Curriculum Design 2: Spaced Practice vs Spiral Curriculum

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:

Posts in this series:

Curriculum Design 1: Do we even need to design the curriculum?

Curriculum Design 3: A common vocabulary, or a common misunderstanding?

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9 thoughts on “Curriculum Design 2: Spaced Practice vs Spiral Curriculum

  1. cazzypot2013 12 January 2015 at 7:31 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Austin Booth 12 January 2015 at 10:25 pm Reply

    I agree that its difficult to implement spacing well. My approach has been to use lesson starters to practice past content, going right back to the start of the year (or beyond!). You can read more about it in my blog post at

  3. Jennifer Haywood (@literacyjenni) 13 January 2015 at 7:18 am Reply

    I discussed this theory with my Y6 chn and shared ‘The Forgetting Curve’ with them We then planned together how often we’d revisit a topic through main lesson input, homework and starter activities. It helped them to understand firstly why they sometimes find it hard to remember things they’ve been taught before and secondly to become more proactive in revisiting topics using online learning programmes at home.

  4. Ben Trevail 15 January 2015 at 7:23 pm Reply

    Have you seen any good examples of long term primary Maths planning for the model you’re suggesting: longer units with opportunities for revisiting previous skills?

  5. Matt Hickey (@headhighwood) 16 January 2015 at 9:53 am Reply

    We are currently doing a piece of Action Research at my school based around ‘Turning Engagement into Achievement.’ I feel this approach of a spaced practice is going to be key! I think a lot of effort has gone into making curriculum topics engaging but much more work needs to go into ensuring that once the children (boys in particular at our school) are engaged, that the planning of the curriculum allows for planned rather than ad hoc progression of skills and concepts and regular practise to ensure transfer into long term memory.

  6. michael bibon 24 January 2015 at 6:17 am Reply

    i was actually doing a thesis on spiral approach and spacing..a lot of people got also confused with the difference btween spacing and spiral..well, my concern in the thesis is to check whether students learn well in spacing than massing approach.,:)

  7. Lhenylene Santos 21 May 2016 at 8:34 am Reply

    I am currently conducting my study entitled “Assessment of the Implementation of Spiral Progression in Mathematics Instruction”. Can anyone help me by suggesting an appropriate tool in assessing the effectiveness of spiral progression in Math Instruction?
    .. Please email me… Thank you in advance and Godbless=)

  8. […] can intelligently practise what they’re learning. On a longer time frame, we then need to sequence the topics in the right order and with the right time allocation, so that new learning builds upon and […]

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