There are times when I get it completely wrong.
At first glance, the paperclip butterfly picture, introducing Sinead Gaffney’s (@shinpad1) article in TES this week, jumped out as a trigger warning of child-centredness. Her article though is an eloquently argued piece, insightful and gives coverage to the realities of teaching younger children which are more often than not ignored.There is much I agree with, including, the fact that a secondary set up with specialist teachers in all subjects would hinder not help children, especially in KS1.
The one issue that I did find myself hesitant to agree with was the value of cross-curricular teaching, especially the value of ‘no subjects,’ ‘throw it all in’ path that Finland is going down.
Cross-Curricular Done Badly (Very Badly):
The bad name that cross-curricular teaching has comes mainly from the result of schools adopting badly constructed schemes of work. Frivolous topics, tenuous links between subjects and, even more, tenuous links to the National Curriculum. These schemes of work were supposed to meet the dual objectives of allowing teachers to plan less from scratch, a noble goal, and cover the curriculum.
Given the adaptations necessary to make these plans appropriate for my class, I did not find them less time consuming. As for coverage, the small print of any scheme of work is evident, it is the school’s role to ensure curriculum coverage, yet many schools assumed this was ensured by the scheme.
When I started my NPQML, my school were using a mixture of a well-known scheme of work combined with a skills-based approach by the latest 21st-century skills charlatan.
I went through the schemes of work lesson by lesson, task by task, for each year group. It was not a pretty sight.
One lesson, in particular, sticks out in my mind. It was a lesson on Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, which contained eight objectives from history, music, and art.It involved the children learning a little about her, listening to Greensleeves and then drawing a picture of her. I still can’t work out what the point of that lesson was.
Now I appreciate that many teachers used these lessons as the basis for their planning, but I also know many who were dependent on the schemes and taught them straight.Also, these formed what some teachers would assume were ‘good practice’ when creating their units. Again, it was just spreading bad practice and ideas. The divorcing of teachers from the National Curriculum was an issue that came to the fore when the new curriculum was being implemented in my last job.
Much of the problem is a lack of subject specialism, BUT I don’t think that this needs to be a problem in primary if we were to focus on what is important.
First, the selection of subject leaders is a fraught affair and more than once I have seen those with degrees in subjects or specialisms not being given posts. When Quirky Teacher brought this up in a post a few weeks back, there was an outcry of ‘being good at a subject does not make you a good teacher.’
Agreed, but we are not talking about recruitment here. We are talking about trained primary teachers, who are qualified to teach and have a subject specialism. When I think of all I was able to do when I took on the history role, training I provided, resources, support, guidance, one-to-one planning, etc. it makes the decision of one school to refuse me the post (it was comeback from them – long story) seems nothing short of a criminal waste. How many primary schools have a teacher with a Masters in Political Science?
Second, subject leaders are not always given appropriate training, time to develop their subject knowledge or time to support other teachers.
Third, the emphasis on marking, assessment, tracking, etc. has reduced the time available for subject leaders to train teachers in meetings. Faddy initiatives introduced via staff meetings also wastes time.
Last, being a subject leader had become synonymous with being ‘the person who puts the order in for resources’ rather than leading the subject.
Cross-Curricular Done Well?
It might surprise some, but I don’t agree with a rigid timetable at primary where there is an hour every week (or 5 for Literacy and Numeracy each) for a subject. I found this approach did not work for the children and age ranges I taught (especially younger ones).
I think we don’t use our flexibility in primary enough at times and many newer teachers need support to gain the confidence to do this.
So what do I think is cross-curricular done well? Well for a start it involves making only meaningful links across the curriculum. Below is an example:
The units were based on flexible schemes of work which simply showed a breakdown of the units (all of which were question-based – I know how progressive of me!!).
However, we selected the best, most academic, schemes of work possible for each subject, and not one that claimed to ‘do it all.’
Curriculum coverage for each subject and unit was checked, and the unit breakdowns were adjusted to ensure that there was coverage.
There was total clarity for existing, and new teachers could see what was being covered and in which unit. This was, I stress a one-off, resulting from the introduction of the new curriculum.These would need reviewing and adjusting each year.
So what did this mean for us regarding our planning? Well, each half term (although some of the units cross half terms) a medium-term map which contained the unit breakdowns was produced (this was a simple copy and paste job).
Therefore, week to week the subjects we taught (with the exception of Literacy and Numeracy) were different. Where a subject had been discreet in the medium term plan, we made a decision to either teach it each week or to block it. Again adjustments would be made based on the experience of teaching these sequences.
The flexibility in the primary curriculum enabled us to do this, and I think we would have been poorer if we had to stick rigidly to one history lesson a week say.
When teaching the Stone Age to Iron Age Unit, we taught history lessons on the stone age, before focusing on the art unit creating cave paintings, and then moved back to History and taught the Bronze and Iron age. It simply would not have made sense to flit around with an art lesson each week that referred to history lessons taught 3 or 4 weeks back.
So do I believe that cross-curricular teaching can work? Yes but not by rejecting subjects or an academically rigorous approach but by embracing it and using the timetable flexibility primary teachers have to sequence lessons logically.