In my last post, I raised the issue of whether we need to design the curriculum at all. (Hint: we do). Today, I want to look at the matter of spiral and spaced curricula.
The currently-popular model of teaching – in primary at least – is that of short blocks, frequently repeated. The primary maths framework diagram gives a… fascinating… insight into what this might look like in practice, with units planned over a term, and then a cycle of repetition through each term to build on previous work.
We’ve also recently seen much emphasis on the benefits of Spaced Practice in learning. At first glance, this apparent spiral model could equally describe a model of Spaced Practice: children meet a concept, then go away to work on others for a ‘space’ of time before returning to the same theme the following term. I think that may be a misunderstanding of the issue – although I should stress that I’m no expert here, and others may add more – that confuses the matters.
To me, Spaced Practice is about repeated use of learned skills. We all know how rusty our foreign language skills become after leaving school because we just don’t use them often enough. If, each month, we were forced to have just a single 5-minute conversation in French, there is no doubt that we would better retain what we once knew, surely? But we probably wouldn’t get much better at it.
Spiral Curriculum, on the other hand, means trying to build on knowledge each time. Of course, how tight we wind the spiral varies: do we re-visit line graphs every half-term? Every term? Once a year? If it’s only annually, then can we reasonably expect children to remember all they were taught a year before? And how long do we spend each time? Two days? Three?
It’s not enough to simply keep coming back to topics at some point.
Let me draw in one of my infamous rambling analogies
Imagine a builder, laying out bricks. He’s quite likely to spiral in some form, keep coming back to the same part of the wall and building slightly higher. But importantly, he needs to make sure that each layer is ‘just so’ before moving on. He cannot hope that by quickly throwing bricks down, that the bricks on higher levels will help to cement the lower ones in place. If the mortar is wrong, or the brick laid poorly, then the whole wall will be all the weaker for it.
The spiral curriculum alone is not enough. Teaching based on assessment alone is not enough. What we need is a really well-structured, sensibly-sequenced, practice-filled curriculum as our basic starting point. Then, absolutely the strength of good teaching will be about using assessment to know when to move on and when to stick with what’s started, and making sure to revisit things regularly to keep knowledge and understanding in place. But they need the excellent curriculum to underpin them if they’re really to be effective.
A common visual representation of the current model of re-visiting blocks looks something like this:
Each block representing a ‘unit’ of work on a theme, and each theme visited several times through the year. At first it seems to make sense, but actually a term is a long time to retain information that isn’t being used. I think that what is suggested by Spaced Practice should look something more like this:
Here I’ve represented my preference for longer units on a common theme, rather than small spurts of teaching, but crucially each unit also incorporates elements from the previous unit. A very simple example might be the teaching of column methods for addition and multiplication. Once column addition is really secure, then when teaching long multiplication those skills are used (and thereby kept secure) as part of the process. It’s not a matter of re-teaching, or even of developing those particular skills further. Rather, it keeps them fresh. Of course, at some point a progression is likely – the spiral model still has its place over the longer term. But this time, with secure foundations, the next layer should be far more easily introduced and developed.
The trouble is, all of this highlights one of the many problems of research in education at the moment: it’s easy to agree that spacing is good. What is much harder is to agree on what we really mean by that – and other terms like it. More of that in blog 3.
Related blog recommendation:
David Thomas has written about three things he put in place last year in his lessons that have improved his teaching, including spaced testing & interleaving: http://www.mrthomasmaths.com/2015/01/3-teaching-techniques-made-2014/
Posts in this series: