Crispin Andrews looks at the increasing emphasis on topic-based learning and offers some ideas to teach science through the topic of birds

It is easy to see why cross-curricular approaches to learning are becoming increasingly popular. While subjects compete for space on an over-crowded timetable, many of the learning processes and concepts encountered within them are similar. Nothing and nobody exists in a vacuum, and 21st-century global communication networks bring this to our attention like never before. It is difficult to gain a meaningful understanding of a specific in isolation from its context, its history and, of course, its divergent potential for future development.

Perhaps most importantly, a focused, topic-based approach can make learning real. There is nothing more likely to switch a child off than doing something for the sake of it. Why learn how to word-process by making up a letter to your grandparents that will never be sent, or copying a random passage from a worksheet or book, when a fact file about a location currently being studied can be created or knowledge gained in PE set out as a series of instructions? What is the point of watching a piece of clay fall through a tube of water or running a toy car across a carpet, when it is the application of the concept of streamlining and the forces involved that is exciting and inspiring to young people. Watching an eagle swoop for its prey, a cricket ball disappearing into crowded stands or even a cartoon penguin sliding comically about on the ice is far more likely to entice children to want to understand the science involved than filling in a worksheet or watching an abstract demonstration.

Cross-curricular science
The QCA has challenged schools to move away from structured units and develop cross-curricular and skillsbased science. They see science as a way of attempting to describe and understand the nature of the universe; an integral part of modern culture stretching the imagination of young people, that makes complex things simple.

To teach something as visionary and significant in an abstract, isolated, compartmentalised manner seems to miss the point of what science is all about.‘Teaching to a cross-curricular theme gives you a hook on which to hang subject matter; something realistic and engaging that children can get their teeth into,’ says Gwen Calder an advanced skills teacher in science from Buckingham Primary School. Along with the other science ASTs in Buckinghamshire, Gwen has developed a Year 6/7 transition unit based around penguins, using footage from the film Happy Feet as a stimulus from which children investigate how penguins keep warm.


A study of birds provides the sort of wide-ranging, multifaceted potential from which a science-based crosscurricular topic can be developed. For as long as people have walked the Earth they have been amazed by birds’ ability to fly. Gradually, people learned more about the birds, their food, their reproduction method and their habitats. Throughout history birds have been used for sending messages, hunting, fortune telling and much more. Some exotic birds are kept for their exceptional beauty; domestic birds are farmed for food. In some cultures birds have symbolic, revered or even god-like status.

Design a bird
There are, of course, a vast number of science lessons that could be based on the topic of birds. One excellent project is to ask pupils to design a bird of the future that will thrive in a particular 21st-century environment.

Younger children can focus on their own particular environment or the setting within a book they are reading or a place they know well – perhaps a place they visit often or have studied in class. Older children can be given a choice – fictional or real – and be asked to do some research – isolating the key factors that make up this environment – before beginning to consider what characteristics will be necessary if their bird is to thrive within it.

About the bird…
Offer the pupils some prompting questions to begin thinking about their bird.  Questions could include:

  • What does it look like – size, shape, wing-span?
  • How does it move?
  • What and how does it eat?
  • How does it get food?
  • Where does it nest?
  • How does it interact with other animals and humans within the  environment?

How can children communicate their knowledge?
The pupils can communicate their work in a number ways, including:

  • Fact file – an RSPB brochure from the year 2050?
  • Labelled diagram – from a 2050 primary school science text book.
  • Videoed documentary – groups play the part of ornithological experts.
  • Investigation on the school’s virtual learning environment – share ideas on forums and through blogs.
  • A 21st-century folk tale – the Bird of the Future – retold by a 40th-century parent

What knowledge will the children need to communicate?

  • Characteristics of the bird – including information necessary to allow others to classify it.
  • How the bird is able to adapt to its environment – including its place in the food chain.
  • Its interaction with humans – will the bird be considered a nuisance and the effect of human activities – particularly land redevelopment – on the animal?
  • A description of the way the bird moves on land, in the air and, if appropriate, on or in water.

Areas of science curriculum covered?
Depending on the chosen method of communication, in doing the core task pupils will cover the following other curricular areas:

  • Literacy – non-narrative writing, speaking/listening, group interaction, narrative writing, genre – folk tales.
  • ICT – developing and sharing ideas, making things happen.
  • Geography – recognise how and why people may seek to manage environments sustainably, identify opportunities for their own involvement.

Scientific investigation
It is also important to carry out investigations to help pupils access and develop the necessary knowledge through which they can make informed decisions about the nature of their 21st-century bird. Investigations could include the following:

  • The National Federation of Anglers refers to the ‘cormorant plague’ as one of the biggest problems faced by anglers today. Find out why this is and explain what views an angler and an environmentalist may take on the issue.
  • Find out about birds that live in one of the UK’s typical environments –  mountainous regions, wetlands, coastal environments, woodlands and moorlands. List birds common to the area – look at common/different characteristics and come up with questions with which to classify the birds.
  • In the 1930s there were only a handful of red kites left in Britain. Now there are over 1,000 pairs, many in areas of the country that has not seen a kite for over 100 years.

How can this be?

  • Explain why penguins slide around on ice but can swim gracefully through the water. Look at a falcon or a tern swooping swiftly through the air. What is it about the shape of each bird in flight that enables it to move as it does?
  • Design and make a model bird using plastic bottles: one covered with ‘feathers’ made from strips of newspaper, one without. Use a thermometer to measure the temperature of each to show how feathers function as an insulator – keeping birds warm and dry.
  • Explain where the expression ‘as dead as a dodo’ comes from.

Other related activities

  • Citizenship – write a letter to the National Federation of Anglers supporting or opposing their attitudes towards cormorants. Ask a local representative from the RSPB to talk about their organisation and bird conservation in UK.
  • Maths – choose an appropriate pictorial form to display data relating to numbers of red kites in UK and Europe.
  • Dance – take several words associated with your 21st-century bird and create a movement sequence. Encourage creative expression related to the words not simply copying movement patterns.
  • PE – food/fight invasion game. A typical lakeside scene in any tourist spot as gulls, ducks and swans compete for crumbs thrown. Three teams of three – ducks (using hands) and swans (using feet) pass a ball between each other so each team member must touch the ball (crumb) twice before it can be placed in a coloured container at the side of a pitch to score five points. Teams then start again with a new ball. Gulls are as eager to steal the balls as they are to swoop down from the heavens to steal crumbs from their more cumbersome cousins – intercept ball in flight and remove it from the pitch to score a point. No physical contact and each team alternates between roles.

Useful websites:

  • The RSPB:
  • The red kite:
  • List of UK birds with photos:
  • List of UK birds with pictures:
  • UK habitats:
  • Bird folklore:
  • An aquarium’s site on penguins:
  • All about penguins:
  • Official website for Happy Feet: