Supercharged PE: Embedding Cross-Curricular Links

Guest Blog By Phil Mathe – @PhilMathe79_PE

Cross-Curricular World

The world beyond the classroom is cross-curricular. Through my window I see walls, trees, people walking by, cars, birds, clouds and the occasional aeroplane – I understand none of them fully from the perspective of just one curriculum subject (Barnes, 2015)

I find myself in a strange netherworld within my school at the moment. Transitioning from leading PE to leading on PSHE and TOK (Theory of Knowledge) as well as taking on responsibility for wider holistic opportunities for our students, has led me to reflect and consider the importance of linking all the aspects of our provision, to embed cross-curricular learning both within PE, but also within our wider school programmes. 

This article considers how, why and for what purpose, we should be focusing more on the links between our subject, and those other learning experiences our pupils are undergoing.

Embedding Cross-Curricular Links and Learning

Research conducted during 2007–2009 (see Savage, 2010) identified that schools across the UK perceive cross curricular links predominantly through the lens of whole school curriculum design, but miss the opportunity to embed those same cross curricular links at individual teacher or departmental pedagogical levels. In other words, whilst cross-curricular linking is great at a strategic planning level, the resultant practice in classrooms and sports facilities is still limited.

Indeed, in a totally non scientific, but very recent straw poll of PE leaders in a social media group, every single response stated that their departments were aware of the cross curricular links between our subject and those around us, but not a single one was explicitly planning for it in their curriculum design or schemes of work. This is, I believe, reflective of the wider reality that whilst practitioners are aware of the importance of relatable, contextual learning within PE, the practice of embedding those links is simply too time consuming and complex, with all the other curricular, resource and time pressures we face on a day to day basis. 

At a time when the PE world is alight with calls for PE to be placed at the very heart of schools curricular provision, are we missing a real trick here by not explicitly identifying and nurturing the wider curricular values offered by quality, meaningful PE provision?

In Maths for example, they talk about personal finance, about economics. They contextualise their subject matter through sciences and they discuss careers.

In science, they relate back to Maths. Geography and Science share common terminology and approaches. History leans on English and so on. 

Can we honestly say we are doing the same in terms of contextualising our subject matter?

Hadlow Report

The Hadow Report of 1931 was a landmark document in the history of education in England. It was the first major report to consider the curriculum for primary schools, and it had a significant impact on the way that primary education was taught in the years that followed.One of the key recommendations of the Hadow Report was that schools should adopt a more cross-curricular approach to teaching. The report argued that this would help pupils to develop a more holistic understanding of the world around them, and that it would also help them to see the connections between different subjects.The Hadow Report did not provide a detailed blueprint for how cross-curricular learning should be implemented in schools. However, it did offer some general principles that could be used to guide schools in their planning. These principles included:The curriculum should be organised around themes and topics, rather than subjects.Pupils should be encouraged to explore topics in depth, rather than simply skimming the surface.Pupils should be given opportunities to work on projects that involve them using skills from a variety of subjects.The Hadow Report’s recommendations on cross-curricular learning were ahead of their time. However, they have since been widely adopted by schools in England, and they continue to be seen as an important way to make learning more meaningful and engaging for pupils.

Silos have always existed within schools. It is the nature of a subject driven approach to education that dominates the historical landscape of curriculum policy and is likely to continue ad-infinitum. Whilst attempts to ‘link’ subject matter together have permeated throughout national curriculum documents since its inception, the individualistic and often competitive approach to subject value, definitions, interest and pupil adoption, has always led to conflict and tension (Bresler, 1995).

Interdependence of subjects

The first mention of cross-curricular links in the national curriculum was in the 1988 Education Reform Act. The Act stated that the curriculum should be “broad and balanced” and that it should “promote the development of pupils’ understanding of the interdependence of different subjects”. This was interpreted by many teachers as a mandate to make cross-curricular links in their teaching.The 1999 National Curriculum went further and explicitly stated that teachers should “make links between different subjects where appropriate”. The curriculum also included a number of cross-curricular themes, such as “citizenship” and “health and well-being”, which teachers were expected to teach through a variety of subjects.The current 2014 National Curriculum does not explicitly mention cross-curricular links, but it does emphasise the importance of “learning across subjects”. The curriculum also includes a number of “key concepts” that can be taught through a variety of subjects, such as “change” and “cause and effect”.

Curriculum programmes such as the IB, the IMYC and the PYP have all attempted to challenge this traditional approach by interlinking learning. CPD providers such as ‘Learning that Transfers’ strive to challenge the status quo by modelling interwoven conceptual approaches to learning, however in the vast majority of cases we’re still working alone, still adopting practices that focus solely on our own subject matter and still working in silos away from colleagues in other subject areas. 

