Bruner and the spiral curriculum #chemedcarnival

“We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” (Jerome Bruner, 1960)

The theme of the second #chemedcarnival is “What education research has most influenced your practice?

I am definitely first and foremost a practitioner; not quite a ‘doer not a thinker’ but practice is always first and foremost in my approach to chemistry education.  When I was a new teacher I would often hear students, especially higher achievers, express frustration that their teachers had been lying to them about aspects of the chemistry curriculum.  This tended to be most vociferous with topics like atomic structure, A level students complaining that they were fed lies when presented with the ‘2.8.8. shells’ model of electron arrangements at GCSE.

It wasn’t until I had several years of experience behind me that I came across the concept of the spiral curriculum and therefore the work of Jerome Bruner that underpins it.

There are 2 common curriculum models in the world, the blocked model and the spiral model. In a blocked model, students meet chunks of subjects and often don’t meet them again in their compulsory schooling.  This kind of curriculum is most often seen in states in the USA where pupils may have ‘chemistry’ in a particular grade and not be taught chemistry again until several years later in their pre-college education (eg. Advanced Placement courses).

Spiral curricula are commonly seen in Europe and it is these that cause the frustrations I heard voiced by my pupils.  A concept (e.g. ‘acids’) is introduced several times over a student’s academic career and in each iteration the concept gets more challenging.

For example – pupil experience of acids

  • 11-14 years old – basic definition, general reactions, identifying pH with indicators and pH meter
  • 14-16 years old – titration as a method of analysing acid concentration, strong and weak acids as a function of extent of dissociation
  • 16-18 years old (post compulsory)  – mathematical definition of pH, calculation of pH for strong and weak acids (incl use of Ka), pH curves and indicator choice including equivalence point.

The work that underpins the design of spiral curricula is attributed to the educational psychologist, Jerome Bruner. A constructivist thinker, Bruner believed that all concepts can be taught to children on some intellectual level.  His work was in direct opposition to that of Piaget who believed children were incapable of understanding concepts until they reached particular levels of maturity.

Key features of the spiral curriculum based on Bruner’s work are: (1) The student revisits a topic, theme or subject several times throughout their school career; (2) The complexity of the topic or theme increases with each revisit; and (3) New learning has a relationship with old learning and is put in context with the old information. [1]

The main body of Bruner’s work was done in the 1960s and 70s but it has significant relevance today.  Whilst discussions in modern education often reference cognitive load theory, a well-designed spiral curriculum using Bruner’s principles scaffolds concepts, supporting a steady approach to conceptual understanding that should not overload pupils.

So, how did this work influence me?

  1. It gave me evidence to support my discussions with pupils when they vent their frustrations about being ‘lied’ to.  Now I discuss with them the idea of models with increasing complexity and how they are fitted for their audiences.
  2. As I gained experience in the craft of teaching and began to design my own curricula for schools I have worked in it gave me a blueprint for good curriculum design which supports many of the cognitive science that is currently en vogue in education (e.g. spaced practice, interleaving).
  3. I gained a new approach to differentiation in both directions. Where pupils were struggling with a concept, I knew how to dial back to the previously secure knowledge and build this up to allow them to access the new, more difficult concepts. For higher achievers I am more able to design challenging questions and introduce snapshots of how the concept develops beyond their current stage (e.g. I had some 12-13 year old pupils doing simple pH calculations and looking for the pattern between the [H+] and the pH output from their calculator.

As someone who works in both secondary and higher education I see that the spiral model tends to fall down following transfer to undergraduate study.  With more teaching and scholarship focused academics, this is beginning to right itself as discussions about prior understanding gain traction.


[1] The Spiral Curriculum. Research into Practice




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