skill from other subjects from which it draws?
Interconnection is key
As soon as we accept that the multi-novice status is the modus operandi for young children in primary then we can get busy with the important business of planning not just well sequenced curriculum documents but actually those which serve our fledgling learners.
By looking in detail at a unit of work and establishing not only its position in the single subject progression model but also looking in detail at all the curricular tributaries, we will secure much richer schema, much more interconnected understanding and a securing of foundational knowledge and concepts which underpin not only that unit’s learning but which may actually be drawn from other subjects.
Interconnected planning is not then about planning a “topic” or a “theme” it is the careful positioning and sequencing of complementary subject learning which helps to construct, secure and develop meaning and deep concept development. If we do not underpin the individual subject learning with secure learning of all its supporting pillars from other subjects, then we are doing surface learning of individual subjects which is shallow. This means that despite our careful integration of retrieval, interleaving and spacing, our efforts are ultimately fruitless as we are remembering individual bricks without the inter disciplinary conceptual mortar.
The three elements of interconnected thinking
There are three elements to the thinking around interconnection therefore in primary. There are the deliberate and fortuitous large scale symbiotic curricular relationships which occasionally occur in some year groups – for example “Victorians” and “Micro Organisms” in Year 6. This is where work on city sanitation during the Industrial Revolution and the development of vaccines can be explored through both History and Science, as well as creating vertical curricular connections drawing on work from KS1 History on Florence Nightingale and her work in the Crimea. This can even be extended further to explore Florence’s work on presentation of data which can link to data and statistics in Maths and a revisiting and building on prior learning from other famous Victorian mathematicians such as Lewis Carroll and John Venn – building further on KS1 and LKS2 Mathematics. This type of fortuitous connection provides not only opportunities for immersion for longer periods of time and deeper exploration of one aspect of the curriculum but makes much more logistical sense (see previous blog on curriculum implementation – The Forth bridge and gluesticks).
The second is that of deliberate analysis and planning of cross curricular pre requisites and interdependence. For each unit of work planned in a single subject and to be taught as stand alone unit, we first need to recognise that it is never truly stand alone. Because of the multi-novice status of the young learner, it will need to draw on multiple other early learning which may yet to be encountered from the wider curriculum. Subject leaders and curriculum leaders therefore need to be well versed not only in the individual subject progression of knowledge and skill but be aware from which areas of the wider curriculum each unit draws. This is twofold. One, learners will need this complementary knowledge to make sense of the individual subject being taught. Two, if both the inter disciplinary tributaries and the new individual subject skills and knowledge are all at novice stage then the overall cognitive load for that unit is likely to be too great and therefore doomed to either surface learning or failure.
The third interdisciplinary consideration is that we teach very young children. Very young children who are not yet fluent readers, writers, mathematicians or general knowledge masters. Every action we ask young children to undertake will place a cognitive load on them we can only imagine from our elite vantage points in the mastery castle.
Writing a sentence for us is not difficult. Reading a passage of text and assimilating or summarising the main points is not usually a challenge. Doing a simple calculation or approximation in our heads or reading numbers up to over a million is not challenging. For our young children though who are still mastering the spelling of simple words; who are having to think deliberately about letter formation; who are still heavily reliant on early phonic decoding which is yet to develop fluency, great swathes of their working memory, attention and associated physical and cognitive resources are taken up by simple tasks associated with all aspects of both learning and behaviour and its social norms.
We then ask them to juggle all of these and apply these yet-to-develop-automaticity processes to the exploration of our wider curriculum. Is it any wonder then that worksheets with quick-fix tick boxes and low level tasks can abound as often time-pressed teachers attempt to reduce the overall cognitive load of individual subjects by providing reduced load but also an inadvertently reduced quality pre printed tasks.
Even the recently much championed booklets, and their oft associated knowledge organisers, even when beautifully crafted do not necessarily provide the rich interdisciplinary exploration which primary children need in order to develop deep, highly connected and robust schema. When you are novice in all and simultaneously reliant on the all to access the one, a single subject approach is not necessarily going to facilitate the building of complex webs of understanding.
A move away from the single subject narrative therefore is not a rallying cry to teach History through Binka cross stitch or Geography through dance, neither is it to shoehorn random units together in an ill thought through speed date of shallow and tenuous curricular links, what it is, is the triple lock.
Firstly the primary curriculum needs to recognise that single subject specialism does not support what we know about how young children learn or recognise their multi novice status.
Secondly when planning deliberate multi subject large scale connections (like the Victorians and micro organisms example) there needs to be a clear and deliberate rationale for their combining. There must be clear and complementary strands of learning which are enriched by each other’s company not sitting together in an awkward silence of curricular coupling.
Thirdly we need to analyse our curriculum sequencing for interdisciplinary interconnectedness and associated pre requisites so that we can sequence our whole scale curricular offer in a way which deliberately anticipates and builds those inter disciplinary connections.
Finally we need to recognise the Modus Operandi of the novice learner. Young children have yet to develop fluency, automaticity and confidence in many of the interdisciplinary knowledge and skills. Interconnected curriculum work provides meaningful opportunities for them to develop and apply this early learning in different contexts but we must not underestimate the contributory load the application of these early skills places in our wider curriculum teaching.
Connecting subjects in the curriculum is therefore not a shameful or secretive step away from the current single subject narrative. It is not an implied low level hodgepodge of sloppy curricular thinking. Done well it is informed by what we know about how young children learn and what we know about the deep interconnectedness of the primary curriculum.
Primary practitioners are uniquely placed to develop this rich and multi layered approach to deep thinking for young children. We must not be derailed by the ill-informed defamatory and derisive comments around an interconnected approach.
Excellence in primary practice is underpinned by the creation of rich and deep understanding, not just the shallow replication and remembering of isolated curriculum subjects.