George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Deeper Learning: Why Cross-Curricular Teaching is Essential

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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It is time that teachers and administrators realize that public education has reached a dam in the river. We have gone about as far as we can go with isolated instruction and learning. While it may have served the purpose for the older generations, it does not meet the deeper learning needs of students today and tomorrow. Fortunately, deeper learning can be accelerated by consolidating teacher efforts and combining relevant contents, in effect, opening new spillways of knowledge.

Deep learning is like taking a long drought from a well of knowledge as opposed to only sipping from many different wells. Deep learning implies that students will follow a particular stream of inquiry to the headwaters, rather than simply sampling all the possible streams. Teachers know all too well the outside forces that pressure them to limit how deeply their students can drink from any single well.


Undaunted, educators are committed to providing students full access to the well of deep-learning knowledge that will unlock their potential. But in order to get beyond the current eye-dropper doses of knowledge sampling in school curriculum, it requires that teachers and administrators understand and accept a few things:

1. Deep learning engages the whole student (and teacher) -- heart, mind, body, and soul.

2. It requires enthusiastic partners -- students, parents, and community.

3. It requires intensive preparation. Heather Wolpert-Gawron shared her experience of incorporating TED Talks into her curriculum and in doing so demonstrated what teachers need to do to prepare successful learning experiences that promote deep learning.

4. Assessment must mirror learning. Shawn Cornally provided wonderful suggestions on how teachers should change their gradebooks (and their instructional perspective) to logbooks, reflecting mastery of learning objectives rather than mere assignment completion.

5. Collaboration is necessary. Rebecca Alber explained that students must be taught how to collaboratively gain knowledge and skills in order to be expert learners and demonstrate their learning by applying and creating.

In order for all this to happen in a sustainable way in our schools, deeper learning requires that groups of teachers pool their talents, resources, time, and efforts to maximize coherence, relevance, and connections among the content areas.

Cross-Curricular Teams

Without belaboring the point that teacher isolation has to end, unless teachers stop departmentalizing their teaching and start teaching knowledge in context of other knowledge, student learning will continue to be stuck at the dam. It is time for teachers to collaborate.

Teachers must take the first stroke and swim across the hall and start a collaboration with another teacher from a different department. For elementary teachers, work with other grade level teachers and dive into the math and science books, for example, and find common topics to prepare to teach math and science jointly rather than separately.

There are three general phases of teacher collaboration and interdisciplinary teaching:

  • Aligned
  • Cooperative
  • Conceptual

Aligned Collaboration

To start collaboration, begin with alignment. The first thing to do is jump in and start wading in the same direction as your fellow teachers. Aligned collaboration is when a social studies department and the English department get together and agree that DBQ's (Document Based Questions) can count for English credit as well as social studies credit and then plan the year so that topics of study in history are taught concurrently with literary eras. In this way, students can construct a foundation, and are able to better generalize what is learned in history because they see the effect on literature.

Cooperative Collaboration

You and your fellow teachers need to synchronize your strokes to match your pace. For example, a math and science teacher get together and decide on the best way and the best time to teach motion and cooperatively agree to help each other teach it, either separately or jointly. When the math teacher needs models to show students what the math is good for, he obtains them from the science teacher, and when the science teacher needs the students to perform mathematical calculations, she utilizes the same process the math teacher used just a week before. In this way, students understand math and science with their heads above water, rather than drowning in confusion.

Conceptual Collaboration

Finally for conceptual collaboration, a teacher must dive into the deep water of conceptual understanding in the other content area. In other words, the teacher must know both subjects at high levels and be able to teach both conceptually. This is difficult for a single teacher to be expert in two subjects, so the solution is to combine forces and team teach.

Conceptual collaboration happens when an art teacher works closely with the science teacher and they both help students understand the effect of pigments and light by teaching together the science of wavelengths, the electromagnetic spectrum, and the dual nature of light. Or when a social studies and science teacher do a triple gainer into the deep end by team teaching a project-based learning activity of the renaissance period illustrating how history affects science and how science affects history.

As demonstrated above, we can promote deep learning by encouraging multiple teachers working together in helping students to understand math in the context of science, coordinating timelines of scientific discovery and literature, and demonstrating how a painter uses light to express meaning. This is just like what happens to a river that is too fragmented into little streams. When the streams are channeled together it then can develop a deep flow. So it is with learning. When professional educators combine their energies and reinforce the same deep learning, the stream of information is clearer for the student, the learning activities are more fluid, and the student's reservoir of knowledge and skills fills faster.

What About Students?

