Brain cloud

So this is going to be a mess of a blog post. Mainly because my head is a mess. It feels like looking out of a plane and seeing white clouds below, obscuring the landscape beneath, with only snatches of green field and blue sea visible. As well as this is the permanent sense of having a headache even in the absence of actual pain.

When I go to college to study, I usually arrive stressed and unfocused, fixated on how to weave the different threads of my life together without missing a stitch. I leave college centred, focused and calm. Renewed. I come away feeling how I imagine people feel after a Buddhist retreat. And I am usually full of coherent and meaningful ideas, ready for work and the rest of my life.

This time I haven’t felt like that. Partly because I had to leave early and partly because there is so much going on in my life right now. Starting a new job has affected my ability to concentrate, think and see clearly. Being present has also become a challenge. It isn’t that I’m too busy thinking about other things or the past or future, but I’m just not able to think full stop. It’s almost like sleeping with your eyes open.

There is so much to learn for my new role: new systems and ways of accessing them, a whole host of new databases, new but also diverse protocols and policies for different student groups, new ways of doing things, a new vocabulary and new subjects I haven’t taught. All of this newness was at first exhilarating and was completely what I needed. But now I’m in that awkward in-between phase where my brain has taken in the new information but none of it has bedded down yet. I always use the word “mulch” to describe this process: it needs to mulch down.

This has reminded me a lot about how we learn and how our students learn. It is one of the reasons I have always been hesitant to do serious information skills with students when they first arrive at university. There is always so much for them to learn and find out. I’m dubious about how much sense they can really make of it all at that point as they are overwhelmed with new information and experiences. It’s also why I hate packing sessions full of too much content: there isn’t enough mulch time. And unlike more traditional teaching scenarios, we are unlikely to see the student again once the mulch has begun, so we can’t help with that process, the process of making meaning.

It makes me wonder about the banking approach to education: pouring information into empty vessels. There is even less time and opportunity for mulching. There is no process of making meaning. This brings me to a conference at Northern College in February about affirmative education. Dr Phil Wood gave a fascinating insight to thinking about how we learn. His description of schema theory really spoke to me. Phil argued that over time we build a concept map that we add new information to. This gives us structure but they are still fluid. Schemas can become solidified and that’s when we stop learning (Wood, 2016).

This re-affirmed the importance to me of experiential learning and establishing existing knowledge that is deemed so vital to adult education. Personally I would argue children are no different in this regard. But it did make me think about how I am coping with the overload of new information I am trying to mulch down at the moment. Drawing connections with what I already know and building on that, making new connections and hopefully the cloud will lift and I will be see the landscape below.

And how important this will be when I’m planning my lessons.


Dr Phil Wood spoke at the Affirming Identities Conference held at Northern College on 23rd February 2016. For further information about schema in learning, see his blog post:


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