George Lucas Educational Foundation

Cross-Curricular Project Based Learning

Cross-Curricular Project Based Learning

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Sally Smith founded The Lab School, in Washington DC, to help teach children with learning disabilities. She started a system of “clubs” for students, that were essentially what we might call Cross-Curricular Project Based Learning, a way for students to put to use all the skills they were learning in academic classes, towards a bigger fun project. For example, one class might be The Renaissance Club, and for that year, kids would meet once a day and do projects, ranging from using math skills to make their own guild hats, researching a famous artist or inventor they loved, and sharing the cool stuff about them with the others, designing renaissance themed parties and learning to cook dishes, etc. The club allowed kids to put the skills they were learning in other classes to use, while also demonstrating why this “stuff” in history or social studies was important. It allowed kids, who might have problems remembering or who weren’t great readers, to have additional “cognitive hooks” that enhanced their mastery of skills while also helping them with social skills and an alternate way of demonstrating their knowledge.

We all know that application of knowledge is an important part of mastery, and Sally Smith showed that cross-curricular application of knowledge helps students who struggle in school to begin to make the vital connections necessary for them to learn and succeed. Knowing how important this can be for all students, not just those who struggle, how can we start to integrate this kind of learning across curriculum in all schools?

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

In our global economy and social media connected world, cross cultural competency is essential to every learner. We all need to look for ways to increase connections for our students. I have paired my French students with classes in other parts of the world. In one exciting PBL-aligned project in which we are engaged, we have set up a group on Edmodo for our collaboration. We have classes in France, New Zealand, India, Martinique and my own hometown, Napa. The students are excited to see new postings each day, in English and in French, as we exchange photos, videos, and more. Much more is planned for this project - and I can't wait to see what results will develop!

Best regards to all as you engage your students,

Kristen Swanson's picture
Kristen Swanson
Teacher, Leader, Edcamper, Learner

I love the idea of having various periods throughout the year where students work with kids in other grades, classes, or schools to tackle complex problems. These types of problems almost always involve multiple subjects. Students have millions of teachers in today's connected world, but the most important teacher is the one in the classroom who connects students to all the other teachers. ;-)

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

In the world outside of school, it's hard to think of problems or issues that fit neatly into subject-area silos. Computer scientists work with anthropologists to understand how people engage with technology. Recording artists consult lawyers and marketing gurus, detectives team up with psychologists, and athletes pay attention to nutritionists to improve their performance. In today's complex world, thinking across disciplines often gets us to better solutions.

In the world inside school, though, interdisciplinary projects can be challenging, especially if you and your students are new to PBL. (Laura makes a great point about projects that get too messy to manage!)

Here are a few tips to consider:

-Think about the subject-specific content and ways of thinking that connect naturally to your project idea. Which big ideas does the project address? Are there disciplinary "lenses" that will be most useful for students to explore these ideas? (For instance, will they need to think in the way that historians, mathematicians, or scientists do?)

-Invite teachers from outside your subject area to offer feedback on project ideas early in the planning process. Where do they see opportunities for connecting to other disciplines? What other kinds of thinking might improve a project?

-Instead of layering one subject onto another, look for connections that will take learning deeper. Consider this definition of interdisciplinary understanding from Veronica Boix Mansilla at Harvard's Project Zero: Students integrate knowledge, methods, and languages from two or more disciplines to solve problems, create products, produce explanations, or ask novel questions in ways that would not be feasible through a single disciplinary lens. (Read more about her work here:

Clara Galan's picture
Clara Galan
Former Social Media Marketing Assistant for Edutopia

I think cross-curricular project-based instruction truly fosters authentic and deeper learning. Projects in the real world usually incorporate elements of multiple academic subjects. Students need to be able to think critically across subjects, and use parts of their knowledge from different academic areas to solve problems. In my own teaching experience, I integrated various areas-math, literature, history, and even English, when assigning Spanish projects. I met with classroom teachers to learn the class' curriculum in each subject, and tried to mirror that in my project plans. If, for example, a class was learning about the American Civil War, I explored the topic of civil wars in general and introduced students to the history of the Spanish Civil War and associated figures and vocabulary in Spanish.

Other elementary teachers that I watched implement cross-curricular project-based learning well used technology and research as part of the project. Our school's third grade class, for example, created a 'Creature Feature" project each year. Students learned about habitats and adaptations and created their own creature with adaptations for survival. Students drew the creature using different geometrical shapes, each of which cost a specific amount of money. Students were given a budget and had to make sure that they stayed within a certain amount (i.e. a pentagon cost $5.00, a triangle $3.00, an octagon $8.00, etc). Lastly, students wrote a persuasive letter to the zoo explaining why the zoo should purchase their animal. Technology integration came into play as students created a keynote presentation to explain the creation of their animal, its adaptations and characteristics, their budget, letter to the zoo, and a bibliography. Parents and guests came into watch the presentations, and students felt that they had an authentic audience.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Daniel, what great projects using an interesting mix of skills. I was especially impressed by the team of students who modeled their proposed layout for the Natural History Museum using Minecraft.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I've been thinking about this a lot, Laura, and I think the fact the project and problem based learning, or simply the shortened PBL gets used means that folks miss that most problem/project based learning should be driven by essential questions and a constructivist approach.

Sally's use of the academic clubs was designed to help students consolidate their academic knowledge and put it to use, which helped struggling students better understand and contextualize their academic learning. So what do we call that if not project based learning, I wonder?

Inquiry driven, problem and essential question project based learning requires a lot more understanding and careful construction of projects, and to find authentic, meaningful questions kids can work on to make a difference. It's awesome and a profound experience for everyone when its done well, but I think it also seems daunting and it's easy to let it devolve into a "make a poster/video/powerpoint" to demonstrate your research kind of thing.
How do we clarify the language and clarify the meaning when we try to encourage the deeper thinking aspects of PBL while also not losing track of the importance of the consolidation and contextualizing aspects of Sally Smith's approach?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Whitney, you nailed it.

"How do we clarify the language and clarify the meaning when we try to encourage the deeper thinking aspects of PBL while also not losing track of the importance of the consolidation and contextualizing aspects of Sally Smith's approach?"

I think that no matter what kind of constructivist, experiential strategy one is trying to use, one has to start with a very clear understand of what content is going to be gained, what skills/ dispositions are going to be practiced, and product criteria are going to be non-negotiable. If we're clear that this product/ problem/ service activity/ etc is all about giving students a way to engage with concepts A, B, and C and demonstrate they know them well, then we don't get lost in the 'that's such a pretty poster/ funny skit/ creative machine" weeds.

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