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Creating a connected curriculum


Celia Fleck.

Celia Fleck is a Ministry of Education accredited PLD facilitator working for Future Learning Solutions. She is the President/Chair of Physical Education New Zealand – Te Ao Kori Aotearoa. Her current role includes working to support health and physical education curriculum planning and delivery in primary schools, and connected curriculum design in secondary schools. From 2013 to 2015 Celia lead the Sport in Education Project at Aotea College while she was HOD Health and Physical Education; since 2016 she has overseen the project nationally across 25 secondary schools.

In this blog, Celia explains the importance of making connections in your local curriculum and offers practical suggestions on how you can connect your learners to the health and physical education learning area.

What does the NZC say about connections?

The concept of connection is a powerful one. The idea that if we can link with someone, somewhere, or something, it will make us stronger. One of the Five Ways to Wellbeing is to Connect – Me Whakawhanaunga.

This concept can be equally powerful if we embrace it in the design and delivery of our local curriculum. The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) gives schools the mandate to make connections within and across learning areas, with local contexts, community, and the wider world. References to connections are made throughout the document:

“The curriculum offers all students a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas, provides for coherent transitions, and opens up pathways to further learning.” (p 9)

Learning areas 
“All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas and that link learning areas to the values and key competencies.” (p 16)

Effective pedagogy 
“Teachers can help students to make connections across learning areas as well as to home practices and the wider world.” (p 34)

School curriculum design and review 
“Schools may… decide to organise their curriculum around one of these three aspects (values, key competencies, or learning areas) … Alternatively, they may decide to organise their curriculum around central themes, integrating values, key competencies, knowledge and skills across a number of learning areas … The values, competencies, knowledge and skills that students will need for addressing real-life situations are rarely confined to one part of the curriculum. Wherever possible, schools should aim to design their curriculum so that learning crosses apparent boundaries.” (pp 37–38)

There are a wide range of views as to what curriculum integration could look like, with very little consensus, and a lot of confusion, about what curriculum integration is or isn’t. What can be agreed upon is that “…learning is more relevant and meaningful if it is organised around concepts that are relevant to students.” (Boyd and Hipkins, 2012).

For that reason I have moved away from using the term "curriculum integration" and have replaced it instead with the term "connected curriculum". This seems to make the concept far more accessible for teachers, and has given them permission to approach it in a way that best suits them, their learners, and their school communities, without fear that they are doing it wrong.

Over the last seven years I have experienced and observed many positive impacts of connected curriculum on staff and students; these have also been captured in the NZCER evaluation of the Sport in Education Project, and by others who have studied and observed connected curriculum in action.

Positive impacts on students

  • Higher engagement in learning, due to greater relevance to their world.
  • Fewer attendance concerns and less pastoral incidents.
  • Developed deeper questioning and independent thinking skills.
  • Able to better recognise the connections between different subject areas and how differing subjects impact upon each other.
  • Increased ability to transfer learning and key competencies to other contexts.
  • Students happy and confident in their learning.
  • A more committed approach and value towards learning and achievement.

Positive impacts on staff

  • Increased collaboration across the school.
  • Enhanced understanding of what was happening elsewhere in the school, allowing them to better integrate their own subject material as well as improving connections between departments.
  • Increased knowledge and understanding of different curriculum learning areas.
  • Increased enthusiasm and passion for teaching.
  • Increased use of active education pedagogies.
  • Meaningful use of Teaching As Inquiry.

Making connections to health and physical education

Student on jungle gym.

The health and physical education learning area has been marginalised over recent years due to an increased emphasis on reading, writing, and maths. By connecting health and physical education to other learning areas we can make more time for young people to be active, while allowing each area of knowledge and skills to support learning in the other.

Picture books can be used as a provocation for movement experiences; exploring the movements described in the story can enhance language use and comprehension. For example, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen can be used with younger students to explore different ways of moving over, under, and around things, as well as ways of moving our bodies to make or represent different sounds. The same picture book can be used by older primary school students, as inspiration to create an obstacle challenge to represent different aspects of the story. 

Students can create movement related games that link to an aspect of a story, then complete a writing task to write the instructions and rules for the game. By teaching the game to other students they develop their ability to verbally explain rules.

Traditional Māori games provide a rich learning context to connect multiple learning areas:

In health and physical education students can:

  • focus on identifying the main movement skills and interpersonal skills needed to be successful in each game and practice those
  • explore the risks we take when playing games and how we manage these
  • consider how games allow people to connect with their community and the environment.

In English students can:

  • write instructions on how to play each game, and make equipment lists
  • create comic strips of the Māori myths and legends for each game
  • create advertising videos, posters, and jingles to promote their game
  • give instructions and demonstrations to other groups when teaching them each game.

In mathematics and statistics students can:

  • look at the different measurements and layout for each game
  • explore mapping and drawing to scale
  • make graphs and look at the statistics associated with movement, for example, heart rate.

In learning languages students can:

  • explore myths and legends associated with traditional Māori games
  • learn te reo Māori for different aspects of each game
  • learn kīwaha (sayings) for each game.

Connected curriculum in schools 

In my role as a PE facilitator I have seen schools make connections to health and physical education in multiple ways. 