So what?

So what would happen, if we adopted a more contextual approach to our thinking around our subject area? Is it possible, that by promoting the breadth and depth of learning opportunities within PE, we could actually achieve the desire of centralising our subject at the core of our schools curriculum design? 

I’m starting to think so!

Cross-curricular links between PE and other subjects are important because they can help students contextualise their learning within their lives outside of sport and Physical Activity.

When students see how different subjects are interconnected, they are better able to understand and remember the material. For example, if students are learning about global variations on team games, it provides context when you discuss the geography related to those games and how this may have helped their evolution. This helps them to see how the two subjects are related and to better understand the big picture.

We already know we can help students develop critical thinking skills within PE. When students are asked to make connections between different subjects, they are forced to think critically about the material. They have to ask questions like, “How does this relate to what I’m learning in another subject?” and “What are the implications of this?” This helps them to develop the critical thinking skills they need to be successful in both our subject area, and others too.

It can help students become more engaged in their learning. This is especially important with disenfranchised or disengaged pupils. With an understanding of the relevance to their own lives, children are more likely to engage in their learning. For example, in swimming lessons we discuss body parts and movement. By relating it back to biology through physiology, even the youngest students can start to understand the links between their anatomy and the movement that it allows. If they happen to be learning human anatomy at the same time in biology, then this is just supercharged cross-curricular linking. Do you know when your Y7’s do human anatomy and if so, could you adapt your provision to provide that supercharging opportunity?

We can help students develop the link between the physical and the cognitive. I have said before, in public, that I believe PE is ‘an academic subject, taught practically’ and I genuinely believe that. By interlinking the learning experiences of our students, in real life, vocational, contextualised situations, we are just boosting the opportunities for our students to develop wider, holistic knowledge, skills and abilities that undoubtedly they will need in the world they will grow into.

There is a growing body of research that supports the positive impact of cross-curricular links within PE. For example, a study by the University of Exeter found that students who participated in a cross-curricular PE program had significantly improved understanding of concepts and skills in both PE and other subjects. Another study by the University of Cambridge found that students who participated in a cross-curricular PE program were more motivated and engaged in PE activities than those who did not participate in the program.

Cross-curricular links between PE and other subjects can be a critical part of a well-rounded education. We can help students make connections between different subjects, develop critical thinking skills, grow holistically, become more engaged in their learning, and develop 21st century skills.

Key Messages

So what can you do, right now, without much effort, to begin to build those contextual links and start the shifting of PE to the centre of your curriculum provision?

  • Look for common themes. Many subjects share common themes, such as change, conflict, or identity. By identifying these themes, you can find ways to connect different subjects in your lessons.
  • Focus on big ideas. Big ideas are the key concepts that students need to understand across different subjects. By focusing on these big ideas, you can create lessons that help students make connections between subjects.
  • Use real-world problems. Real-world problems can provide a natural way to connect different subjects. By asking students to solve real-world problems, you can help them see how the different subjects are interrelated.
  • Use thematic units. Thematic units are a great way to integrate different subjects into a cohesive learning experience. By choosing a theme that interests students, you can create lessons that are both engaging and informative.
  • Interact and discuss with your colleagues. Find out when they deliver specific parts of their curriculums that interlink with your PE provision. Shift your provision plan to make use of these. If you can teach something, at the same time as another subject is teaching it too, albeit in a different form, then you are just doubling down on your students chances of retaining that knowledge.

PE is PE and will always be PE. It’s a unique subject that teaches a unique set of skills, attributes, characteristics and aspects of knowledge. It is not however, alone in this and it is, fundamentally, part of a wider learning journey. When we can link the learning our students do with us, to the learning they are doing elsewhere, we’re just setting our pupils up, for higher chances of success in all its forms. We don’t need to reduce, adapt, drop or dumb down, we just need to supercharge.

PE teachers have always led from the front. Regardless of wider perspectives we are already at the heart of what happens in schools. Isn’t it time, we proved it?


Barnes, J. (2015) Cross-Curricular Learning 3–14, 3rd edn. London: Sage

Savage,J. (2010) Moving beyond subject boundaries: Four case studies of cross-curricular pedagogy in secondary schools, International Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 55, 2012

L. Bresler, L. (1995) The subservient, co-equal, affective, and social integration styles and their implications for the arts, Arts Education Policy Review

Hadow (1931) The Primary School Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

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