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The spiral curriculum approach

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Spaced practice and the spiral curriculum

Elizabeth Mountstevens, Sir John Lawes School, UK

When the new GCSE science curricula were introduced in 2015, the chemistry department at Sir John Lawes School took the opportunity to tailor the curriculum to our needs. Our specification – OCR Twenty-First Century Chemistry – has a narrative-based approach in which content is arranged not in traditional disciplines but by the context in which it is studied. For example, one module about chemicals of the natural environment includes both the reactivity of metals and the bonding between and within molecules. We adapted this structure by bringing some related ideas together in order to explore their connections.

When our first cohort sat their mock exams, we were disappointed in their answers on the knowledge recall questions and realised we needed to make changes to enhance long-term learning. Shortly afterwards, I was introduced to Dunlosky’s paper on study skills, ‘Strengthening the student toolbox’ (Dunlosky, 2013). He describes the benefits of spaced practice and spreading topic revision over a period of time. Further research revealed the optimum spacing between lessons on a particular topic depends on the length of time for which the material needs to be remembered. For a recall of several years, a delayed review of several months is optimal (Cepeda et al., 2008).

We identified key ideas that could be revisited at regular intervals. The ideas chosen were those important in securing understanding of the subject at GCSE and beyond, and those identified as poorly retained in mock examinations. Two examples are chemical bonding (the way particles join by chemical bonds, the structures formed and how these explain macroscopic properties) and mole calculations (using the relative atomic mass of elements to calculate the mass, volume or concentration of a substance produced by a reaction). We adjusted the curriculum by introducing the fundamentals of these ideas in Year 9 before rearranging the GCSE content to maximise the number of times these ideas were revisited. One example of this is shown in Figure 1. Although this approach was made easier by the narrative-based structure of our specification, it is applicable to different subjects, with similar ideas proposed in history education (Fordham, 2014).

The table has three columns headed (from left to right) 'Year', 'Concept' and 'Context' with four rows beneath. The first row reads (from left to right) '9'; 'Moles as a unit of counting'; 'What do the numbers mean on the periodic table?'. The second row reads '10'; 'Using moles in reacting mass calculations'; 'How much metal can be extracted?'. The third row reads '11'; 'Mole calculations involving gases'; 'How much gas is produced when acids react with metals?'. The fourth row reads '11'; 'Mole calculations involving solutions'; 'How can I measure the concentration of my solution?'.
Figure 1: The development of ideas about moles through the adapted curriculum used at Sir John Lawes School

Spiral curricula are common in narrative-based approaches (Wilson et al., 2015) and are often associated with enquiry-type learning. However, our experience agrees with Wilson et al. (2015) that there is no conflict between a spiral curriculum and a more traditional approach to teaching. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that altering our curriculum has had no effect on our pedagogy. Instead of a linear progression, we now see the GCSE course as a web of linked ideas and we use a variety of techniques to emphasise this in our teaching. Recall of knowledge is promoted by regular low-stakes quizzes. Our questioning requires students to make connections between topics, which teaches them the important study skill of elaboration (Dunlosky, 2013).

In addition to improving knowledge recall, revisiting concepts through different contexts can aid knowledge transfer. When students are taught ideas in a specific context, they often struggle to apply these without the same cues (Didau and Rose, 2016). Teaching ideas across multiple contexts can make learning more flexible. For example, ‘molecules’ are introduced in Year 9 in the context of the early atmosphere. In Year 10, they are studied in terms of the forces within and between molecules. These forces between molecules are revisited when the separation of crude oil is studied and finally in Year 11, in terms of modifying the properties of polymers. This can help students to apply their knowledge in unfamiliar situations (Willingham, 2002).

The course is still in its first year of teaching, so it is too early to evaluate the impact, but students have risen to the challenge of tackling core ideas in Year 9, and teachers have enjoyed the increased opportunity to highlight connections between different topics. We hope that with the improved recall and transfer of knowledge, students will reach success in their GCSE exams and future studies.

