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[Series: Adaptive Learning] Jerome Bruner & the Spiral Curriculum

By McGraw-Hill Education 3 years agoNo Comments
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Over the years, countless researchers have contributed their studies to help build what we now call adaptive learning – whether they were aware that their research would be used to influence learning in the 21st century or not.

Adaptive learning is just that – a way to make studying and reading adaptive to your learning style. It is a system that can change the information being presented to you by collecting and processing your skills, knowledge and confidence in a particular subject.

In the 60s, a researcher called Jerome Bruner was busy studying human cognition, presenting his findings in a book called The Process of Education. In this book, he explained how young minds learn and internalize information and specifically makes reference to the spiral curriculum – a theory that has been incorporated into adaptive learning models.


Who was Jerome Bruner?

Born in 1915 and still alive today, Jerome Bruner made his name as a prominent psychologist through his studies and research. Butler was born in New York and later studied at both Duke University and Harvard, where he got his PhD. He went on to become a professor of psychology at Harvard, where he also co-founded the Center for Cognitive Studies.

Many of his books would come to be considered classics, still referenced today by others. One of his classics, The Process of Education, explores the spiral curriculum. Before we can dive into that concept, we must also understand Bruner’s take on how children learn.


“We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”


In order to support this claim, Bruner explained three general ideas that helped build the foundation upon which children can develop their intellect. The three ideas were intellectual development, the act of learning and the spiral curriculum.


Process of Intellectual Development in Children

Bruner said there are three stages of intellectual development in children.

Active Operations

Bruner said this is a preoperational stage, happening from when children learn to speak to when they being to learn how to use symbols. Children are able to build relationships between action and experience, however they are not easily able to understand cause and effect. At this stage, a child establishes what is right and wrong through trial and error as they are not intellectually savvy enough to promptly provide a solution.

The process of intellectual development in children

Concrete Operations

At this stage, the child is now in school. They are still taking action, but the actions are now operational, helping them gather data about the real world and allowing them to transform and organize the information, internalize it and then use it to solve problems.  These operations also go beyond just being actions because at this stage the child also understands the process of reversal. For example, if a car made out of Lego is smashed, the child understands that it can rebuilt into a whole car – the action is reversible.

At this stage, these operations are limited to the present and the child does not yet understand things that have not happened yet or grasp the idea of the existence of alternate possibilities.

Formal Operations

At this stage, the child has advanced again. They are able to use their intellect to operate based on hypothetical ideas and move beyond operating strictly based on their existing pool of knowledge. The child can now contemplate new possibilities and relationships that can be confirmed through experiment. The child is able to explain how to solve a problem and ideas they could not grasp in previous stages.

In order to help guide children through these different intellectual stages, Bruner said it’s important to use informal explanations that are easily understood by the children. They must be taught using their level of logic, within their existing scope of knowledge.


The Act of Learning

When learning at any stage Bruner said there are three processes one must go through.


The first process is acquiring new information or a new, better way to understand something you’ve previously learned.


During this process, the newly acquired information is taken a step further. The knowledge is manipulated to fit in new tasks; it is analyzed and discussed to understand the information in new and different ways.

The Act of Learning


This last stage of the process is checking your work. You must determine if you were correct in your manipulations of the information and, ultimately, if you were correct.


The Spiral Curriculum

“A curriculum as it develops should revisit these basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them.”

This quote from Bruner’s The Process of Education is a description of his vision of a spiral curriculum. Bruner felt that knowledge should be constructed around ideas, principles and values that are deemed important and provide worth to the learner as they mature as well as society as a whole.

The spiral curriculum is based on the concept that information is introduced to children at a young age and continually reintroduced, reinforced and built upon throughout their learnings. As Burner said in his book, “we might ask, as a criterion for any subject taught in primary school, whether, when fully developed, it is worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult.”

The Spiral Curriculum

Bruner believed that even complex topics can be introduced at a younger age, as long as they are described in a way that makes sense to young learners. For example, Bruner presented the idea of human tragedy. Children can be introduced to tragedy through classic myths or children’s tales. As they grow older, they are introduced into more complicated literature, like Shakespeare, to help mature their understanding of the topic.


Adaptive Learning & the Spiral Curriculum

The spiral curriculum has a large influence on how adaptive technology presents studying. For example, when using McGraw-Hill Education’s SmartBook platform, you are presented with various options to revisit past learnings. Based on your existing knowledge, specific text in each chapter is highlighted yellow for you to focus on. You are then given practice questions to test your knowledge. When questions are answered incorrectly, they are repeated later to help you practice what you’ve learned. Once you have mastered certain topics through practicing, the highlighted text turns green; reading you should go over again remains yellow.

SmartBook also has a section called recharge. Here, you are able to access old assignments and review them. By revisiting the information, you are strengthening your knowledge of it and preparing yourself for future tests or exams.

Like SmartBook, other adaptive learning technologies take the learner into consideration and reinforce information at the right times to make the learning as productive as possible.

In the future, if you are having a hard time grasping a concept, try and relate it to something you already know. As a teacher, if your students are having a hard time understanding a certain topic, revisit it in different ways to try and strengthen their understanding and build upon their knowledge.

In the coming months, we’ll be tackling more research that has helped influence adaptive learning. In order to better help explain what adaptive learning is and how it works (as well as pay homage to Bruner’s spiral curriculum) we’ll revisit the topic to give you’re a well-rounded picture of this technology.

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