How to use connected learning?

Connected learning is cross curricular work with all the bad bits taken out.  Christmas Dinner without the Brussel sprouts; Bake Off without Paul Hollywood (I’ll never forgive him for not giving the title to Kim Joy); Still Open All Hours without the script.  You get the idea.

Now, if you are reading this from the staffroom in a school in Northern Ireland, the chances are you will be very familiar with the idea of connected learning.  Anywhere else, especially a school in Doncaster or Dorchester or any other English setting, and the term is likely to mean less.

Connected Learning Versus Cross Curricular Teaching

The theory behind cross curricular learning is fundamentally good.  It must be, or the subject wouldn’t raise its head like an unwanted louse at every other beginning of term training session.  After all, we know that children learn more if their thinking is connected.  Ensuring the work they do is related to their experience underpins good practice.

The problem with cross curricular work is that it goes too far.  It’s like Russell Grant or that new boy in Year Seven who doesn’t get why the teacher is laughing with him at the beginning of the lesson and shouting at him by the end.  Cross curricular study is great in small doses (actually, that’s not like Russell Grant) but wears thin because it overwhelms the learning process.

‘We are going to become a cross curricular school!’ states the Academic Deputy with the kind of emphasis that tries to hide her own doubts.  And thus, everything becomes cross curricular.  Year five are studying the Elizabethans.  So, we’ll read some Shakespeare, try writing in iambic pentameter, learn about reasons the Queen always looked so grumpy and… what else…yes, Elizabethan music! Umm…Elizabethan maths?

Connected learning is not like that.  It still uses the concept that different departments will cover their subject using the same topic…but only when appropriate.

The Starting Point of Connected Learning

It is here where this teaching style differs from cross curricular learning.  With the latter, the overwhelming sense is that we use it because it is the way the school works (or doesn’t, in the worst examples.)  Cross Curricular (see, it becomes a proper noun, such is its pervasive influence) is the foundation of the school’s curriculum.  We spend hours with mind maps and walls full of post-it notes seeing how we can integrate as much of the curriculum as possible into our topic.  Departments buy in not because they are committed to the process, but because they feel they have to.

The starting point of connected learning is what the children need to learn.  It turns quickly into what the students want to learn.  ICL (Ideas for Connected Learning) is a Northern Irish organisation which provides ideas and schemes for connected learning.  It is clear that its resources are starting points, and should only be used if the work fits with what the school wishes to achieve.

Connected Learning In Action

Another huge difference between connected learning and cross curricular learning lies in the way it is planned and delivered.

Connected learning begins with the teacher or teachers deciding what they wish to be delivering; they plan perhaps the first two weeks of a topic.  An example given by ICL is ‘Eco Warriors’, aimed at Years 6 and 7.

Once the teacher has given the children a base to their knowledge, then the remaining two thirds of the topic is over to them.  They take the lead on what they wish to study, and the teacher becomes expert facilitator.  We see pupil led learning in cross curricular topics, but too often this is either used as an end of project filler, or represents the whole (non)-learning process.  As one school in a sample in Northern Ireland reported, the students’ own knowledge of a topic which compared living conditions locally and in Africa was astonishingly low.  Not only regarding Africa, but also their Irish home town.  The students needed the teacher to lead the initial phase of learning to give them the knowledge on which they could build.

In my teaching days, I always thought that cross curricular work was at its best when low key and organised between interested teachers.  My final school did not approve of it; it was a rather pompous prep school consisting of numerous empires overseen by a ruler who was neither benign nor effective.  Maths was maths, physics was physics and never should the two meet.  I used to teach War Poetry up to Remembrance Day with Year Eight, and the History leader taught World War One.  We would surreptitiously get together, plan shared trips and complement each other’s work.  That, to me, was effective cross curricular study…except, really, it was a simplified form of connected learning.  If only we’d known at the time, think what our students might have achieved?

And with that thought, I realise that the espresso machine is beeping and the (mini) doughnut is calling.  I like the best of both worlds; foods that complement each other but are best taken in moderation.

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