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The Spiral Curriculum: A complete overview

The Spiral Curriculum: A complete overview

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • The science of learning

Have you heard of the “Spiral Curriculum”? This interesting-sounding strategy explores a different way to  help build students’ mastery of complex concepts over time. But what is it, and what does it entail?

The Spiral Curriculum is an educational strategy that introduces complex concepts to students at a basic level early in their education journey. These concepts are then revisited in increasing depth and complexity over time. This approach is built on the premise that learning is a process of continuous building and reinforcement. By encountering the same topics at various points in their education, the hope is that students can connect new knowledge with what they’ve already learned.

Read on to get a comprehensive guide on the Spiral Curriculum and learn more about:

  • The key concepts of the Spiral Curriculum
  • The theoretical basics of the Spiral Curriculum
  • The advantages and disadvantages of a Spiral Curriculum

The key concepts of the Spiral Curriculum

The Spiral Curriculum is centred around a dynamic approach to learning, which emphasises the importance of revisiting topics and the gradual progression from basic to complex ideas. This means that the Spiral Curriculum aims to offer an effective framework for engaging with content for students and to mitigate misunderstanding amongst students as the topic is consistently revisited.

The notion of “spiralling” involves introducing students to fundamental knowledge and subsequently expanding upon this foundation with more intricate and advanced ideas. This enables students to deepen their understanding and explore the interconnectedness of concepts over time, with prior knowledge providing a basis for all future learning. As students progress through the Spiral Curriculum, they are presented with opportunities to engage in a logical progression, from simple ideas to more complex ones. The iterative revisitation of subjects promotes coherent learning, allowing students to build upon their existing foundations and expand their understanding in a systematic way.

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3 key features of the Spiral Curriculum

Jerome Bruner pioneered the Spiral Curriculum and argued that it allowed to teach a child anything at any stage of development.

In contrast to more traditional linear methods that teach concepts one by one, Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum encourages students to engage with a topic repeatedly, allowing them to consolidate prior knowledge and build upon it over time.

Researchers have continued to define the Spiral Curriculum as an iterative process of revisiting topics, subjects or themes, with some advocating for the repeated revisiting of basic ideas, building upon them until the student has fully grasped the associated formal apparatus.

So, what does Bruner highlight as the core concepts of the Spiral Curriculum?

1. Revisiting topics

Students revisit topics, themes, or subjects on multiple occasions during a course, facilitating a deeper understanding of the material. Research describes how this “prerequisite sequencing provides linkages between each lesson”, as the student spirals upwards in their learning.

2. Increasing levels of difficulty

Each revisit to the topics introduces added objectives and fresh learning opportunities, leading to increased proficiency and expertise. This progressive approach enables students to achieve overall objectives through continual growth and skill development, and is reminiscent of Scaffolding.

3. New learning related to previous learning

New information or skills are directly linked to previous learning, creating a prerequisite sequencing that reinforces existing knowledge while introducing new concepts. This gradual introduction prevents students from feeling overwhelmed and supports their continuous development.

The advantages and disadvantages of the Spiral Curriculum

Seminal research sheds light on the advantages of the Spiral model, emphasising its role in encouraging retention of knowledge, introducing topics in a controlled manner, and promoting higher-level objectives that go beyond simple recall. Their findings underscore the positive impact of the Spiral Curriculum on student learning outcomes by highlighting the need for iterative revisiting of subjects in “problem-based learning and outcomes-based education.”

Further research explored the fundamental principles of the Spiral Curriculum and the effective use of computer technology to aid its implementation. Research aimed to look at the “spiral model of collaborative learning”, which implements multi-layered collaborative learning that are interconnected through a network of classes.

The results found those who engaged in the Spiral model of collaborative learning were able to improve technology-enhanced learning, suggesting collaborative learning within the Spiral Curriculum is highly effective.

However, others have pointed out some limitations and disadvantages of a Spiral Curriculum. For example, some researchers have highlighted that it may lead to:

  • Superficial covering of topics – where “students may fail to master important concepts as the spiral model promises further opportunities for mastery with subsequent visits”.
  • It can be demotivating for students having to revisit material they have already mastered
  • Concepts are revisited based on set times, as opposed to how much knowledge has been gained and retained

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Final thoughts

When it comes to something as important and complex as the curriculum, there are no simple solutions. The pros and cons of the Spiral Curriculum offer much to consider. Through careful consideration and exploration, hopefully all schools can find a curriculum that best serves their students. 

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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