Spiral learning

course curriculum is an example of spiral learning
A spiral curriculum allows you to approach topics again and again – each time with new insights

Term 4

One of the most stimulating elements of our training is the way we learn through a ‘spiral curriculum’.  We revisit the same topics or activities, but approach them from a subtly different angle as our skills and capacities develop.

To explain, I’ll describe my experience with the lunge.  This is both a classic Alexander procedure, and a way of placing ourselves to move flexibly and easily.  When I first started, it seemed the lunge was a mysterious position that everyone else but me knew how to do. (On the course, new trainees can start in any term, so there is an ever-changing mix of experience in the room). This was the spiral curriculum at work, and I had entered at the bottom.

As I now realise, I needn’t have worried.  Before long the lunge came round again, and one of our teachers instructed me in the procedure.  This didn’t mean I could do it – I found it difficult and uncomfortable, I could get into it with instruction, but couldn’t spring back out of it and felt frustrated with myself. But I did have a sense of its possibilities, and could let it lie fallow until I was ready to take it further.

A few months later, my own body use had become freer and more flexible. When we next practised it, I could do it with more ease and minded less if it went wrong. I began to see my difficulties as something to work with, not a cause for frustration.  Now trying it again, I’m able to differentiate between the formal ‘procedure’ with specific steps, and the more dynamic position I can take up when working with someone on the table or in the chair.

I’m making links with similar movements in our weekly tai chi sessions, and I’m experimenting with it in daily life. I’m more able to play with it, and see what it has to offer me, rather than being determined to get it right.  Over time my body has changed and I have greater physical capacity. But I also perceive it differently at each turn of the spiral. What was difficult and frustrating to begin with has now become a puzzle that I’m looking forward to solving.  I’m less worried than before about how long it might take to get there.

With spiral learning I have to actively engage in the process for things to make sense.  But I can also let go of the need to grasp everything at once – it will come round again, and by then, I’ll be more aware of what it means.

Spirals and other shapes from the community Skip Garden in London’s Kings Cross

Snail in skip garden

Pine cone in skip garden

Honeycomb in skip garden

Sculpture 1 in skip garden

Sculpture 3 in skip garden

Sculpture 4 from skip garden

A new way to hold a ladder

Wisteria in bloom
Wisteria in bloom and bees buzzing as I held the ladder

Beginning of Term 4

I’ve returned from the Easter break, refreshed and ready to embark on a new term.  The holidays feel less like time away and more like an integral part of the course, just without active teaching.  For me it’s where the learning settles and takes hold of the body, and somehow changes and insights have time to quietly make themselves known.

Over Easter this happened unexpectedly while I was standing at the bottom of a ladder. I was outside on a slippery, uneven wet surface, while someone else went up the ladder to clear a gutter of autumn leaves.  Ladder-holding is not part of the curriculum. No-one has shown me directly how to do it in an Alexander way, and it’s not something I’ve done for a while, so it was a good place to notice the subtle but significant changes in how I approached it.

What surprised me was how naturally my body and mind started to work together to put me in the best place to support the bottom of the ladder.  I barely had to think about the placing of my feet.  They seemed to find a position that took into account the slope of the ground, the angle of the ladder and the opposing angles of my body.  Without effort, I had secure but flexible footing, where I could move easily if the ladder started to wobble unexpectedly.

I noticed my hands working together with my arms and back, so that I wasn’t gripping the sides of the ladder but was well balanced. I had a firm, comfortable hold, something similar to the ‘hands on the back of the chair’ procedure we practise in the training.  In the past I would have used maximum effort in my hands and arms to keep the ladder steady, probably locking my knees, clenching my jaw, holding my breath and keeping my feet too wide or too close for easy balance.  With my new stance and hold I felt much more in control, and more confident to handle an emergency.

All the while I was conscious of what was going on with a heightened awareness.  I saw my hands on the sides of the ladder, I was aware of my head, neck and back, and I felt the ground beneath my feet.  I heard the bees moving in and out of the sweet-smelling wisteria above my head and felt the dry leaves from the gutter above drifting down onto me.  But I wasn’t distracted, and knew my job was to hold the ladder firm for the person working above me.

Reflecting on my ladder-holding afterwards, I was encouraged that the training is beginning to take root within me and I’m starting to be able to use it in a dynamic multi-dimensional way.  If it can happen when I’m standing at the bottom of a ladder made of solid wood, then over time it’ll work when I have a person in front of me, and I’ll know where to put my feet and hands without worrying about it. But I’m sure it was partly the fact that I was on holiday, away from the activity of the training setting, that enabled me to bring together elements of what I’ve learned over the past year and apply it in a new way.



Seeing in a different way

Forest track
Allowing the light to come in

End of Term 3

“The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.”  John Berger, Ways of Seeing

It’s a year since I started my training and I’ve been reviewing how far I’ve come.  Others are also looking back. We’re preparing to say farewell to three students who graduate as teachers next week – we will study the photos of them taken on their first day of training, and no doubt notice in their graduation pictures a greater openness, physical presence and sense of self hard won after three years on the course .

The process of change is not an easy thing to pin down, because it’s subtle, personal and continuous.  Often how we have changed is more visible to others than to ourselves, so we may not even be aware of the difference in how we move or speak, and how we are all slowly leaving our old habits of body and mind behind us as we progress.

One of the changes I’m beginning to value is a growing capacity to see differently.  This is not about my eyesight, it’s more about how I’m able to look at the world.  Firstly there’s an awareness of myself – through mirrors placed round the training room I can watch how I move and become more aware of what I’m actually doing, rather than just what I thought I did. With feedback from teachers and students, I also begin to notice how I respond at different moments in the day – tightening when I’m looking for release, focussing too hard on one part of my body and forgetting about the rest, acting too quickly and without initial thought, wanting to complete an action but ignoring how I go about it.  Becoming aware of and looking after myself is key in being able to teach others.

 Secondly I’m refining my capacity to observe others, in preparation for working as a teacher. This is hard and will take years to develop. Like an experienced birdwatcher with an inner sense both of the outline of a bird and a close recall of colours, call and plumage, I am slowly honing my observational skills to appreciate both the detail and the whole of a person as I work with them.

Finally I’m slowly developing a softer way of observing the world, allowing the light to come in to my eyes rather than actively looking for something outside myself.  This is coupled with a gradually increasing ability to look out at what’s going on, to look panoramically, rather than to focus on one part of the room or to fix on some inner part of myself, as I try to make sense of what the teacher’s hands are communicating as they work with me.  Fixing my eyes leads to fixing my body – rigidity when I need flexibility, and restricted vision rather than a full awareness of what’s happening  right now.   For now, it’s enough that I’ve noticed these changes beginning to happen, and allow them to continue.