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The Saratoga Falcon

Spiral of Failure: Why teaching the same concepts every year doesn’t work

How many times do students need to learn about the American Revolution to “get it?” Apparently the answer is four: once in fifth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade, and 11th grade. This model of education, which is prevalent in American schools, is called “spiral learning,” in which students return to the same basic concepts on a periodic basis, but with increased complexity each time.
The application of this idea is simple. In fifth grade, kids learn that the American Revolution happened. In eighth, students are asked to memorize the Bill of Rights and Preamble of the Constitution. Two years later, they analyze the causes of the war, and during junior year, they read Thomas Paine in APUSH. 
According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, who designed the spiral method, it is more effective, because students are able to hammer down on fundamentals before learning more and more abstract material.
In reality, though, the result is that students become weary of the American Revolution as they are forced to regurgitate the same information again and again. In its current form, spiral learning is not an effective teaching method.
A recent paper by Vicki E. Snider, a professor from University of Wisconsin, supports this idea. Dr. Snider analyzed how fractions are taught in a common spiral-curriculum math textbook called Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley (SF-AW).
The SF-AW textbook spends three weeks learning about the basics of fractions in third grade, including one lesson on the concept of “fractions equal to 1.” In the following year, SF-AW discusses that concept in only one example problem, and in fifth grade, students are expected to apply this to adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators without review. 
The textbook assumes students remember the briefly covered concept from the year before, but for students who were too young to understand it in third grade, and didn’t catch it fourth grade because the teacher didn’t have time to teach it, mastering these advanced problems will be virtually impossible.
The fundamental problem with spiral learning, especially in mathematics, is that it teaches a concept superficially. The goal is to introduce the concept, so the students will recognize  it when they see it next year, and only one lesson is allocated for it. 
As a result, some students never really “get” the concept of fractions and are left to struggle as they are funnelled into the next level by teachers who never worry about their lack of proficiency because they figure the students will learn the concept again next year. Likewise, students learn to loathe those topics they never actually understood, and recognize that by avoiding those subjects when they strike every year, they can get by. 
Supporters of spiral learning sometimes point to China’s highly successful science curriculum, which splits each year of secondary school science education into physics, chemistry and biology. The system seems to be working: In 2009, Shanghai, China, ranked first in science education among more than 70 countries, while the U.S. took 23rd.
Compared to our school’s science curriculum, which forces freshmen into one year of biology followed by one year of chemistry, China’s spiral curriculum looks attractive. However, this link is a correlation, not a causation. 
According to professor Norman, Northridge California State University professor of science education, compared to an American student, the average Shanghainese student spent 140 percent as much time studying biology, 200 percent chemistry and 280 percent physics. 
Clearly, the amount of instructional time is the key to Shanghai’s success in science education, not its spiral curriculum.
While spiral learning may appear to be an powerful way of teaching, American schools need to recognize the truth: A spiral curriculum is simply unproductive. 
Instead, we should look to other styles of curriculum, such as a mastery-based one, where, as the New York Times put it, “understanding of a subject is constant and time is a variable”, and each student learns at his or her own pace. Rather than looking back, we should embed old concepts into new ones with the expectation that students remember, not reteach old material. 
Education, at its core, needs to identify where students are academically and challenge them appropriately. Without this crucial element, which spiral learning does not provide, schools will inevitably fail to engage students. 
 
 
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