New Bee Homeschooler - What is the Difference Between Spiral & Mastery Learning?

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 11:35 AM

I am glad you found your way here and hope to keep this blog slow relaxed. I know you may be racing and I do mean racing to get in all this information, but what I have learned through the years is that it takes time to appreciate all the facets of homeschooling. Overwhelming you with topics before you experience them doesn't really help you to appreciate the value of our program or our experience. It just takes time, but there are things you should be reading about now or understand about the learning process so you make better decisions on both how you choose curriculum and on how you present it or teach.

Understanding the differences between spiral and mastery learning or at least some fundamental basics, which is what I am talking about today is sometimes more important than understanding the different approaches that curriculum takes like unit studies, Charlotte Mason and classical, etc.

There are basically two schools of thought on how children learn best. I have always felt you as the homeschool mom even though you are new and inexperienced have a better handle on how your children learn best. Sure, it will take some trial and error but you are willing to put forth the work and effort.

One school of thought and it is the one that has been around the longest and probably the way a lot of us learned is the spiral approach. Think of a large winding stair case with many steps or facts on them. The idea is as you study or go up in grade level each year, you make your way up and wind around these facts and "pick them up" so to speak as you go along. They increase in difficulty as you go up in grade level and they get reviewed each year. This is the way a lot of textbooks teach too. Let's take the subject of science for example. The idea is that you study about a variety of topics from the function of the heart to chemistry and cover a multitude of subjects and facts one year only to only cover them again in more depth the next year if you stay with that series.

The second school of thought is more topic focused and the idea is to stay on the subject from the easiest to most difficult concept until the child has mastered the subject.


Right away, you can see both positives and negatives for each approach. On the spiral approach there may not really be much depth but a lot of review. Also the material may have been mastered but you keep reviewing it only to aggravate you and your child both.


On the other hand, if your child is not grasping the information, then a review of it later when he is more mature is of value.

Regarding mastery of material, this can easily end up frustrating you too because the idea of this concept is that you stay on a topic until you get it. This may take a few days or few months. Who wants to study one concept that you don't understand now and may not understand later either for a long period of time? But, then a child who wants to move faster and is grasping content this can be a life saver because they don't repeat previously mastered material.

What are you to do?


Tips to Decide How To Choose Spiral Or Mastery Learning

Like I mentioned it takes time to understand your child's needs. Don't try to make this more complicated by thinking you have to choose one way or the other. For example, your child may struggle in math so he may need a math program that has more built in review.

However, when it comes to science he may want to investigate deeper because he has an insatiable appetite for learning about those topics. Look for topic studies then.

A lot of homeschool curriculum tout that they try to offer the best of both learning approaches in their curriculum and this is true. Key to knowing that is to ask and investigate first.

Don't do this:

  • Don't assume because your child is struggling in a subject, it is because it is too hard. It may be the opposite. They may be ahead and need to move onto something more meaty.
  • Also, don't assume they grasp a concept just because they are that grade level.

Do this:

  • Take free online tests, use free worksheets online to give your child a kind of "testing period" so you can see what they grasp or don't. You already have some idea as mom, so trust that. If you make a wrong decision, you can change immediately.
  • Talk with knowledgeable personnel at stores or online stores through phone or talk in person with them at conventions. Read reviews about their curriculum and take your time choosing curriculum for each child.
  • Try to determine what you are using now and if it working for you. If not, read, investigate and try another one.

Focus more on how your child learns best and then you will make better decisions instead of choosing curriculum because your next door neighbor used it, it works good for your best friend or you read about it. Though, they are good places to start, your children are unique and you are blessed with teaching them.

You can do this!

Hugs and love ya,

P.S. If you haven't stopped racing yet, please look at our FREE WORKSHOP: Here We Go and download the free outline too. Education for YOU is of far more value in your first year.

Categories: New Bee Articles Misc., New Bee Articles-Homeschool Approaches, New Bee Articles-Common Homeschooling Mistakes