The teaching and learning process is an interesting topic. It is full of discussions, development and examinations. Its importance is shown by the numerous literatures on different educational topics ranging from learning theories, methods and instruction, assessment process, and even curriculum.
The curriculum designs are important components of the learning process. These designs, each with its proposed advantages and labeled disadvantages, are among interesting notes since its design would determine the usefulness or effectiveness of other components in the teaching process.
One of the curriculum designs is the Spiral Curriculum. Simply understood as a curriculum in which students repeat the study of a subject at different grade levels, each time at a higher level of difficulty. The word “spiral” is descriptive of the idea of a repeated learning in spiral fashion.
The Spiral Curriculum is aimed at enabling the learners to strengthen the retention of learning and development of skills since the design is organized through repeated learning opportunities and from simple to more complex ideas.
To understand the spiral curriculum further, the words of Bruner will give a gist of it in the following manner:
A long time ago, I proposed the concept of a “spiral Curriculum”, the idea that in teaching a subject you begin with a “intuitive” account that is well within the reach of a student, and then circle back later to a more formal or highly standard account, until, with however many more recycling are necessary, the learner has mastered the topic or subject in its full generative power. (The Culture of Education. Jerome Seymour Bruner.Pg. 119)
As gleaned from the words of Bruner, one of the major proponents of the Spiral Curriculum, students use what they know and what they can grasp to be able to understand more complex ideas. For Bruner, learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current or past knowledge (a process very similar to the Constructivist Theory). The learner uses his cognitive set-up to process information, and applies the information.
Bruner (1975) also described the principles behind the spiral curriculum in the following way:
“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 metaphoric 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 stage of this process was eventual mastery of the connexity and structure of a large body of knowledge”…(p.3-4).
Gerome Bruner calls this “spiral curriculum” where the organization of the content is based on the interrelationship between a basic idea and with other ideas. Besides the using of past or current information to learn new ones, the spiral design also relates this information to other ideas.
The curriculum design is very much linked with the constructivist ideas. It was a product of evolution and contributions of many theorists of education like Bruner, Taba, Piaget and Vygotsky. Constructivism is a philosophical view on learning, anchored upon principles that learning must be based upon interaction with one’s environment, a product of stimulus for learning and subjected to social negotiation. Constructivism adheres to the idea that knowledge is self-constructive.
Jean Piaget proposed that learning is the product of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation and accommodation go hand-in-hand in the sense that assimilation is the process while accommodation is the result; that a person learns from his/her environment to create changes in his/her mind. Russian educator Lev Vygotsky, on the other hand, examined the interaction between the individual and others in a learning environment. Understanding context of his theory, he proposes that learning is subject to how others may influence learning. Bruner believed in both that learning is internal and subject to social influence. Hilda Taba, a major proponent of this design and relevant to social studies curriculum worked to create a more responsive and flexible design. Her work provided new insights in organization of objectives, learning experiences and assessment of such. For Taba, learning experiences should be planned in order to achieve desired objectives. As stated by Hilda Taba in her teacher handbook for elementary social studie, taken from Prospects (UNESCO, International Bureau of Education), vol. XXXIII, no. 4, December 2003, p. 481-91 by Edgar Krull:
The selection and organization of content implements only one of the four areas of objectives—that of knowledge. The selection of content does not develop the techniques and skills for thinking, change patterns of attitudes and feelings, or produce academic and social skills. These objectives only can be achieved by the way in which the learning experiences are planned and conducted in the classroom. […] Achievement of three of the four categories of objectives depends on the nature of learning experiences rather than on the content (Taba, 1967, p. 11).
The spiral curriculum sprouts from various learning theories and principles. It may be summarized in the following manner:
1. Readiness of the students to learn. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and backgrounds that make the student willing, and his ability to learn. A key aspect in this design, is the consideration of the students’ capacity to learn new ideas by making use of past knowledge. This process involves an internal reorganization of previously known ideas to acquire new ideas.
2. Learning must be in interaction with the environment. Learning is structured around ideas, concepts, principles, and values that a society deems worthy and useful. Learning must be usable. Instruction should be designed for students to further infer or supplement their understanding.
3. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization). Learning skills and attitudes can be achieved by planning learning experiences.
4. Interest in a subject is the ideal motivation for learning. “Intuitive” and analytical thinking should be encouraged and applied for motivation in learning.
5. Learning is an active, social process. Learning involves interaction with others and learning is subjected to social understanding and approval.
This design helped teachers develop their lesson presentation. They have structured their plans from simple lesson/s to more complex subjects, building on the previous learning of students in past years and incorporate additional more complex ideas. For example, in Social Studies lessons students in secondary education, first year students will study Philippine History, for the second year Asian History, for the third year on world history and Economics for the fourth year. When we check the books and lesson structures, the students learn more complex ideas that are not necessarily the same subjects they have learned the previous year.
The spiral curriculum is not without negative observations and censure. The design can be held with its weak points and disadvantages. As gleaned from the design, one of the disadvantages is the use of time in teaching the lessons. When subjects are taught in such manner, the tendency is that there maybe too many repetitions that would reduce teaching and learning time. Learners may be also find the design a bore or may not stimulate their interest in the subject since it was taught to them the previous grade. Learning can also be better assessed if students are expected to learn certain concepts and skills in a certain grade level than assessing learning for the same concepts or skills at different levels. Another disadvantage of the design is that when students are taught to master specific concepts or skills, it can also reduce topics that can be covered. There would be lesser topics to be discussed and sometimes at a superficial level only. The spiral design can also develop in students lesser adaptability and coping skills in discussions for higher and complicated learning. Another disadvantage of the design is the means of reviewing lessons. It would be disadvantageous if students would review lessons taken at a certain grade level and relearn them in the next level. The time allotted for reviewing can also be disadvantageous for learners. Finally, an important disadvantage is its sensitivity to cultures and backgrounds. Considering that students have different backgrounds, sometimes the teachers tend to neglect the fact that not all students come from the same background, and therefore do not build up to the student’s specific background appropriately.
To minimize these disadvantages, the curriculum developers, book publishers, administration and especially teachers, may study carefully what concepts they wish to be emphasized more and allot more discussions and time so that understanding and learning by students are not superficial. The structure of the curriculum or textbooks can be patterned in a way that chapters have relations with each other that students may review previously learned topics and not encounter these lessons the following year. Teachers can also make adjustments for teaching time to give emphasize to certain topics that are more significant than others.
To conclude, this design has it advantages and disadvantages but what is important is that we must capitalize on the advantages, and minimize the disadvantages.