Brandman Voices: How cross-curricular lessons inspire critical thinking
By Kimberly Greene, associate professor
Cross-curricular? Critical thinking? How do these rather different educational concepts work together, and why should we want them to be a part of our teaching practice? Let’s start with critical thinking, a skill we must consider to be a fundamental goal in all of our work as educators. President Obama publically identified critical thinking as a crucial 21st-century skill that learners of all ages need to master to be successful in both the educational arena and the ever-evolving global economy. Adding in the advice of old John Dewey, we see how learning experiences that stimulate thinking by having students engage in creating meaning out of a variety of facts, scenarios, and variables (rather than just memorizing a single, linear timeline or algorithm with no context or supportive background) puts the learner in the center of the learning process.
If a student has to think through how a situation occurred, making sense of why the various components came together to play out as they did, then learning becomes a personal process of discovery, an ongoing exploration of facts and figures and events that could have turned out differently had the variables not played out as they did at those given times. Critical thinking empowers students to care about their learning because they are a part of it. They are figuring out mysteries of history and science and math rather than simply being passive receptacles of data handed over to them wholesale.
This engagement with their own cognition inspires students to continue thinking through all areas of their lives and asking questions about the direction of the world around them. Creativity and problem solving are strongly connected to critical thinking and thus, it behooves all educators to ensure that our students are indeed learning not just what to know, but how to use their minds for genuine critical thinking in the classroom and beyond.
This can be very difficult if we look at everything that we need to teach our students as separate, unrelated, disciplines. The reality is just the opposite: life isn’t about disconnected silos of information. Math and history and science and literature are all a beautiful combination of each other. This leads us into the unmitigated value of cross-curricular learning.
As the Virginia Department of Education’s guide to cross-curricular instruction put it, “This approach allows students to build on their current knowledge base and connect what they know with what they are learning; and it promotes higher level thinking and collaborative skills needed for lifelong success.”
By using online tools (Kids Discover Online; an online reading platform, for example) to bring in multiple related concepts from across disciplines, we make the learning more authentic. Math is no longer an isolated set of algorithms. It has real-world context, from shopping at the local store to figuring out which materials would best withstand the pressure of an oil spill gushing out of a ruptured pipeline. History ceases to be an endless series of past dates and names of people from long ago and becomes an examination of how basic astronomy was vital to the success of the Underground Railroad and why Word War II may have continued much longer had not math and computer science been employed to crack the Enigma codes.
Some may argue that this kind of cross-curricular learning may be appropriate for older students but not for younger ones, but this is an inherently false way of thinking. Developmentally, young children are constantly trying to make sense of the world around them. By infusing any particular topic of study with another—such as art with math or language arts with music—we give students a greater opportunity to make genuine connections to their authentically lived experiences.
If we go back to another powerful insight from Dewey—that school and learning should not be an escape from the real world but rather it should be a genuine part of it—then we can understand why cross-curricular teaching and learning is so important for students of all ages. By opening up our curriculum designs and lesson plans, we breathe life into what we all know can be a static process. The old science adage that “nothing grows in a vacuum” could very well be the rallying cry to guide all educators to recognize and harness the power of cross-curricular teaching and learning as a means of empowering our students today and well into tomorrow.
This article originally appeared online in EdTech Digest, whose mission is to tell the story of 21st-century educational transformation.
About the author
Kimberly Greene teaches online for Brandman University’s School of Education. Along with her work as a pre-K–12 classroom and studio teacher, she has served as director of education for Michael Milken’s Knowledge Kids Network and consultant on educational media issues for such companies as LeapFrog Toys and Honda of America. Listen to a podcast featuring a discussion between Greene and School of Extended Education Senior Progam Director Vicki Brannock about the 21st Century learning here.
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