One problem remains. After years of sipping knowledge, getting students to deeply learn is a daunting challenge. It is hard to get students to drink knowledge deeply or drink at all if they are rarely thirsty. Parched minds become satisfied with minimum learning expectations and some, especially as they approach middle and high school, begin to believe that school cannot quench their thirst as well as other societal options.

Working together, teachers can help students re-acquire the thirst for knowledge they were born with. The task of all educator teams is therefore two-fold: provide a rich, rigorous, and relevant flow of knowledge and skills, and then find a way to lead the students to this water and then make them thirsty enough to drink deeply.

Students and teacher teams focusing on learning deeply have the force to achieve learning beyond the traditional education dam and shoot out over the spillway to not only understand the torrent of available knowledge, but to also add to it in phenomenal ways.

The tremendous power of a river is diminished when it is fragmented into little streams. However, when the streams are channeled together, it then can develop a deep flow. So it is with learning. As demonstrated above, we can promote deep learning by encouraging multiple teachers working together in helping students to understand math in the context of science, coordinating timelines of scientific discovery and literature, and demonstrating how a painter uses light to express meaning. When professional educators combine their energies and reinforce the same deep learning, the stream of information is clearer for the student, the learning activities are more fluid, and the student's reservoir of knowledge and skill fills faster.

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Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom

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Dave Sanger's picture
Dave Sanger
I am the Director of Library Services for the Denver Public Schools

School librarians have an overarching view of the curriculum and are in a great place to see connections between various areas. They can be pivotal in working on shared planning and creation of integrated instruction. School librarians are strong partners in inquiry based learning of all types.

Jaclyn Karabinas's picture

This is an excellent article. The question remains, however: Whose responsibility is it to provide this time for teachers? When will be be able to look at education as a whole and redesign the approach to the year's schedule and to staff PD to accomodate these needs, without new mandates constantly flowing in? I have been exploring this topic of teacher de-isolation lately ( and would love to hear how schools are doing this successfully.

Nikisha Greer's picture
Nikisha Greer
Middle School Special Education Teacher in Tennessee

As I read this particular article, I visualized my experiences into my elementary classroom where it was the educator's way or no way. Never once did the educator consider Jane's and Johnny's learning styles (cooperative learning, visuals/tangible items, use of another content, etc.). As a result, many students turned off their education. As I fast forward today into education, you still have a few laggard educators who are continuing down this familiar approach. This is very interesting due in part to the common core educational shift that will grace majority of the country in 2013-2014. If the aim of education is to fully activate the cognitive potential of the learner, ways have to be found to integrate knowledge from many subjects to achieve a fuller understanding than would be provided by content treated in isolation (Hickman & Kiss, 2010). With this in mind, this blog addresses the collaboration of different content area teachers to plan lessons effectively together. In preparation for the future, students need to be taught to make links and transfer skills from one area to another (Hickman &Kiss, 2010). With this cross-curricular approach, students will then turn back on to education and take an active role within their learning. Cross-curricular discussions are sometimes said to allow students to talk through many voices, expressing their own ideas and interpretations (Hickman & Kiss, 2010). I will continue to follow this approach as well as listen to the many pros and cons to this educational shift. I will continue to provide additional insist to this particular blog.

Hickman, R., & Kiss, L. (2010). Cross-Curricular Gallery Learning: A Phenomenological Case Study. International Journal Of Art & Design Education, 29(1), 27-36.

miriam ruiz's picture
miriam ruiz
Assistant Principal of Curriculum Development

I agree with Dave Saner concerning School Librarians overarching view of the curriculum and the vital support they can provide in collaborating with teachers when planning inquiry based learning projects. During the many years I taught in the NYC school system I always collaborated with the School Librarian when planning collaborative and cooperative units throughout my teaching experience.

Elizabeth's picture
Pre-K Special Education Teacher Brooklyn, New York

This is a great article that relates to my current studies in grad. school. It is so important to collaborate amongst all colleagues not just the ones whom are in your subject department. I believe there is no stopping when to comes to collaboration. It comes in many forms and many places. Depending on what you seek to learn while collaborating, you can collaborate with new and old teachers alike. For example, if I am seeking to adapt a new behavior plan for a student I would collaborate with any colleague at any level, not just the preschool teachers.
Point being, I believe you said it best by saying, "deep learning comes from pool of talents, resources and experiences to manimize coherence, relevance and connections". I personally wish my school offered more support and time for collaboration but that is where I can benefit from these blogs!

marthavmilam's picture
Chemistry Teacher at East Coweta High School, GA

I am looking forward to trying out a cross-curricular lesson this year with kids from AP Chem, AP Lit,and AP Economics. It will be a challenge, but the research definitely shows that this is how students learn AND how we prepare them for life. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. Johnson!

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