On linear progress and spiral curricula

This blog should be referenced in part to a conversation I had with one of my doctoral students, Anthony Anderson, in a supervision recently. Something he said made me have one of those random, wild, thoughts concerning the difficulties of reconciling the notion of linear progress, which I have written about elsewhere, and the spiral curriculum. I have then explored this idea further with a number of groups of teachers I have been speaking with. Writing this blog is an attempt to tame some of those wild thoughts!

As an academic, it’s part of my role to look at the history of ideas, something which seems to be discouraged in our fast-moving contemporary ways of working in education. Let’s start with the spiral curriculum. It is usually traced back to Bruner:

We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. (Bruner, 1960 p.13).

He later expanded on this (Bruner, 1975) and observed:

…I was struck by the fact that successful efforts to teach highly structured bodies of knowledge like mathematics, physical sciences, and even the field of history often took the form of metaphoric spiral in which at some simple level a set of ideas or operations were introduced in a rather intuitive way and, once mastered in that spirit, were then revisited and reconstrued in a more formal or operational way, then being connected with other knowledge, the mastery at this stage then being carried one step higher to a new level of formal or operational rigour and to a broader level of abstraction and comprehensiveness. The end stage of this process was eventual mastery of the connexity and structure of a large body of knowledge…

It is from Bruner, then that we take the notion of the spiral curriculum. Now in music education we are very familiar with this, but before I hit the familiar, there is also an unfamiliar, certainly in the UK, and maybe elsewhere, and that is the Manhatanville Music Curriculum Project (MMCP) of about 1970 – which must be important as it has an entry on wikipedia here!

The MMCP proposed a spiral curriculum for music education. I am sorry that the image I have is very old, (well, 1970!) but it looks like this:Manhattanville Music CP SpiralThis is interesting. And probably uncontentious! It delineates Form, Rhythm, Pitch, Dynamics, and Timbre, as what we and some old National Curricular might call musical elements, becoming more complex in processing and understanding as the learner develops and matures. Which leads us to our next, and far more famous (at least in the UK!) spiral, from Swanwick and Tillman (1986), which looks like this:Swanwick Tillman spiralThis is so stonkingly familiar I’m not sure I need to discuss it, do I? But if you haven’t met it before, the original article is fairly readily available, and it’s also worth reading Swanwick (2001) where he discusses more aspects of it. Then, for a critique, see Janet Mills (1996), where she say this of the spiral:

 While we wait for further evidence, we may wish to think of the [Swanwick-Tillman] spiral as we try to make sense of children’s music making. … Being the best model around is not enough. If we don spiral-shaped blinkers, we may miss something even better. (Mills 1996, p110)

I think for many teachers today spiral curricular thinking is central to their planning, and of how they think about teaching and learning generally. Again, I don’t exception to this. Maybe a typical example of this could be represented something like:


But – and here’s the rub –  running alongside the spiral, we also have a straight line:


(Source: http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance/2012/secondary_12/s5.html)

I think many of the problems that have beset school music assessment have come from trying to assume that a spiral curriculum (that we like?) can have a linear progression (that we don’t?) bolted onto it.

It can’t.

Doing something like this:

spiral  and linear

Can end up being just plain silly, if we are not very careful!

As music teachers, indeed, as informed educators, we know that music has a number of key components, topics, themes, and goodness knows what else, that we pedagogically visit and revisit at differing depths. Trying to fit our complex spiral curricula into linear progression is doomed to failure. We might be wearing spiral shaped blinkers, but the SLTs who force music teachers into this are wearing blinkers that only have a slit carved into them at 45°!

No wonder assessment in music education is in such a state, when we need a complex 3D model to try and represent thinking!


Bruner, J. (1960) The process of education, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1969.

Bruner, J. (1975) ‘Entry into Early Language: A Spiral Curriculum. ‘. Swansea, University College of Swansea.

Mills, J. (1996) ‘Musical development in the primary years’. In Spruce, G. (Ed), Teaching music in secondary schools: a reader, p. 80. London, Open University Press.

Swanwick, K. (2001) Musical Development Theories Revisited. Music Education Research, 3, 2, 227-42.

Swanwick, K. & Tillman, J. (1986) The sequence of musical development: a study of children’s compositions. British Journal of Music Education, 3, 3, 305-9.

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4 Responses to On linear progress and spiral curricula

  1. nigelmtaylor says:

    I confess that I’ve always struggled with visual representations of both “the spiral curriculum” and “linear progress” in music. I think I understand the concepts! (I think….) But both, of themselves, attempt to make concrete that which is often abstract. And more confusingly (for me at least) divert attention away from is primarily auditory, physical and emotional rather than visual, both in stimuli and response.

    I wouldn’t want to argue the point, given what I’ve just written, but a spiral of any kind could, in theory, harbour a linear track, depending on the surface being followed, as can a mobius strip. The problem with both of these examples for me (and I stress that this is my deeply personal challenge with spatial awareness being laid bare) is that we attempt to make science of something that may defy science (yes, yes, I know about the physics and chemistry and biology of music blah blah) – but sometimes we do it and over-rationalise, perhaps so that we are “equal” with the other subjects on the curriculum? And then, of course, we produce a terror of assessment – in which we are trying to be seen to assess the abstract but in a concrete way – so that we conform to what is expected by the state. Is this really music?

    I always remember, many years ago, as a naive, green student on teaching practice in Boldon Comprehensive School where Brian Loane was the head of department – a visionary, extraordinary teacher from whom I learned much more than ever I did in lecture and seminars. He observed a couple of lessons I was supposedly meant to be “teaching” and said “Use music itself to explain to young people what you mean. This isn’t an art lesson or an English lesson.”

  2. Janet Hoskyns says:

    I think the other issue about both a linear and spiral view, is they make assumptions that progress(whatever that is) moves upwards and rightwards, whereas we all know that in music making progress may involve retrograde movements ( downwards and leftwards) as well as up and right. This probably needs four dimensional images to express the complexity of what progress might mean in music education!

  3. jfin107 says:

    All of this is too abstract for me and it’s not that I am averse to abstractions.

    If I visit Sawston Village College and there in lesson 1 Year 7 are making Samba and in lesson 2 Year 9 are making Samba (Samba visited each year) I notice qualitative differences that boil down to the degree of fluency and expressiveness (ease, control and intention satisfied) achieved.

    Change is enough.

    Whether change has been upwards, sideways, downwards, linear, recursive, erratic, sporadic, seasonal …. is of little interest.

    Or perhaps change is directionless.

    I am a great fan of the history of ideas. Thank you Martin.

  4. jfin107 says:

    I forgot to say how welcome to separate out Bruner from ST.
    Both Bruner and MMP I take to be concept focussed, quite unlike ST.

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