February 2024 Musings: Spiral Learning

During my time as a student and later as a teacher in the James Hill Ukulele Initiative, I frequently heard the term spiral learning. This immediately clicked and seemed to mirror the shape of my learning path. The concept remained imbedded in my curriculum and content creation over the next decade. Recently, my work with students has been clearly actualizing this abstract idea.

First, some background. Jerome Bruner first brought this concept to the academic world in 1960. If you like infographics, click here. Bruner was an American psychologist who made many significant contributions to cognitive psychology in education. His spiral model has been used in a number of ways by educators. Mostly, I have seen it as a model for creating plans that include “circling back” to skills and knowledge that was previously taught. The return to this curricula allows the student to experience the information with greater detail and depth than they did the first time.

Traditionally, music has been taught with a linearity bordering on oppression. I imagine a Bermuda triangle of Dickensian London of the mid-1800's, the austerity of the American Gothic painting by Grant Wood, and the movie Whiplash as the conveyors of the tone of music teachers. Let's just say, not warm or fuzzy. I'll leave it at that.

For me, ukulele doesn't carry a heavy set of cultural baggage. It's a relatively new instrument. Expectations are at a minimum for learners. This is a golden opportunity for a music teacher. Students can have their own, authentic experience at their own pace if their teacher is in rhythm with them. Learning is generally not compared to something else, but, experienced for its own merits. As I teach many of the same materials over and over again, I become more aware of the multiple levels that are present within them. Even my own content continues to enlighten me over time.

One of the manifestations of the spiral model I have seen lately is in the way a student's fretting hand position evolves over time. At the very beginning, I try to help them play some simple open strings with some fretted notes while learning to read music. For most, thumb position is very foreign. A linear model creates the potential for a power struggle, learning gridlock, and a defeatist atmosphere for students. I try to help them get a taste of the feeling of thumb position and move on to another piece which has a different skill to teach. The short-term spiral brings us back to the last song, which is full of valuable information. The long-term spiral could occur when a student has worked on 10 songs and skills and comes back to the first one. Sometimes, I notice students feeling like “I can't remember what was hard about this.” They can now use their thumb much better and that allows them to explore the details of tone and timing to a greater level. This validates their effort in learning and helps them trust the process, so to speak. Sometimes, these learning successes are coming to a person who has studied music for decades without making this breakthrough. Sometimes, these small epiphanies tilt the scales of learning in such a way that a student now can imagine learning something previously deemed unreachable in their lives. 

Once More with Feeling,


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