Tracing the Spiral Curriculum: Montessori, Bruner, and the Bold Idea

Tracing the Spiral Curriculum: Montessori, Bruner, and the Bold Idea

"We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. It is a bold hypothesis and an essential one in thinking about the nature of the curriculum."

- Jerome Bruner (1960)


The term spiral curriculum was coined by Jerome Bruner in 1960 to describe a method of curriculum delivery in which major topics and skill areas are revisited with increasing complexity throughout a child's education, connecting prior learning with new learning. Bruner's hypothesis “suggests children can be introduced to a leading idea early in their experience provided that it is presented in a form that they can comprehend” (Efland 1995, 134). When Bruner presented his “bold hypothesis,” it is purported that he was challenged by Mario Montessori, who stated that “the idea had been bold when his mother started experimenting with it sixty years before and 'startled the world with its obtained results' [emphasis added]” (Montessori in O'Donnell 2007). Given the propagation of new educational theories during the early part of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that two renowned educational developmentalists would key in on a seemingly fundamental aspect of human learning and development. We'll come back to this.

Bruner was an American psychologist considered to be one of the principal founders of cognitive learning theory, and his model, according to Efland, was instrumental in curriculum reform of the 1950s and 1960s, generating numerous new programs and projects in math, the physical sciences and social studies. “Moreover, the model was useful in explaining the cognitive consequences if deficits in early learning inhibit the development and elaboration of later learning” (Efland 1995, 136), suggesting that if early learning is inadequate, acquisition of certain skills and competencies “may never fully develop.” This rationale laid the groundwork for Headstart preschool programs in the late 1960s. Bruner also coined the term scaffolding, an idea inspired by Vygotsky, “to describe an instructional process in which the instructor provides carefully programmed guidance, reducing the amount of assistance as the student progresses through task learning.” The reader may be interested in Gibbs' argument (2014) for the importance of descaffolding, or decreasing the teacher’s support, as a critical but often-missed step.

There can be no question that Bruner's contributions to cognitive learning theory, cognitive psychology, and educational psychology were significant, and they endure alongside the major contributions of notables like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Montessori.

Defining Characteristics of the Spiral Curriculum

The literature credits Jerome Bruner, not Maria Montessori, with the spiral curriculum model. As Mario Montessori suggested, however, the very concept is embodied in Montessori's carefully designed materials and, more specifically, their continued use from one plane of development to the next. This article examines elements of the spiral curriculum as articulated by Bruner, alongside examples of its manifestation in Montessori classrooms.

Bruner's model of the spiral curriculum is based on the following key elements (Johnston 2012):

  • The student revisits a topic, theme, or subject several times throughout their school career.
  • The complexity of the topic or theme increases with each revisit.
  • New learning has a relationship with old learning and is put in context with the old information.

The Montessori spiral curriculum is based on the following concepts, which can be found on a number of Montessori school websites (original source unknown):

  • Everything is interrelated. One lesson leads to many others.
  • The child moves from the concrete toward abstract understanding.
  • We always work from the big picture to increasing detail.
  • Every three years, major themes in the curriculum are studied again in greater depth and abstraction.

The interrelatedness of topics and lessons present in the Montessori model, but absent in Bruner's, appears to be the main difference between the two. Integrating subject areas is a major element of Montessori's Cosmic Education, which will be the focus of a future article.

The Spiral Curriculum and the Sensitive Periods

Bruner's model begins with an elaboration of his major premise (quoted above). Specifically, he addresses the differences in children's learning during different developmental stages:

At each stage of development the child has a characteristic way of viewing the world and explaining it to himself. The task of teaching a subject to a child at any particular age is one of representing the structure of that subject in terms of the child's ways of viewing things (Bruner in Efland, 1995, 137).

This will bring to mind for some readers a fundamental element of Montessori pedagogy—the sensitive periods, or natural dispositions that children have toward certain activities during specific times in their development. Montessori created her materials to directly correspond to the sensitive periods, and they are all the more elegant in their inherent design of use from one stage of development to another, consistent with more complex concepts as the child gains understanding. One example of this can be seen in the child's use of the Pink Tower (discussed in an earlier article that can be accessed here). This progression—from sensorial exploration to abstract understanding—is analogous to Bruner's ideas on learning in different stages:

Because learning in early childhood is largely grounded in the senses, the curriculum at that level should make use of concrete objects and pictures, and because the older students are less dependent upon sensory stimuli, and can employ abstract symbols, they are encouraged to discover general categories that make use of verbal or mathematical symbols that express the leading ideas of a discipline (Efland 1995, 137).

Other materials that are found in the sensorial area of the Early Childhood classroom, but in the mathematics area of the Elementary classroom, can also be used as examples. The geometric plane figures and the constructive triangles are discussed, respectively, in Part 1 and Part 2 of our series on geometry, and illustrate the ingenuity of Montessori materials as foundational to the spiral curriculum. We expand on the uses of the plane figures here for the purposes of this article.

Geometry in the Spiral Curriculum

The geometric plane figures include the square, the triangle, the circle, other polygons from the pentagon to the decagon, and a variety of other quadrilaterals and curved figures. Children in the Early Childhood classroom explore these figures sensorially through a variety of exercises, including:

  • removing and returning the figures to their corresponding frames, using a finger tripod grasp on the small peg at each figure's center
  • sequencing the figures by the numbers of sides
  • sorting the figures by straight edges and curved edges
  • matching the figures to their images on card material
  • matching the figures to the bases of the geometric solids
  • tracing the figures in metal inset form to create designs while practicing fine motor control required for writing

Concurrent with these exercises, the child is given the name of each figure, thereby beginning to build their mathematical vocabulary.

