Knowledge structures and the spiral curriculum.

The notion of the spiral curriculum still appears to be popular among institutions with the idea given prominence in many curriculum documents and institutional web sites. However, very rarely do any of these sources acknowledge some of the problems that are inherent in this approach.

The idea within the spiral curriculum approach is that sections of content will be revisited at various points in the curriculum, adding more details and greater levels of conceptual difficulty with every visit. Typically each topic will be revisited once each year.

So what are the problems? There are a number of problems that can be created, especially if the teaching staff are not all singing in harmony from the ‘same hymn sheet’:

1. When teaching a topic to a certain point, there is often a temptation to teach beyond the given point for a certain year. This is particularly the case if you have enquiring students who want to know more and who may have read beyond the allotted point in the curriculum. Do we really want to tell students to stop reading? So in such instances some students will stray into the territory of ‘next year’. So what will they do next year when the topic is revisited? Will they be bored, having already ‘done it’, or will they stray into the following years’ curriculum? You can see that the system will break down, and if other topics are reliant upon a certain level of understanding, then confusion will reign.

2. How do ‘threshold concepts’ fit into the spiral curriculum? These tend to be ‘all or nothing’, especially in scientific subjects. So to stop teaching before a threshold concept has been acquired will leave students in a state of ‘liminality’ until the next time around. This is then not a good time to assess students as they don’t fully understand the concept. So how do we then assess for partial understanding of a threshold concept? The likelihood is that students will lose sight of the bigger picture, focus on the immediate bits of content and will be forced into a surface learning approach. This will then be easily forgotten so that next year, when the concept is revisited, teachers will have to re-teach last year’s content to enable them to access this year’s content. We then get into the situation of content overload, and not enough time to do anything properly. This encourages a cycle of non-learning in which students and staff are complicit in an examination game based on acquiring a veneer of understanding.

3. How will the information this year be structured so that it will be receptive to the new information next year? The comments above suggest that students will develop linear chains of understanding, resulting from rote learning. Chains are not receptive to restructuring and so next year’s content is now made harder for the students to learn properly. We have, therefore, added work for the student in the already overloaded curriculum. If we haven’t planned the ideal knowledge structure for the end of year 1, then we cannot support students in years 2 and 3. If we haven’t planned the ideal knowledge structure for the final year, then we have no clue about the optimal knowledge structures for the intermediate stages.

sprial curriculumsummary figure  PDF: sprial curriculum

summary figure ppt: sprial curriculum

In the scenarios depicted above, the spiral curriculum is a sham, based solely on lists of content that are divided arbitrarily between years and semesters. I have yet to be convinced that anyone has successfully considered the points raised above when constructing a spiral curriculum. It seems like a nice idea, but in practice there are so many sources of problems that it becomes an unworkable model. If you have an example that overcomes all the problems I have described above, I am sure the academic community would benefit from hearing about it.


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