Primary example

In a Catholic primary school the overarching focus for the term was on human dignity, which was then narrowed down to community wellness. Looking through the lens of hauora, and using the Te Whare Tapa Whā model, the school looked specifically at whenua, the foundation of the whare. Teachers wanted students to understand that the four dimensions of wellbeing need a solid foundation to be built upon, and linked this to the idea that the community is the foundation (the whenua). 

They looked at how they could honour community members and uphold their human dignity, so everyone can feel good and the foundation of the community is strong.  

Through physical education the children experienced a variety of games that they modified to make more inclusive, based on the needs of participants. A link with the social sciences was made by exploring the context of soldiers in the trenches during the war and identifying gaps in their basic human needs. This then linked to the technology curriculum as students created prototypes of things that would improve the wellbeing for soldiers – vehicles to carry supplies, rat traps, water drains, and carts to carry injured animals. As part of their religious education the students read the Bible story about the man who built his house upon the rock, and they examined the importance of a strong foundation linking back to whenua in the Te Whare Tapa Whā model.

Intermediate example

At an intermediate school a class was exploring the use of feedback and feedforward to improve performance in long jump. They completed a statistical inquiry – gathering data, graphing results, and evaluating data – and used this information to provide feedback and feedforward to improve technique. 

The students looked at comparing individual performance with that of a professional athlete to identify ways to improve performance.

The teacher also described links with the key competencies, as she found students were enthusiastic, self-motivated, highly engaged, and had a degree of student agency.

Secondary examples

In a secondary school a group of cross-curricular teachers had chosen the US Tennis Open as their context for a connected programme of teaching and learning. 

The maths teacher was struggling to connect with the context. When the "why" was unpacked a little more it became evident that the reason students had chosen the US Tennis Open as a context of interest was because the girls were particularly interested in gender equality (the US Tennis Open being a tournament that has prize pay parity). Once the concept of equality and inequality was surfaced, this then became the connection for the learning areas, with the maths teacher in particular finding this to be a far more authentic way to connect.

Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS) in designing their school curriculum, identified eight concepts that link to all curriculum areas:

  • Identity
  • Space and place
  • Transformation
  • Citizenship
  • Relationships
  • Systems and organisations
  • Culture and diversity
  • Innovation

These concepts could be useful as a starting point in planning to connect curriculum areas. HPSS have found that when courses are created using authentic connections between learning areas, learning and achievement in each area is enhanced by the other. For example, in a combined level 2 NCEA health education and mathematics and statistics course:

  • the design of a statistical questionnaire informed the health promotion that the group would carry out 
  • the health context of either cancer/HIV was used to manipulate raw data sets to make meaning which could then be used in the health evaluation. 
  • the health context of domestic violence was used to evaluate published statistical reports which could then be used in the health analysis. 

Guiding questions Ngā pātai ārahi

Knowing where to start can seem quite daunting and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing and planning for a connected curriculum. The following questions could serve as a useful guide in generating some rich ideas:

  • What are the situations, problems, issues, trends, controversies, and events taking place within our world?  
  • How is the rich idea relevant to real life? What is happening, has happened, might happen… in our community, our region, our country, our world?
  • Is the rich idea relevant to our students? What are our students interested in?  
  • How will it better engage our students? 
  • Have we collected student voice? What does it tell us?
  • What curious questions can we generate about the rich idea for our learners? 
  • What are the learning opportunities and how might each learning area contribute to the rich idea? (Keeping in mind the key concepts and capabilities that you want your learners to develop.)

Some tips from personal experience and observations

  • Connecting curriculum is a collaborative process
    Open up a dialogue with others and start looking for links between curriculum areas, then start planning. Be flexible and be prepared to compromise, but at the same time be clear about your non-negotiables in terms of the key learning that you want to take place.
  • Know your curriculum area well
    You need to know your curriculum area really well to be able to make the connections across learning areas. In secondary we tend to know our unit plans, assessments, and NCEA well, but how often do we take the time to unpack the essence of our learning area and really delve into the threshold concepts.
    In secondary this might mean that you need to learn about and dive into new parts of the curriculum and start having conversations across learning areas to identify connections. In primary it might mean committing to understanding ALL learning areas and not just the ones that have been made a priority by the MoE in recent years.
  • Start small
    Making a genuine connection between two learning areas is far more effective than trying to force multiple connections that don’t really fit. Don’t try and fit a square peg in a round hole.  
  • Work with the willing
    In secondary, find a colleague in another learning area who you would like to work with and start the conversation and see what comes from it. Then share your learning! Others will start to look over the fence and want to get involved too.
  • Connect concepts rather than contexts 
    Connecting concepts has far greater potential than connecting contexts. Think about how you might recontextualise what you are currently doing to better suit your learners, and better link to other curriculum areas.

Have you seen ...

Leading local curriculum guide series
In order to support the progress of all students, the Leading Local Curriculum Guide series has been developed to deliberately steer your curriculum and assessment review and design decisions as you strengthen your local curriculum. 

Fraser High School – Curriculum integration
Teaching and learning has been revitalised at Fraser High School through curriculum integration and the use of authentic contexts. 

curriculum design and review
health and physical education