Musings From the Starting Line – Mastery vs Spiral

Choosing curriculum can be a challenge. There are many choices, and it can be hard to appropriately categorize the choices beyond the basic subject matter. A logical next step in defining the offerings of a curriculum is to determine if it approaches the subject matter in terms of mastery or in a spiral.

Mastery approaches seek to build a complete set of knowledge, and then build upon those foundation blocks. Spiral approaches teach a concept to a certain level and then move on in order to offer exposure to topics before building further on the initial topics. Traditional schooling is a spiral, allowing the class to keep moving and to reintroduce concepts year after year.

Matching the student to the strategy is important. Some students want to know everything about a subject and would therefore be well suited to the mastery approach. Others can become overwhelmed with the need to know all of the details and do better knowing that they can come back later to learn the same material on a deeper level.

The Unlikely Homeschooler reviews mastery and spiral strategies on her blog, and shares that she has chosen spiral math for her children because:

  • her children can enjoy a daily feeling of success even while learning a difficult math concept,
  • her children can glean from continual review,
  • mastery might never happen, and
  • spiral review provides a natural link from one concept to another.

As home educators, we have the ability to link the fundamentals taught in mastery to everyday math. The Unlikely Homeschooler wants her curriculum to link counting in fives to counting nickels and minutes on the clock. Other home educators are more comfortable making those links for their students themselves in order to enrich mastery approaches. There is no right or wrong, just the best fit for the teacher/student pair.

As Hand in Hand Education puts it:  "Math curriculum falls within two broad categories: spiral and mastery. A number of important differences exist in how math is taught by these two philosophical approaches. Understanding these differences, and knowing how well they may work for your child, will help you select the best homeschool math curriculum for your family.

A mastery approach begins with the idea that each child needs to be at the right cognitive and developmental level before they can learn certain material. This type of curriculum introduces one idea at a time and has the child learn it thoroughly before moving on to the next idea in the sequence.

A spiral approach, on the other hand, believes that children can learn any idea, as long as it is initially presented in a simplified way. Spiral curriculum takes complex ideas, breaks them down into very tiny chunks, and continues to revisit the concepts over a long period of time. It is not unusual for a spiral math curriculum to take more than two years to teach multiplication, for example."

As a new homeschooling mom, I feel a serious need to brush up on my math skills. My math training took me beyond differential equations, however despite my occasional chanting of soh-cah-toa when figuring out measurements I have forgotten many of the math topics I learned in my educational career. Worse yet, I know that there were always holes in my knowledge. I also have boys who like details, so we are going to pursue mastery math. Instead of stepping in by buying the initial books, I plan to buy the complete curriculum from Learn Math Fast. Hopefully this material will serve my boys' education, but I know that doing the program myself from start to finish will allow me to bring to life the math that occurs around us. By showing the application of math, I hope to make its value and power more clear to my boys.

What methods have worked for you? Join the discussion on Facebook!
- Erica