What is a spiraling curriculum and why does it matter?

Have you ever heard people talk about spiraling curriculum, and wondered what they meant?  If you picture the metal wire that binds a spiral notebook, you’ll see that it keeps coming back around to meet the pages as you travel up the wire.  It does not cut through at the same level, but nonetheless is passing through the same pages again and again.  A spiral curriculum does essentially the same thing.  A child’s studies will come back around to the same ideas at different points throughout their learning journey.  Just as the wire does not enter the same point in the pages every time, the learning is at increasingly complex levels each time a subject is revisited and may place emphasis on different aspects of the same topic.  

I love the freedom a spiraling curriculum gives.  It takes away the pressure of making sure we eek out every bit of learning before leaving a topic.  It allows us to introduce complex topics to our young children, letting them make sense of as much as they are able.  It builds a foundation of understanding that serves as prior knowledge the next time we return to the subject, providing a springboard that enables children to investigate on a deeper level.  It reinforces concepts that we learned a while ago, that may have been dangling precariously at the edge of brain storage, soon to be lost forever.  Instead, the knowledge is saved, strengthened and extended.  

The concept of a curriculum spiral has an added benefit for homeschooling families.  In addition to giving one child more opportunities to learn about a subject, it also enables us to meet each of our children at their own level while sharing experiences, lessons, and discussions.  A younger child will benefit from hearing more advanced insights from a sibling who is revisiting the topic.  For example, every spring frogs can be heard in the woods.  A preschooler may learn to identify the sound, look at pictures of frogs, notice how their bodies are shaped and learn about where frogs live and what they eat.  A primary student might learn about the life cycle of a frog and what makes it an amphibian.  An older elementary student may learn about different species of frogs and what unique characteristics help them survive in their habitats.  A middle school student could dissect a frog and compare its anatomy to that of a human.  A high school student may focus on what it means for frogs to be an indicator species and collect or find data to test a hypothesis about the health of local ecosystems.  While each child is working at his/her own level and exploring different aspects of the topic, we could have discussions, visit parks or museums together, and watch the same educational shows on our shared topic.  While young children may not be ready for complex aspects of a topic, spiraling allows for more complicated questioning and investigations over time.

If you need more proof of the effectiveness of spiraling curriculum, think about your experiences as you homeschool your children.  I am learning so much more about many of the topics we’re studying than I ever did as a child!  Maybe this time, I’ll actually remember something about history.

What does a spiraling curriculum look like in math? This is probably where the greatest debate lies between spiral curriculums and those built on mastery. When you think about it, all math curriculums spiral to some extent. Children learn to add in kindergarten, and then we revisit addition with two digits, four digits, fractions, variables… They continue to see the same concepts, but each time the complexity increases and the application broadens. This is very important. The problem occurs when curriculums take spiraling to the extreme. Rather than giving children time to fully understand a concept, they jump to something else, then come back again later. Truly learning mathematics takes time. Children need to solve problems repeatedly, approach them in different ways, consider them from different angles, try manipulatives, draw a picture, explain their thinking, and give their brains a chance to process the concepts. When a curriculum jumps around too much, this doesn’t happen, and learners don’t make progress. Review, in math, is the best place for the spiraling to occur. Continually revisiting concepts they have already learned helps maintain progress made. However, new learning should not be rushed, and those who have tried spiraling math curriculums end up frustrated. That’s why H4RL’s math curriculum is based on a mastery approach.

One important note to mention is that, though I have referred to a spiraling curriculum, you do not have to purchase curriculum in order to effectively spiral your children’s science and history education.  Many times it just comes naturally, especially when we capitalize on field trips and other carpe diem sort of educational opportunities.  I know sometimes we’re hesitant to make time for activities that don’t align with what our children are studying at the time, but these experiences can be a great way to reinforce and stretch their understanding.  A more certain way to revisit topics you have studied is to keep a list of them and put a short review in your lesson plans.  This may be a dinner discussion, a book from the library, a video on the topic, or an experience.    

Repeated experiences lead to deeper understanding.  Get creative and find some new ways to look at an old topic.  I’d love to hear how it goes!


https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED538282, “The Spiral Curriculum.  Research Into Practice” by Howard Johnston, Education Partnerships, Inc.

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