The child uses these materials again in the Elementary classroom, where they are found on the geometry shelf. They will continue some sensorial exploration, but this time aimed at gaining knowledge and skills related to higher order mathematical concepts not experienced at the Early Childhood level. The Elementary child will use the plane figures to learn about, for example:

  • parts of polygons and curved figures
  • classification of polygons and curved figures
  • constructing polygons and curved figures
  • acute, right, and obtuse angles
  • interior and exterior angles
  • perimeter and area

As described in Bruner's ideas above, the Early Childhood child “makes use of concrete objects and pictures,” while older students “discover general categories that make use of verbal or mathematical symbols.” In Montessori terms, the younger child has explored all the properties of the plane figures on a sensorial level, while the older child begins to abstract the mathematical concepts inherent in those properties. The Elementary child has spiraled back to earlier materials, revisiting them through the lens of their burgeoning abstract thinking, thereby gaining more sophisticated knowledge and deeper understanding.

Bruner and Montessori would agree on the benefits of laying the groundwork for geometry at a young age (and Montessori makes a special case for this in Psychogeometry). For Montessori, this is indirect preparation; for Bruner, it is employing the corresponding form of representation most appropriate to the child's stage of development and understanding.

The Spiral Curriculum and the Great Lessons

The spiral curriculum may be more noticeable in the math and geometry curricula than in areas based less on the progression of concepts (see section below); however it applies as well to other areas of the curriculum, especially as they relate to the Great Lessons—the hub of the wheel around which learning occurs—and the central component of the spiral curriculum. Given at the beginning of each year in Elementary 1 (and Elementary 2 in some schools), students spiral back each year to lessons on the origin of the universe, the development of life on Earth, the development of humans, and the history of writing and numbers. Major themes are revisited each year, with the child exploring related concepts at ever increasing levels of complexity. Following are examples of how students could spiral back to topics that arise from only the first two Great Lessons:

  • After hearing the story of the origin of the universe and Earth’s formation, a first-year student might be drawn to learning all about volcanoes; the next year that same student may hear the story and pursue work on types of rocks and minerals; and after hearing the story for the third time, they may be inclined to study plate tectonics. Spiraling back each year to lessons on Earth's formation, the child deepens their understanding of concepts related to the rock cycle (and that's only the lithosphere!). Moreover, the child will have come to the Elementary classroom having sorted objects by magnetic/non-magnetic and things that float/things that sink, giving them early exposure to ideas in physical science that they will revisit each year during the first Great Lesson.
  • The child in the Early Childhood classroom begins their life science studies with basic concepts like living/non-living; plant/animal/other; and vertebrate/invertebrate. They may learn the basic parts of the fish, or parts of the flower. In the Elementary classroom, after hearing the Great Lesson on the development of life on Earth, they go back to animals and plants, learning about their needs and their defining characteristics; they revisit the “parts of” plants and animals in terms of adaptations; and they study the evolutionary relationships between organisms as they trace the development of different branches of life on the timeline of life (relating biology to history) and on the Tree of Life. Middle school students may study differences between one branch of life and another at the level of biochemistry and genetics.

Concluding Thoughts

The spiral curriculum, as proposed by Bruner, has undergone scrutiny in light of more recent cognitive learning models. Questions have been raised about the applicability of the spiral curriculum to less-structured disciplines like art and history (Efland, 1995); and arguments are made that web or network models of content delivery may be more suitable for “specific knowledge domains [that] are structured differently from the STEM topics on which Bruner based his spiral model” (Ireland and Mouthaand 2020, 7). A further argument is made that Bruner's “conception of the spiral curriculum delivery is accurate,” but the scale of its implementation is wrong (Gibbs 2014). Moreover, there is “no clear empirical evidence of the overall effects of the spiral curriculum on student learning” (Johnston 2012). While a complete review of the literature is beyond the purview of this article, some readers may be interested in learning more about these arguments, as well as iterations of the spiral curriculum across disciplines and between the curricula of the U.S. and China.

As to the spiral curriculum in Montessori classrooms, the integration of curriculum areas included in Montessori's model but not in Bruner's seems key to its successful implementation. If we imagine Bruner's spiral not only coming back to the same topics again and again, but stopping to pick up and revisit—make connections to—related topics along the way, we get a more accurate picture of the spiral curriculum in the Montessori classroom—a curriculum that “encompasses the concepts of a subject [in an] integrated, collaborative, and constructive curriculum.” This idea will be further explicated in a future article on Cosmic Education.

In conclusion, a useful analogy for understanding the value and justification of the spiral curriculum—Bruner's model or Montessori's—could be in thinking about other naturally occurring progressions we see in human development that end in perfected skills; e.g., crawling to walking to riding a bicycle to ballroom dancing. Connecting new learning with prior learning, deepening one's understanding, and improving skills are what it means to grow and mature. The spiral curriculum reflects not only sound developmental, child-centered principles for the classroom, but natural development beyond the classroom as well.


Efland, Arthur D. “The Spiral and the Lattice: Changes in Cognitive Learning Theory with Implications for Art Education.” Studies in Art Education 36, no. 3 (1995): 134-153.

Gibbs, Brian C. “Reconfiguring Bruner: Compressing the Spiral Curriculum.” The Phi Delta Kappan 95, no. 7 (2014): 41-44.

O’Donnell, Marion. “The Relevance of Montessori Education Today.” In Maria Montessori, edited by Richard Bailey, 114-172. London: Continuum Library of Educational Thought, 2007.

About the Author

Cynthia Brunhold-Conesa

Cynthia Brunold-Conesa, MEd, is an educator of adult learners at two AMS teacher education programs. She has 23 years experience as a lead guide at the Elementary and middle school levels. Cynthia also publishes on a variety of Montessori topics. She is AMS credentialed (Elementary I – II). Contact her at .

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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.

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