"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Did We Totally Misunderstand What A Spiral Curriculum Should Be?

A public school science teacher in the Philippines wrote me an email a couple of months ago asking for advice regarding her planned master thesis. She wishes to evaluate the spiral science curriculum of the new DepEd K+12 curriculum. To do this empirically, one has to take into account the period of the program. The Philippines DepEd K+12 curriculum prescribes the teaching of the sciences in the following manner: Grades 7 through 10 students spend a quarter of every year on each of the following disciplines: Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Earth Science. Thus, it requires at least four years to even find students who have already gone through the complete program. This aspect actually highlights what is wrong in the DepEd's K+12 curriculum. It totally misses what a spiral progression should entail.

DepEd advertises the above schedule as a spiral curriculum. "Concepts and skills in Life Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Sciences are presented with increasing levels of complexity from one grade level to another, thus paving the way for deeper understanding of key concepts."

It is apparent that education policy makers in the Philippines have misinterpreted the phrases "increasing levels of complexity" and "deeper understanding of key concepts". The following slide from a presentation made by Marlene B. Ferido from the University of the Philippines, National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development illustrates this glaring error in the following table:

The above lists the topics in chemistry assigned to each year in grades 7 through 10. These topics may be related to each other, but these certainly are not arranged according to increasing complexity nor depth. These are various chapters that may be found in any standard General Chemistry textbook, which for practical purposes, can actually stand alone. For example, how can a teacher revisit and explore deeper "concentrations of solutions" and "distinguishing mixture from substances" in studying the kinetic molecular theory and the gas laws? There is not much overlap between these two areas of studies in chemistry.

DepEd's science curriculum is nowhere near what one might refer to as a spiral progression. It is simply dividing one year of chemistry instruction into four parts, teaching one part per year in junior high school, and spending the other three quarters on the other sciences. Such implementation is truly a misapprehension of the spiral curriculum first introduced by Jerome Bruner (The following is an excerpt from Medical Teacher, Vol. 21, No. 2, 1999):

Bruner's spiral curriculum, first of all, does not imply mixing four different disciplines in the sciences in one year. One should note that Bruner is not talking about teaching different subjects and revisiting each one each year.

What Bruner talks about is actually closer to an apprenticeship approach. The following figure explains one important ingredient in a spiral curriculum:

Above copied from Concluding Thoughts: Implications of the Cognitive Apprenticeship Model for Teaching and Learning
The important ingredient is scaffolding or coaching. Both are very extensive at the beginning, but as a student revisits each topic, this support is gradually decreased. Brian C. Gibbs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison drives home this essential aspect of the spiral curriculum through the following example:

Descaffolding timed writing 
First timed writing
DAY 1: Introduce timed writing, read through prompt; analyze criteria chart; alone or in teams, have students create a fact sheet or list of all the specific factual information that students will need to complete the writing.
DAY 2: Alone or in teams, have students create a prewrite, map, or outline of the timed writing based on the prompt, criteria chart, and fact sheet.
DAY 3: Create rough draft based upon prewrite, criteria chart, prompt, and fact sheet.
DAY 4: With partners or instructor, spend time going over all the student information and work thus far; organize it into a usable format.
DAY 5: With prompt, criteria chart, fact sheet, prewrite, and rough draft, students have 60 minutes to complete their timed writing. Students are graded on every portion of the process, not just the final timed writing piece, though the final piece is, of course, graded most heavily. 
Second timed writing
DAY 1: Introduce timed writing, read through prompt. Analyze criteria chart alone or in teams; create a fact sheet or list of all the specific facts that students will need to complete writing.
DAY 2: Alone or in teams, students create a prewrite, map, or outline of their timed writing based on the prompt, criteria chart, and fact sheet.
DAY 3: Have students organize their information into a usable format; no rough draft.
DAY 4: Complete timed writing in 50 minutes. 
Third timed writing
DAY 1: Introduce timed writing, read through prompt; analyze criteria chart.
DAY 2: Students organize information in preparation for their timed writing.
DAY 3: Students complete timed writing in 40 minutes with prompt and criteria chart. 
Fourth timed writing
DAY 1: Introduce timed writing, read through prompt; analyze criteria chart.
DAY 2: Students complete timed writing in 30 minutes with prompt only. 
Fifth timed writing
DAY 1: Introduce timed writing and criteria chart. Have students write timed writing in 35 m
Another important aspect of the spiral curriculum that should be obvious in the above example is the delivery time. The above example takes place over fifteen days of instruction. A spiral progression practically works with only one instructor who can effectively monitor the progress of the lessons, and therefore appropriately design the gradual decrease in scaffolding. DepEd' K+12 curriculum simply assumes the impossible. Spiral progression cannot efficiently happen over four years involving so many teachers. The Department of Education in the Philippines needs to examine what a spiral curriculum really entails and the following paragraph from Gibbs' "Reconfiguring Bruner: Compressing the spiral curriculum" is a good place to start:
Bruner was right, but his scale was wrong. His conception of spiral curriculum delivery is accurate from a broad perspective, but its implementation needs to be more compressed. It can be and is much more powerful when scaled down to fit the
individual classroom or grade level. An individual teacher choosing the intellectual and academic skills that are of most value to students affords a much more potent implementation of the spiral curriculum. Reimagining Bruner’s spiral this way
not only allows students and teachers to witness powerful change over time but, in fact, is much closer to Bruner’s intent that learning is connected, builds upon itself, and grows.


  1. i would like to address this reaction to the writer. (a friend sent me the link to your post.) may i know if, aside from analyzing the two tables above re the sequence of strands/domains and re matter (properties and structure), you took additional steps to determine the "spiralling logic" (to invent a phrase) from the grade 7 topics to the grade 10 topics? did you consult with the developers of the curriculum and discuss with them why the curriculum was designed that way to find out if there indeed exists a spralling progression or none at all? thank you for your time.

  2. Please reada more recent post on the blog and we can continue discussing there. "There Are Many Who Are Against K to 12"

    There is a link on this new post to a position paper by Agham - that also looks at the spiral approach of DepEd K 12. If you still have questions, we can continue our discussion there. By the way, I was told three years ago that there will be a response coming from DepEd regarding my comments/questions - I am still waiting.