“Listening to the year 9 students’ ‘voices’ about the benefits of working in a cross-curricular way provides a powerful recommendation for engaging in cross-curricular collaboration for at least one mini-unit of work during the school year.”
Mark Jones and Bernadette Fitzgerald, 2007
Topics on this page:
- Interdisciplinary curricula
- Big issues and school curricula
- Skills-based curriculum models
- What should I do if I am asked to teach another subject?
Geography incorporates as much from the natural sciences as the social sciences, and one of the strengths of geography is that it brings these areas together. This makes it easier for geography teachers to think about interdisciplinary curricula.
All teachers should explore where their subject fits into a bigger curriculum picture. Geographers should ask other teachers, ‘What are you looking to achieve in your classroom and why?’. Looking at a different set of traditions and approaches in another discipline can deepen our own analysis of what we do, and whether we could do it better.
Interdisciplinary study allows students to learn by making connections between ideas and concepts across different disciplinary boundaries. Making links with different subjects can bring a different perspective to many different issues.
David Lambert wrote,
Geography is a linking discipline. It links with science, with the arts and with other humanities subjects like history. In schools where geography in strong, the subject can help with curriculum coherence as well as satisfy pupils‟ curiosity about people and places. Geography also offers opportunities to develop a broader skills and knowledge set. This is particularly the case with ICT and the enormous potential of digital mapping, visualisers and GIS4. (Reviewing the case for geography, 2011)
Interdisciplinarity means that different disciplines work together which can yield new understandings that would not have been possible if teachers had worked only in their own discipline area.
Geography, as a subject discipline, draws on inter-disciplinary methodologies across both the natural and social sciences, has an affinity with a wide range of curriculum subjects and it is common in schools for geography departments to foster some links with other subjects. When teachers work together to design curriculum units, it can be beneficial for both subjects and provide students with new insights from the different perspectives.
When school managers are considering curriculum organisation in a school they often put together history, geography and religious education into a ‘humanities’ faculty, without always engaging in sufficient debate on how or why these disciplines should be linked. If teachers have debated this and agreed to work together closely in a humanities faculty, they often feel their subjects are strengthened by the experience.
If you look at the content of the National Curriculum and GCSE, you will see there are clear overlaps in content between geography and science subjects. The content is like a jigsaw with topics interlocking with different subject disciplines. Geography has benefited from working in collaboration with many subjects in both humanities and science and also with English, psychology and the creative arts. We should not erect strict boundaries around our subject.
If subject specialists enter into dialogue with each other, they will find many opportunities where curricula in one subject can serve another. Curricula sequencing does need to be led by each individual subject, but it is fruitful to think about how geography can build on students’ prior knowledge from other subjects and end up with richer understanding.
Curricular planning should explore these links and make them explicit to both to teachers and students. For example, when geographers teach about ecosystems what have students studied about ecology in biology? Can history give us insights on interpretations of the impact of the British Empire on Britain’s former colonies when we are studying these places?
While it can be easy to identify links and overlap between subject discipline in terms of content, it is also important to consider the distinctiveness of each subject, for example differences in knowledge structures and teaching approaches.
Big issues and school curricula
Geographers like to see our subject as an integrative subject and we should not be afraid at working at the margins.
If big issues such as globalisation, climate change, sustainability or racism and equality are studied as part of the school curricula, geography can contribute to our understanding of them because they have geographical dimensions. Geography departments should liaise with other subjects to find out what and how they study these issues and the potential for collaboration.
These readings below provide examples of effective curriculum collaborations between geography and other subjects. In each case the teaching has drawn on similarities in and between the different subjects and developed meaningful co-operation between teachers.
- Eyre, G. (2011) ‘Cities of the future: a cross curricular project’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Jones, M and Fitzgerald, B. (2007) ‘Landscapes of language: Geography across the curriculum’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Jones, M and Fitzgerald, B. (2010) ‘Town as text’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Jones, M and Huson, S. (2012) ‘Changing rooms: geography through art’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Walshe, N. (2013) ‘Exploring sustainable development through poetry and moving image’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 15 (see Learning through cross-curricular collaboration)
Also you could explore these resources from the Royal Geographical Society:
Skills-based curriculum models
In recent years several skills or competency-based approaches to the curriculum have been adopted by schools. These advocate integrated courses, particularly for lower key stage 3 classes, and geography usually ceases to be taught as a separate subject and geographical content is part of the integrated themes.
Examples include: Opening Minds, Building Learning Power, Learning to Learn, Enquiring Minds. Such courses seek to develop students ‘capacity to learn’ and encourage active engagement in learning with a focus on developing skills and competencies. The courses are more concerned with the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of learning and give less attention to developing knowledge and understanding of subjects.
Ofsted has reported negatively on these courses with respect to the geography curriculum:
‘Poorly planned and taught integrated units of work in the humanities in Year 7, often linked to general skills-based initiatives, had resulted in less geography being covered’.
Geography: learning to make a world of difference, Ofsted, 2011
What should I do if I am asked to teach another subject?
If you are teaching in a school which has adopted an integrated approach for some of key stage 3 you are likely to be asked to teach another subject. Or you may want to teach a second subject because you have some background in this from your degree study, and hope it could provide you with more options when you are seeking employment.
One advantage of teaching another subject is that you work with wider teams, share more experiences and ideas as well as learn from people you may not have a chance to work with otherwise.
The main problem you face, of course, is a lack of specialist knowledge. All the points made in these web pages about being secure in your geography subject knowledge apply to any other subject you may teach. It will help if you have plans and resources developed by specialist teachers from which to work, but you must be confident in your subject knowledge when you are in front of the class.
Collaborative planning and a gradual introduction to the subject are important, but there is no substitute for plenty of reading about the subject matter and listening to the advice of a specialist mentor in that subject. You must understand the objectives of any curriculum unit you are teaching in a different subject.
A good head of department will recognise that it’s very difficult to teach a subject in which you are not a specialist and will arrange professional development and help you to take on the new subject. Take all the opportunities you can to work with subject experts, so you can build up your knowledge of the subject curriculum.
Do not lose sight of the approaches to planning and teaching you have learned in geography, because there is much that will be applicable to other subjects. You should also develop resources yourself, asking a subject teacher to check the content for you, because you will feel much more confident about using these.
If at all possible, observe and team-teach with teachers in the subject. And if you have any serious concerns or questions take them to the teacher in charge of the subject in the school.