Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns… What was once barely intelligible may be deeply meaningful a second time. And a third. (Bateson, 1994; p.31)

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions by Mary Catherine Bateson (1994), enjoying how she weaves reflections on research, items and places. The quotes above are from a section on the non-linear nature of learning which appeals to me; what Bateson calls “spiral learning” in the example above. She talks about how rote learning can have a value in embedding information deeply within the minds of students, with the view that it can be returned to and puzzled out over a lifetime.

I have a fondness for poems from school and know many friends and colleagues who will recite word-perfect poems from their childhood. We often return to them in the way that Bateson speaks of, unpick and stitch them into our lives, our speech and our stories. But all too often, I think we memorize to forget; here I’m thinking of the large amount of cramming I have done for examinations only to see the “knowledge” drift away once the exam is completed. When I return to the same textbooks now, it is with a sense of rediscovery, of connecting the information with the life experiences I have had since, of reaching a deeper layer of understanding by revisiting with time to explore.

I am conscious of the packed curricula that students in most disciplines encounter, the resulting sense of panic at the volume of material that has to be absorbed, soon to be regurgitated for examination. Working on the PhD has given me a space to spiral back, though also a sense of that same panic, the awareness of the volume of material, and the desire to find my space and place in the discourse.

[In] the action of the needle, the embroidered line grows through the repeated looping back of the trailing thread-line between where the point meets the surface and where the thread meets the eye. Telling stories involves a similar looping back of present experience to connect with that of the past. (Ingold, 2011; p. 195)

Newgrange tomb entrance passage and stone with spirals
spudmurphy, Newgrange, Meath, CC BY-SA 2.0

The image is of the Newgrange passage tomb in Meath. I love this place, the silence and peace in the tomb, the steady temperature no matter the weather, the little lightbulb set up in the roofbox to simulate the return of the sun at midwinter. Thinking of spirals brought me spiraling back to the entrance stone, the guardian before entering the tomb. This is matched by the kerbstone on the rear of the tomb, discussed in the short YouTube video below. The spiral is not just a spiral, we are told, it is more complex than that. Following Ingold’s quote above, I loop my experience to my past and to the distant past, to others who traced the spirals before me.  There’s probably a metaphor for my PhD in this 🙂


Finally, you may be wondering why there is a snail in this post. I like snails, with their mathematical shells and way of spiraling across paths, writing in a silver code that I can’t decipher. I envy their ability to regenerate their nervous systems. And returning to Bateson, I find myself wondering what their “peripheral vision” is with their multimodal view of our shared habitat (Matsuo, 2017).


Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: HarperCollins. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060926304/peripheral-visions

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Matsuo, R. (2017). The Computation and Robustness of the Mini-Cognitive Centers of Terrestrial Mollusks: An Exquisite Outcome of Brain Evolution. In Brain Evolution by Design (pp. 101-122). Tokyo: Springer. https://www.springer.com/us/book/9784431564676

2 thoughts on “Spiral Learning

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