Bruner’s spiral curriculum is an approach to education that involves regularly re-visiting the same educational topics over the course of a student’s education. Each time the content is re-visited, the student gains deeper knowledge of the topic. It has the benefits of reinforcing information over time and using prior knowledge to inform future learning.
Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum
The spiral curriculum is defined as a curriculum that returns to the same topics over time. It is juxtaposed to methods that involve learning something then moving on, perhaps never to engage with it again. When students re-engage with a topic repeatedly, they both consolidate prior knowledge in their memory and build on it over time.
3 Key Principles
The spiral approach to curriculum has three key principles that sum up the approach nicely. The three principles are:
- Cyclical: Students should return to the same topic several times throughout their school career;
- Increasing Depth: Each time a student returns to the topic it should be learned at a deeper level and explore more complexity;
- Prior Knowledge: A student’s prior knowledge should be utilized when a topic is returned to so that they build from their foundations rather than starting anew.
Origins of the Approach
The teaching strategy was developed by cognitive theorist Jerome Bruner in 1960. Bruner reflected on the fact that many teachers implicitly use this method. However, Bruner documented the approach and its great value for curriculum designers and, ultimately, student learning.
Here’s Bruner’s observation in his own words:
“I was struck by the fact that successful efforts to teach highly structured bodies of knowledge like mathematics, physical sciences, and even the field of history often took the form of a metamorphic spiral in which at some simple level a set of ideas or operations were introduced in a rather intuitive way and, once mastered in that spirit, were then revisited and reconstrued in a more formal or operational way, then being connected with other knowledge, the mastery at this stage then being carried one step higher to a new level of formal or operational rigour and to a broader level of abstraction and comprehensiveness. The end state of this process was eventual mastery of the connexity and structure of a large body of knowledge…” (Bruner, 1960, p. 141).
Scholars have defined Bruner’s approach in the following ways:
- Harden and Stamper (1999, p. 141) state that it involves “an iterative revisiting of topics, subjects or themes throughout the course.”
- Lohani et al. (2005, p. 1) provide this explanation: “Bruner advocates that a curriculum as it develops should revisit the basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them”
- Howard (2007, p. 1) defines it this way: “[In the curriculum] fundamental ideas, once identified, should be constantly revisited and reexamined so that understanding deepens over time”
How to Design a Curriculum using the Spiral Approach
To design a curriculum using a spiral approach, you need to create units of work that:
- Increase in complexity; and
- Start off where the previous unit ended.
The spiral approach to curriculum design reminds us that courses are not singular, set-in-stone units of work. Each course or unit of work that we cover builds upon something previously.
This approach forces us to work with our colleagues who were a child’s teacher in a previous year or in years to come to develop a cohesive approach to teaching.
A group of educators can, for example, use a tool such as Bloom’s Taxonomy to come up with learning outcomes at different stages of a course.
Educators would develop learning outcomes that have increasing levels of complexity. In the first course, a student might only need to demonstrate ‘understanding’ of the topic. At the next iteration, students may need to ‘critique’ or ‘analyze’. In the final iteration, the students may need to ‘create’ something from scratch.
This approach is extremely common in university degrees, where freshman courses provide foundational knowledge, and complexity increases from there. By the end, a student may need to create a capstone project or dissertation that demonstrates the highest form of learning: creating something new.
Examples in the Classroom
In mathematics, we often return to the same content over and over again but add complexity each time. For example, your teacher may first cover simple fractions, then more complex fractions, and then start getting you to add and subtract fractions.
Rather than focusing on fractions for an entire year, your school will spread fraction classes out over a course of many years. Each time you return to fractions, your teacher will assess how well you retained previous information, and then help you build upon that prior knowledge.
In literacy, we’ll often use the spiral approach to increase our vocabulary, grammar, knowledge of literary topics, and critical thinking.
Teachers and librarians will often give students books, for example, which will increase in difficulty and length one after the other. Students need to follow the sequence in order to build confidence and skill in reading.
Similarly, a student might first learn about nouns before adjectives and verbs before adverbs. This is because knowledge of adjectives requires prior knowledge of nouns and knowledge of adverbs requires prior knowledge of verbs.
In language education, we teach in very clear structures: A1, A2 (beginner), B1, B2 (intermediate) and C1, C2 (advanced). A student cannot simply start at B1, because the teacher will return to grammar and vocabulary concepts covered in A2 courses with an expectation that the students will be at least familiar with them.
