"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
January 16, 2013
The Spiral Curriculum of Child Development Life
by Emily S. Jorgensen

Most good schools nowadays organize their curriculums based on the philosophy of the spiral curriculum.

Basically, the idea of the spiral curriculum is that concepts are learned best when they are revisited in ever increasing complexity, appropriate to a child’s age and understanding,

It’s kind of a line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept method of education. (Sound familiar?)

The justification of using the spiral curriculum instead of a more traditional approach is that it is easier to build upon what we already know than to introduce a whole new concept—boom—all at once and expect children to master it in one try.

For example, you can teach a child about fractions when they are four years old—simply cut up an apple or a pizza and give names to the pieces—halves, quarters, sixths. But they will not be able to write these figures until they are 5 or 6. Not until 7 or 8 can they start to add them as abstract numbers. And they will not likely multiply or divide them until they are 9 or 10. The understanding of fractions and how they work takes years of circling back to the subject to master.

As I have pondered the spiral curriculum in my work, and have in the same space of time become a mother, I have decided that child development can be understood as the Spiral Curriculum of Life.

And what is the central concept that must be mastered in this Curriculum? Using our agency.

Consider this: for the first year of life, we spend all our waking hours (and even our dreaming ones) trying to develop mastery over our own bodies. At that point, the limits of our exercising of our agency are very narrow. First we learn to command our voices, then our hands, then other parts of our body until, presto! We have locomotion.

That opens up a whole new world of agency application. Now we can manipulate other things—we can hit things, throw things, get into things our mommy doesn’t want us to. The power of our agency now extends past our bodies to the world around us.

Next, as we get to be closer to two years old, we try for more. What is the boundary of our agency, anyway? Let’s test it. Let’s try to control other people.

This is typically first attempted on our family members. We try to “make” mommy let us have the chocolate by screaming until she gives it to us. We hit our brother because we want his toy. We cry when we want the favorite puzzle in nursery and it is someone else’s turn. Why oh why can’t everything be under our control?

The thing is, we never stop learning these three central concepts relating to agency: control over ourselves, control over things in our world, and control over others. We just keep learning them at ever more complex levels, like fractions.

To master control over ourselves, we develop self control, exercised daily in our food choices, lifestyle choices, entertainment choices, etc.

To master control over things in our world, we develop organizational skills, good habits like doing the dishes before they grow mold, learning to drive, keeping a planner.

And to master control over others—well we must learn that we can never have that. This lesson is often the hardest and takes the longest to learn. Every time we say “I wish my spouse wouldn’t do that.” Or, “why does my child do this to me?” we are grappling with this third lesson.

When I see a parent fail to discipline their child for taking a toy from another or acting aggressively to get their way, I am so sad for that child. One way or another he will learn that he cannot control others. It is a mandate of the Spiral Curriculum of Life.

It would be so much easier if he began learning this concept early. Otherwise, in grade school he will learn it the hard way, when no one wants to be his friend because he is a bully. He will learn it the hard way when his wife leaves him in 30 years because she can no longer tolerate his controlling behavior.

It is perhaps our greatest responsibility as caregivers and teachers of children and youth to help them learn the possibilities, extents and limitations of their agency as early as possible. Indeed, everything we do with them probably teaches them about this concept . . . but what lesson are we leaving with them?

Are we teaching them that self-control is a requirement in our home or class? Are we modeling this to them with our behavior? Or, are we teaching them that when they are older they can control others, like we try to?

Let us recognize that we are studying the same curriculum they are—the Spiral Curriculum of Life. Whether we are five years old or fifty, we are still learning those same three lessons.

Let’s not be afraid to learn them alongside each other, parent and child, or teacher and student. After all, these roles are temporary. Someday the child may be a parent, the teacher a student. Our agency, however, is here to stay.


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About Emily S. Jorgensen

Emily Jorgensen received her bachelor's degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University. She earned her master's degree in elementary music education, also at BYU. She holds a Kodaly certificate in choral education, as well as permanent certification in piano from Music Teacher’s National Association.

She has taught piano, solfege, and children’s music classes for 17 years in her own studio. She has also taught group piano classes at BYU.

She is an active adjudicator throughout the Wasatch Front and has served in local, regional, and state positions Utah Music Teachers' Association, as well as the Inspirations arts contest chair at Freedom Academy.

She gets a lot of her inspiration for her column by parenting her own rambunctious four children, aged from “in diapers” to “into Harry Potter.” She is still married to her high school sweetheart and serves in her ward’s Primary.

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