The spiral learning model, first described by Jerome Bruner, promises that by revisiting topics again and again, students can retain more information and build upon what they already know as they seek deeper knowledge. Homeschool parents and teachers alike often struggle with how to make new knowledge stick in young minds. Can students really be expected to retain information from one year to the next? From one month to the next? Spiral learning aims to solve the “forgetting curve” dilemma. So, what is a spiral learning curriculum and how can it help homeschooling families?
What is a spiral curriculum?
A spiral curriculum introduces topics simply and revisits them again and again. The spiral curriculum follows a spiral pattern either upward or outward from a student’s basic knowledge about the world around him. An outward spiral expands a student’s knowledge of a topic. Either the student or some basic information about the topic is the center or start of the spiral, and as the student progresses through the year and beyond, he or she learns more and more about that subject.
An upward spiral takes the student deeper and deeper into the topic. Students cover material about a subject with greater complexity until they have mastered it. The key to both types of spirals is starting from a basic or personal level and revisiting the topic again later to build upon prior knowledge. A spiral curriculum can introduce a topic in preschool or kindergarten and revisit year after year, or a topic might be revisited several times in one school year.
Bruner Learning Theory
Jerome Bruner was a psychology professor interested in the cognitive development of children. His landmark text, The Process of Education, introduced what came to be known as the spiral learning theory. He argued that it is not wise to wait too long before teaching key concepts. Instead, he believed that children could understand an age-appropriate explanation of any concept. Additionally, he argued that revisiting topics and building upon prior knowledge should be key goals of any curriculum.
What is spiral learning?
Spiral learning incorporates four key practices:
- Revisit topics.
Bruner suggested that courses be built around main principles of a subject. Those main principles are revisited throughout the course. For example, in math the main principles might be the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. A student masters the basic operations first with positive, whole numbers. As the student progresses, they will revisit the basic operations in many new contexts.
- Increase the difficulty level.
In math, the basic operations also apply to negative numbers, fractions, irrational numbers, and algebraic equations. At each touch point, the student gains a deeper understanding of how to apply addition principles.
- Build on prior knowledge.
To move on to deeper and more complex concepts, a student must have mastered each of the preceding topics. You should assess your student’s prior knowledge before returning to a subject to ensure a solid foundational knowledge.
- Assess competence.
It’s necessary to ensure the spiral learning approach is working. A child should gain competence in a subject each time you return to it.
Examples of spiral learning
Grammar offers a simple example of spiral learning. The most basic parts of speech needed to form a sentence are nouns and verbs. When a child begins speaking, these are the two types of words he or she learns first. Building on a preschool child’s vocabulary, you help the child learn the parts of speech and how to recognize them. A complete understanding of nouns and verbs lays the foundation for adding adjectives (words that modify nouns) and adverbs (words that modify verbs). Advanced students are ready to learn gerunds (verb forms that function as nouns) and infinitives (a verb form that acts as an adjective or adverb).
In biology, you might start by teaching a preschooler that plants need sunlight. The terminology of photosynthesis comes later. The plant’s cellular structure that enables photosynthesis builds on previous knowledge.
In history class, you might revisit the five C’s of historical study throughout your child’s schooling. No matter what specific time period or location your historical study is on, these five C’s are applicable.
- Change over time: the past was different from the present.
- Context: the time and place set a stage.
- Causality: historical events often have multiple major contributors.
- Contingency: various times and places are interconnected.
- Complexity: historical events are best studied from multiple perspectives.
How a Spiral Curriculum Works
A spiral curriculum guides you to the key concepts that need to be repeated so you don’t have to go back and reteach previous lessons. The scope and sequence of a subject that implements spiral learning establishes the necessary review so it’s already present in the curriculum.
Spiral Curriculum Pros and Cons
Advantages of a Spiral Curriculum
- Repetition: By repeating main principles of the subject throughout a child’s school years, you ensure that the child learns those principles.
- Age-appropriate learning: Bruner believed you can teach a child of any age any concept if you appropriately simplify it. The school years are a time of great mental, emotional, and physical development for a child. The spiral curriculum allows you to meet students where they are and build on what they know.
- Logical scope and sequence: A spiral curriculum is designed to progress through a subject in a logical way. The scope and sequence is integrated into the curriculum. This is especially important in a school setting where the student will not have the same teacher each year. But it is even more beneficial in a homeschool setting when the same teacher revisits each topic with the student.
- Integration and collaboration: Integration of key topics across several subjects is a distinction of spiral curriculum.
- Retention: Students who do the difficult work to learn a topic deeply are less likely to forget it.
Disadvantages of a Spiral Curriculum
- Time-consuming: Creating a spiral curriculum is mostly time-consuming for the curriculum writer, but if you are trying to integrate some spiral learning into your homeschool without a curriculum that does it for you, it will be time-consuming for you. Revisiting old topics also means there is less time for getting through additional content.
- Dependent on prior knowledge: To deepen complexity of knowledge, the student must have the right foundation. you may find yourself reteaching content that students have not mastered or have forgotten.
- Difficult for students: The benefit of deep learning is that it sticks, but it is a difficult process for students. Students may be used to rote memory and surface level learning. They may not react well to the work it takes to make sure learning sticks, but this does not mean the results aren’t well-worth the effort.
Incorporating Spiral Learning Without a Spiral Curriculum
Whether you are using a specific spiral curriculum or not, there are several ways you can incorporate the benefits of spiral learning into your homeschool. At any time, you can provide a worksheet or activity that reinforces prior knowledge. Return to questions your child did not complete in a previous unit and assess their retention of knowledge. Give your child project work that requires them to dive deeper into the subject, using both prior knowledge and what they’re currently learning.
It can also be helpful to make discussing lessons in daily conversations a habit in your family. These regular conversations help you assess understanding as well as revisit old information to keep it front-of-mind for your children.
Should you use a spiral curriculum in your homeschool?
There are significant benefits to spiral learning in your homeschool. Using one unified curriculum for all subjects, like BJU Press, means most of the hard work is done for you. The scope and sequence of each subject is established. Connections between subjects are already incorporated. Students learn from a spiral curriculum in a way that overcomes the normal forgetting curve of education. In addition, BJU Press curriculum include tons of hands-on learning opportunities that take kids out of the standard world of print and paper learning and helps them experience learning themselves. These hands-on learning opportunities make learning a multisensory experience. Together with spiral learning and a mastery teaching approach, your students will be well prepared for the future!
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Valerie is a wife and a mother to a very busy toddler. In her free time she enjoys reading all kinds of books. She earned a B.S. in Biology from Bob Jones University, minoring in Mathematics, and a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from Ohio State University. Valerie has 15 years of experience working in research laboratories and has coauthored 8 original research articles. She has also taught several classes and laboratories at the high school and college levels. She currently works as a Data Analyst and a freelance writer.