My Interdisciplinary Connections

cross curricular

As a Social Studies and Geography teacher there are a number of subject areas within and outside a Social Science silo that my subjects are able to align with or link to.  The diagram above attempts to visualise this.

In his 2010 book Cross-Curricular Teaching and Learning in Secondary Education, Jonathan Savage states

the most common obstacle to the successful introduction of cross-curricular approaches to curriculum planning was the pressure on school timetables”  Savage, J. (2010). Cross-curricular teaching and learning in secondary education. Routledge.

This has certainly been my experience over the years.  Attempts at cross curricular or interdisciplinary studies have tended to be either non starters of have foundered after a year as other things take precedence in timetabling.  The only method I have come across that works is the invention of new subject areas that are themselves a mix of more than one traditional subject.  This is great but perpetuates the problem.  Whilst the new subject itself might mix two or three traditional subject areas in it, it has no ability to act in a cross curricular manner with other subject areas due to the timetable.

A recent example of this is the creation of a new ILE at my current school

We have converted traditional classroom spaces and a sizeable office into a series of more flexible spaces. See the map below.

ILE 2017.png

An interdisciplinary option was tabled to allow Economic, Accounting and Business Studies —  within the same NCEA year group — to occupy the various spaces at the same time with two teachers working together to offer the three subjects in a flexible manner.  This would allow aspects of the three subjects that crossed over to be taught collaboratively and also allow students to pick their own pathway through the various internals and externals allowing personalisation of their learning journey.  As assistant head of Social Sciences part of my job was to put this to the relevant people as a possible use of the new area.  Sadly, I was told the timetable simply did not have the necessary flexibilities to allow this to happen.  Likewise we could not really dictate the placement of any senior school subject at the same time as others as it locked up timetabling lines that had knock on ramifications elsewhere in the school.  There is a possibility that two or more Junior Social Studies classes might align but only if the placement of senior subject allowed this later on.

While this looks like a massive missed opportunity. Even my rudimentary knowledge of timetabling tells me that the necessary pragmatism of such a horribly complex jigsaw puzzle, will inevitably trump any pedagogical idealism that might cause students to miss out on option choices or worse cause subjects to not run elsewhere in the school.

For me therefore currently my cross curricular links are very loose and informal.  Where possible I make interdisciplinary links are made obvious to my students.  Discussing links between understanding the Amazon Rain-forest in Level 2 Geography I will remind students that they studied the water cycle in junior science.  When looking at NZ industries in year 10 Social Studies we point out that these topics can be studied further in senior Economics.

In the future I would like to see a lot more interdisciplinary work occur between Geography and Science in the senior school.  I have discussed this at length with the Head of Science and we have a series of possible areas that would link nicely between the subjects

  • Plate Tectonics
  • Local, Regional and Global Natural Processes
  • Sustainability
  • The Demographic Transition Model

Our key issues remain the timetabling of our subjects.  In essence it is hit and miss as to whether we share any similar students and this is dependent on how the timetable lines are set up as well as student subject choices.  This is before we get to ideas of the location of teaching and learning or the sharing of resources etc.

One option for us going forward is the removal of a subject centred curriculum altogether.  A student centred flexible curriculum that allows the choice of topics or standards rather than subjects would allow some of this to happen but would also create other timetabling headaches.  But…

“Postsecondary educators want students ready for an integrated marketplace….  …It seems that, as educators, we recognize the globalization of society and the overlapping nature of most occupations, and we want our students to have diverse, interdisciplinary experiences—thus it seems prudent to adopt a similar mindset for our own scholarly endeavors. We should set an example for our students, valuing efforts to “reach across the aisle” and emphasizing interdisciplinary opportunities.” Mulligan, L. M., & Kuban, A. J. . (2015). A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. Retrieved from

Resource List

Mulligan, L. M., & Kuban, A. J. . (2015). A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration. Retrieved from

Savage, J. (2010). Cross-curricular teaching and learning in secondary education. Routledge.


7 thoughts on “My Interdisciplinary Connections

  1. Hi Chris
    I know some schools in NZ, like Rolleston and Haeata, have replaced subjects with something that looks more organic/human-centred. And no doubt you would have heard that Finland is teaching by phenomenon instead of individual subjects so students learn in an interdisciplinary fashion. What do you envisage for our community of learners in Marlborough? I think teaching by topic/phenomenon could increase collaboration between teachers from different curriculum areas to plan learning programmes together, which is a good thing. But, the main challenge I see in abandoning the traditional subjects and timetables at secondary is losing structure and order, which provides security for a lot of students.


    • Yes I have done a little reading about Finland and heard about some of the schools you describe. But I had not read that website. Thanks for the link! I also agree that there would be ramifications at secondary level for such a change. I also worry that the traditional structure would be required for University Entrance (14 credits from approved subjects etc) so there are some huge hurdles to cross if we do move to these structures. For the CoL I think that a first step would be getting the secondary schools working together to provide a senior curriculum that provides further scope for student option choice. Then I feel we can begin greater teacher collaboration within our schools where it works with the timetable. Start with the easy wins and then work from there. Hopefully someone will invent an infinitely flexible timetabling algorithm in the meantime. It could happen…


      • Hi Chris, your post comments and opinions chime absolutely with my own frustration around how much the tail wags the dog when it comes to change in the secondary school sector. Schools are inherently conservative organisms and it takes strong leadership and an empowered profession to make the bold changes that our systems need to meet the challenges of the 21st C and regain relevance for our learners. I think the imperative for this will squeeze us in both directions; employers and students who have experienced contextualised interdisciplinary approaches at primary. Lets continue nudging thing s along in our corner of the world. The timetable needs to be our servant…not our master!


  2. Hi Chris,

    Like you, we struggled with a range of teachers who used the timetable as an excuse to maintain their silo. One way around this was that we created a regularly timetabled class that drew on a range of different subject assessments while still covering the same topic. In this way, a single teacher covered a topic such as euthanasia, and students could research and present their findings depending on what credits they were after. For example, the could present a speech or write formal correspondence on the issue to gain English credits. They could look at the implementation of political structures and the cause and effect of those for social sciences credits, or they could look at the science of biology and the chemicals used to shut down a body, or reduce suffering in terminal patients.

    Ultimately it means a lot more work for the teacher who is having to learn assessment standards in foreign subjects, but I think it creates a much more student centered environment. I still think that this model is far from ideal, and once again, NCEA is always going to be a driver, but as a social scientist, I think it is something that you would enjoy. Do you reckon you could get the support to run a course like that?


    • I like your ideas Tom and I have seen similar at other schools. While I can see the obvious benefits of your innovation and I absolutely applaud your work, I wonder if perhaps there is any way that your new course could work in an interdisciplinary manner with other established courses. Have we just got the same problem of timetabling that work again?


  3. Interesting Chris, I hadn’t thought about a cross-curricular subject (ie using different subjects in a unit of work) not being authentically cross-curricular as it wasn’t stretching to other subjects the students were studying. That is a really good point. It can also often mean that teachers are still working in isolation to each other, which can be another important part to a cross-curricular approach.
    I looked at Fogarty’s (1992) range of models for cross-curricular approaches. It was interesting in that you could pick different models to suit your different circumstances. But you are right, ideally it would be across all areas and teachers would be able to work more closely together in how and when they worked with the students.

    Click to access 06745befdf07ad521450d7434df379c72c48.pdf


    • Thanks for your comment. Yes I think that creating cross curricular subjects just perpetuates the status quo. what we need is a more collaborative approach to timetabling. I have no idea how to do that however. I am creating problems not solutions. So… if you could sort that out for us, that would be great 🙂


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