Today I learned about the “spiral curriculum.”

I kept coming across references to “spiraling” in my reading on project-based learning and direct instruction, and I finally got curious enough to spend an hour on a tangent and look it up. Here’s how one teacher, who advocates “spiraling” describes the traditional approach:

The basic idea behind the traditional approach is that the TIME has come for something: fractions, gerunds, state capitals, the Third Law of Thermodynamics – whatever. Because the time has come, we’re going to learn it. Maybe that means we’re going to memorize it (like with state capitals). Maybe that means we’re going to develop a skill with it (like the addition of fractions with like denominators). Maybe that means we’re going to grasp how it affects us. But whatever it means, the time is NOW – for EVERYONE. We’re going to work on it for a while. The kids are going to learn it NOW. And then we’re going to move on to the next thing that the time has come for…

Okay, he’s obviously mocking the traditional approach a bit here, but the concept is familiar enough: you teach an idea or skill, then you have the students practice that idea or skill until they’re good at it. This makes plenty of sense to me. Indeed, it’s how I learned most things, from math to English, from basketball to the trumpet.

Here’s how the teacher describes “spiraling:”

In contrast, a spiral curriculum begins with the assumption that children are not always ready to learn something. Readiness to learn is at the core of a spiral curriculum. And instead of focusing for relatively long periods of time on some narrow topic whose time has come, a spiral curriculum tries to expose students to a wide varies of ideas over and over ago. For a select few, the time for gerunds and infinitives has already arrived by the second grade. And for a few, algebra and geometry make perfect sense by grade three. A spiral curriculum, by moving in a circular pattern from topic to topic within a field like, say, math, seeks to catch kids when they first become ready to learn something and pick up the other kids, the ones not ready to learn yet, later – the next time we spiral around to that topic.

This description is obviously intended to sell me on the idea of “spiraling,” but I’m immediately seeing a lot of red flags. For starters, as soon as I read the bit about children not being ready to learn, I’m thinking this is going to become an excuse for not teaching them. I just know that when a student doesn’t get it, the tendency is going to be for the teacher to say, she just wasn’t ready yet, but she’ll pick it up the next time around. But what if that isn’t the problem? What if the problem is that you didn’t teach the lesson well? What if the problem is that the student didn’t get enough practice? You’re never going to figure that out if your attitude is that the student just wasn’t ready. What if the student actually learned the wrong lesson? She’s going to be carrying around incorrect information or bad habits until the next time this particularly topic “spirals” around. You’ve just wasted everyone’s time, or worse.

It is with math that I became involved in a spiral curriculum. My school district began recently implementing a curriculum developed at the University of Chicago called Everyday Math. From the very early grades students are introduced to ideas from algebra, geometry, statistics, measurement, patterns, and so on. The challenge for the teacher? Simple: stay on track. The first time you try and explain what a variable is, NO ONE gets it. You spend the day that the book says to on it and you MOVE ON.

Think about that: You spend the day. And no one gets it. And the teacher’s challenge? To move on.

And THAT is HARD for someone from a traditional background. Looking at a group of kids and saying, “No one understood. Some of them will get it next time…” is hard for someone from a traditional teaching background. But there will be a next time. And a next time after that. So if Billy or Suzie isn’t ready for converting improper fractions to mixed numbers this week, RIGHT NOW, that’s okay.

You’re damned right that’s hard for someone with a traditional background. That’s because they care about actually teaching the poor kids.

But don’t worry.

That’s okay.

Because there will be a next time. And a next time after that.

And after that?

Pure educational malpractice. This guy shouldn’t be let anywhere near a kid.