The student will often struggle for a short time on the information that is re-introduced, but is expected to be able to pick it up again rather quickly because it was already taught in the past. This reinforces the importance of revision lessons prior to the beginning of the ‘higher level’ content.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Bruner’s Spiral Curriculum
- Developmentally Appropriate Learning: Often times, we will challenge a student to the furthest extent of their current abilities. Once we’ve gone as far as we can go, we might have to wait a few months or even a year until their mind has developed some more and they are more capable of grappling with the topic. When you return to the topic, the student may be at a developmentally appropriate level to understand the topic even more. This advantage relies on the cognitive constructivist premise that brains develop as we age, often in distinct stages (vis-a-vis Piaget’s stage theory).
- Prior Knowledge is Central to Learning: This approach necessarily employs the notion of ‘prior knowledge’. This concept acknowledges that students enter a classroom with a history of learning and knowing that can be employed in classroom practice. By assessing prior knowledge and using it in the classroom, we can move toward a student-centered teaching style.
- Spaced Repetition Occurs: Spaced repetition is a concept from the behaviorist theory of learning. It explains how committing knowledge to memory occurs best when you space out practice of a task over time. Each time you re-engage with the concept, you have to recall it from your memory. Like exercising a muscle, the more you exercise that little packet of memory, the stronger it gets and the less likely you will be to forget it.
- Teachers Focus on Structuring work to follow Logical Progression: When developing this type of curriculum, educators and curriculum designers need to pause and reflect on what ‘prior knowledge’ is required in order to learn something. This explicit reflection on progression of understanding puts continual growth at the center of the student’s learning experience.
- Integration and Collaboration: Educators collaborate to ensure a holistic and coherent learning sequence is provided over time.
- Time Consuming for Designers: Curriculum designers need to collaborate and coordinate for this model to work. Designers and educators need to come together over several meetings to agree on what will be taught, when, and by whom, so that the whole curriculum is cohesive and does not miss anything or contain redundancies.
- Curriculum Crowding: If educators have a lot to teach, and then re-teach, the curriculum can get too crowded. Educators might lightly touch on a concept then move on from it with the belief that “we will return to it”. A better alternative may be mastery teaching, where a student does not move on until they have mastered the topic.
- Irrelevant for Short Courses: Short courses can return to the content in single lessons, but long-term reinforcement is impossible if a course is only taught over a short period of time.
- Risk of becoming Teacher Centered: When the curriculum is designed in a longitudinal fashion with a long horizon, the teachers make guesses about a student’s competency level at certain times into the future. A flexible curriculum needs to be differentiated to a student’s learning levels and speeds, which may be unachievable if the curriculum is designed too far in advance.
- Gap Filling: Often, a teacher will find that instead of building on prior knowledge, they are re-teaching information that was forgotten, taught poorly previously, the facts have changed, or entails many misconceptions.
The ‘Strand Curriculum’ Alternative
A major issue with the spiral approach to curriculum design is that it involves ‘chunking’ of content into topic blocks. A topic will be covered intensely for a short amount of time then dropped only to be picked up again at a later date.
An alternative, the ‘strand’ curriculum, aims to integrate multiple topics into every lesson, every day, in order to slowly but consistently work on topics of a long period of time. This may prevent memory loss and loss of momentum that occurs when topics are left alone entirely for period of time.
Snider (2004, p. 34) states:
“[In a strand curriculum] each lesson is organized around multiple skills or topics rather than around a single skill or topic. Each skill/topic is addressed for only 5 to 10 min in any given day’s lesson but is revisited day after day for many lessons.”
Jerome Bruner’s spiral curriculum approach highlights the importance of re-engaging with ideas over time in order to keep them fresh in our minds and consistently build on ideas. It is based on the three principles of: (1) Cyclical Learning, (2) Increasing Depth on each Iteration, and (3) Learning by building on prior knowledge.
The approach also highlights the open-ended nature of learning. In other words, it shows how learning is a never-ending lifelong process. While it is widely accepted as an appropriate approach for long-term school curriculum design, its limitations include the risk that the curriculum becomes too rigid and crowded, and that educators will have to focus on re-teaching content that wasn’t taught well enough (or was forgotten) the last time the topic was taught.
Harden, R., and Stamper, N. (1999). What is a spiral approach to curriculum? Medical Teacher, 21(2): 141-143.
Howard, J. (2007). Curriculum Development. Elon University: Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.
Lohani, V. K., Mallikarjunan, K., Wolfe, M. L., Wildman, T., Connor, J., Muffo, J., … & Chang, M. (2005, October). Work in progress-spiral approach to curriculum to reformulate engineering curriculum. In Proceedings Frontiers in Education 35th Annual Conference. IEEE.
Masters, K., and Gibbs, T. (2007). The Spiral Approach: implications for online learning. BMC Medical Education, 7(52): doi:10.1186/1472-6920-7-52.
Snider, V. E. (2004). A comparison of spiral versus strand curriculum. Journal of Direct Instruction, 4(1), 29-39.