The Spiral Curriculum: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can your school embrace the concept of Spiral Curriculum to achieve lasting learning outcomes?

What is a Spiral Curriculum?

Spiral curriculum, an approach to teaching, widely attributed to the American Psychologist and Cognitive Theorist Jerome Bruner - learning theory- refers to a course of study in which fundamental ideas are repeatedly presented throughout the curriculum, but with deepening levels of difficulty / increasing complexity in lessons and reinforcing previous learning.

The spiral approach allows the earlier introduction of complicated ideas traditionally reserved for later stages of the learning process after learners have mastered some key themes that involve deeper understanding and may discourage pupils who wish to apply their conceptual learning to real-world applications. In this article, we will explore how this curriculum concept can improve long-term learning and provide some ideas for strategies and tools that classrooms can embrace. If your classroom is interested in developing collaborative learning environments then please explore the rest of our website for ideas and inspiration.

How to develop a curriculum using the Spiral approach

For designing a curriculum in a spiral approach, teachers need to build units of work with:

  • Increasing complexity; and
  • A start where the last unit ended.

The spiral curriculum model indicates that courses do not include just a single lesson. Each unit of work or course that is taught to the students builds upon previously taught concepts.

The spiral curriculum model forces teachers to work with their fellow teachers who taught the same group of children in the previous year or who are likely to teach the same group of children in the upcoming years to build a cohesive strategy of teaching. For example, Teachers of a class may use a tool like Bloom’s Taxonomy to generate student learning outcomes at a different step of student learning.

Teachers may create learning outcomes with increasing complexity levels. In early classes, a learner may only demonstrate a ‘basic understanding’ of a concept. At the second iteration, learners may need to ‘analyze' or 'critique’. In the ultimate iterative revisiting, the learners may ‘create’ something new on basis of previous learning.

The spiral classroom practice is very common to teach adult learners, where foundational knowledge is gained from freshman courses and the level of complexity increases from there. In the final stage of development or revisiting a topic, a learner may create a dissertation or capstone project that demonstrates the most complex form of student learning i.e. developing something new.

Spiral curriculum model
Spiral curriculum model

What are the key principles of The Spiral Curriculum?

The spiral approach to curriculum design has 3 main principles that add up to the approach nicely. These three key principles of The Spiral Curriculum are:

  1. Cyclical: Learners must return to the same topic many times all through their school career;
  2. Increasing Depth: Every time a pupil returns to the concept it must explore more complexity and be learned at a deeper level;
  3. Prior Knowledge: A student’s previous knowledge must be used when the learner comes back to the same concept so that he builds from the foundation instead of starting from the beginning.

Developing a coherent learning sequence can be complex and you may want to look at the Universal Thinking Framework for some practical ideas. Another approach to curriculum design is to embrace graphic organisers. These learning tools help students understand bodies of knowledge at a greater depth. If your school wants to take a constructivist approach, then you might want to head over to our mental modelling page where you can find out about the pioneering block building pedagogy.

Mental Modelling allows children to practice their skills and build knowledge
Mental Modelling allows children to practice their skills and build knowledge

Why is the Spiral Curriculum recommended?

Spiralling curriculum design is grounded in cognitive science and brain-based learning. It encourages previous lessons reinforcement which leads to key skill retention for future learning opportunities. Spiral learning enables students to go back and look at the previous course material. It is similar to adding new details with old knowledge.

The new knowledge has a context to relate itself to, which was built in previous classes. Slowly creating residual knowledge by way of repeated exposure complements more with how our brains work, rather than striving to remember a whole complex concept all at once, in a single school year. The spiral structure also allows for making connections between topics of other subject areas.

Revisiting key concepts in the spiral curriculum
Revisiting key concepts in the spiral curriculum

What is an ideally spiralling curriculum?

The curriculum is mostly regarded as a logical progression of distinct skills and knowledge providing the basis for future learning. In an ideally spiralling curriculum, students are acquainted with and taught the concepts and ideas in different grade levels in developmentally appropriate ways. For example: In 2nd grade the learners create a flipbook for their observations about the Sun; in 3rd-grade students learn about basic Sciences of the movements of the moon, earth and sun and what are the reasons behind the changes they observed; in 5th-grade students develop more complex levels understanding of common principles of astronomy to their knowledge; and students in 6th grade learn how people of the old ages used movements of the stars, moon and sun to learn about the impact of the moon on tides on earth and to develop complex calendars.

Spirals can be short at times. For example: in 6th-grade social studies, students learn about the rise of civilizations and agricultural revolution and follow up in 7th grade with how these led to patriarchies. Students must depend on their previous understanding of the facts they have learned to solve the more complex problems. Similarly, the level of difficulty for the concepts of addition and subtraction become more intense as learners move through the grades. The basic skills of adding and subtracting become more advanced and spiral in elementary school, to learn algebra in higher classes and beyond.

Embracing the Spiral Curriculum model using our graphic organisers
Embracing the Spiral Curriculum model using our graphic organisers

What is the difference between Spiralling and Repeating?

It is important to remember that a spiralling approach to education is different from repeating the same content and skills over and over. Spiralling means being introduced to basic knowledge and then gradually building on the knowledge and learning more complex ideas. For instance, in 1st grade and the start of 2nd grade, students are acquainted with basic ideas for addition and subtraction. Then the students memorize the facts about numbers so that they no longer have to use number lines or count on fingers.

The complexity of addition and subtraction is then increased by introducing students with 2 digit numbers. In science, learners in 1st grade are mostly introduced to the 5 senses and the names of each organ involved. In secondary grades, students get learning experience for more complex topics about senses, perform dissections of animals and observe various systems to develop a deeper understanding.

Promote a greater depth of understanding using the Universal Thinking Framework
Promote a greater depth of understanding using the Universal Thinking Framework

The spiral curriculum is a curriculum in which the same topic is taught over time, but with increasing complexity. The main advantage of using a spiral-based problem-based learning curriculum is that it continues to expose the pupils to a wide variety of disciplines, topics/concepts until they master it by reviewing it repeatedly. When learners re-engage with a concept over and over again, they recall prior knowledge in their memory and build on to it. The spiral approach to teaching focuses on the open-ended nature of understanding.

It demonstrates that learning never ends and is a lifelong process. Although, the spiral curriculum approach is widely considered as an appropriate approach that leads to long-term learning for the students. Some limitations of the spiral curriculum include the risk that the curriculum becomes too crowded and rigid and that the teachers will have to re-teach concepts that were forgotten or not taught well enough the last time the concept was taught.