Applying the spiral curriculum approach to IB physics

Cecilia Astolfi, Teacher of Physics, Brentwood School, UK

The implementation of the ‘spiral curriculum’ approach at Brentwood School was informed by observations colleagues and I made regarding difficulties encountered by lower sixth (L6) students in solving questions which branched across multiple topic areas. Such questions are the standard in International Baccalaureate (IB) physics exams and problem-solving is a key skill for students to acquire in answering them. We noticed that even students who were able to express a sound understanding of topic-specific knowledge still struggled to apply this knowledge when faced with cross-topic questions.

Spiral curriculum is a cognitive theory proposed by Jerome Bruner, based on iterative revisiting of topics at increasing levels of difficulty. New skills and notions are clearly related to previous learning, with the aim of progressively increasing competency (Johnston, 2012; Harden, 1999). This approach underpins the Primary Framework (DfE, 2006) in particular with regard to the ‘application of knowledge in new contexts to involve children in higher-order thinking skills, such as reasoning and problem solving’ (p. 13).

I first heard of this approach in 2015, when a head of department decided to apply it to GCSE to tackle the new 2017 specifications. I started teaching IB in January 2019 and felt that it would benefit from this approach. I embarked on the task of splitting large topics such as mechanics and waves into smaller sections, based on what sort of prior knowledge would help students’ conceptual and mathematical comprehension. Every time students encounter a new chunk, they have to revise the topics on which it builds, leading to better retention as well as gains in depth of understanding.

One example is looking at the application of magnetic fields within particle confinement and detection in accelerators. This requires prior knowledge of circular motion as well as magnetism. Basic mechanics must be looked at before circular motion, and conventional versus electron flow must be studied before magnetism.

Another crucial skill in the IB is data-processing – including propagation of uncertainties. This is in Chapter 1 of textbooks, meaning that it is sometimes overlooked by teachers and students alike, and is considered too basic or boring. However, as students need to complete an internal assessment, and half of Paper 3 is based on data analysis, it clearly requires particular attention. This can easily be integrated into the spiral curriculum, as students can be trained in using spreadsheets at the very beginning and then practise the ability regularly.

A final consideration was that – as is commonplace – sixth-form classes at Brentwood School have two teachers with an almost equal time split. With this in mind, I designed a curriculum wherein teachers swap topics. For example, teacher A looks at circular motion, and teacher B then links it to gravitational fields. As a result, students are exposed to different teaching and learning approaches in each sub-topic, and it is likely that any gaps will be picked up in the next rotation.

By splitting large topics into smaller sections, students can be exposed to multi-topic exam-style questions early in the programme, and encouraged to view physics as the complex, holistic subject that it is.

While the full impact of the shift from linear to spiral curriculum is yet to be evaluated, success in terms of student progress and engagement is suggested by both student voice and assessment. A more quantitative measure is provided by the internal, mid-term exam results, which were significantly better than last year’s L6 cohort. Students display high levels of interest and engagement by often asking, ‘What are we learning today?’ or ‘What are we learning next?’ I have also noted that students are able to make cross-topic links when unprompted. Several students noted how ‘light’ was treated as a particle in earlier topics, but as a wave for the double slit experiment, and questioned how that was possible – showcasing both critical thinking and ever-evolving communication skills.


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Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D et al. (2008) Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science 19(11): 1095–1102.

Department for Education (2006) Primary framework for literacy and numeracy. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2019).

Didau D and Rose N (2016) What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Limited.

Dunlosky J (2013) Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator 37(3): 12–21.

Fordham M (2014) Making history stick part 2: Switching the scale between overview and depth. Available at: (accessed 18 February 2019).

Harden RM (1999) What is a spiral curriculum? Medical Teacher 21(2): 141–143.

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Willingham DT (2002) Inflexible knowledge: The first step to expertise. Available at: (accessed 26 March 2019).

Wilson F, Evans S and Old S (2015) Context led science courses: A review. Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment Publication 19: 7–13.

For further information about the International Baccalaureate, visit

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas