The New ABC: Conceive, Believe, Achieve

It seems a natural thing for educators who are like me to spend time reflecting on themselves and their work, and then for them to take action on their reflections.  In my own case, the reflective process is also combined with a lot of reminiscence and re-evaluation of where I am and where I want to go as a result of my return to the UK after 11 years in Japan.  On top of that is returning to the small village in Cheshire where I lived whilst going to school.  I mentioned, in a previous post, how I grasped mathematical concepts at an early age, and I was also moved ahead one year when at primary school because of my ability.  I am not certain this was a good thing for me socially or emotionally.  Because I was already one of the youngest in my own year-group, it created a two-year gap between me and most of my classmates.  I also hated the particular teacher that was foisted on me for two years, too. It did provide me with a mental challenge, though.  My mental abilities allowed me to attend a top-end school where I was one amongst many: good at some things, average at others.  I took an IQ test and spent a year or so as a member of MENSA, shortly after leaving university.  So it’s fair to say I have a strong belief in my mental ability, if nothing else!

A week ago, I took part in a #gtchat on Twitter, for parents and teachers of gifted children, discussed the nature of assessment and grading with many people around the world, watched Sir Ken Robinson’s (by now) well-known talk about creativity again and attended Angela Maier’s session at the global e-conference “Reform Symposium 2010“.  All of which has been floating around in my head recently, together with questions about achievement, success, creativity and the nature of genius.

I ‘buy in’ to Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, whether or not intelligence is the correct word to use or not.  I used the seven initially identified in my teaching, whenever it was feasible to do so, and later added both the naturalist and existential intelligences, despite Gardner’s reservations about the latter.  I had also recently read a paper (Leadership out of the box) which referred to a possible correlation between an enneagram test and Myers-Brigss personality types. So I put together nine people, or partnerships of people, who represent to me the types of intelligence I would like to emulate or develop for myself.

Angela Maier’s session provided a focus for my random thoughts.  She concentrated on her concept of ‘habitudes‘ (which I have to say sounds very Californian to me!), as well as the value and importance of asking the right sort of questions.  When she introduced her vision wall, I was reminded of my own collection of nine MI people or partnerships – which I refer to as my enneasophist (ἐννέα nine σοφος skilled) wheel.  I will write a separate post about how I developed this and made my choices, otherwise this post would be way too long!

An enneagram of multiple=

During her session, Angela was talking about ABC posters related to habitudes in her classroom, and I commented that “I like to think of a reverse ABC: Conceive, Believe, Achieve”.  It seemed to fall on ‘deaf ears’ (or maybe I should say blind eyes) in the session itself, but I was not following the Twitter backchannel on #rscon10.  My comment had been tweeted out, and retweeted 12 times within an hour – a new experience for me – and made me decide to expand on the meaning of this and how I relate it to my ideas about achievement and the nature of genius.

I think of two basic cycles or loops in relation to the ABC: achievement leading to belief leading to conception leading back to achievement, and conception leading to belief leading to achievement leading back to conception.  The first I describe as the Esteem Loop, the second as the Imagination Loop.

The Esteem Loop

The Imagination Loop

Obviously, any of the three words could appear at the top of these loops, giving six possible configurations, but I have chosen and named these deliberately.  It seems to me that most young children have an idea, they have no doubt it can be done, and they do it.  This is the imagination loop, with the conception of the idea as the focus, initiator and generator of the cycle.  Over time, I think this productive loop is transformed, by the pressure of assessment, grading and the ‘need to achieve’, into the esteem loop.  The focus here is on achieving something, the achievement is used to build belief in ability and, if we are lucky, the student will conceive some way to improve their achievement or have an idea about something else they might be able to do.

If a system is built on exploring ideas based on beliefs about how achievable the ideas are, or whether you have the skills to carry them out, what happens if there is a failure to achieve?  What happens is that you need to spend time trying to convince learners that they have achieved something, even though they are likely to feel they have not.  I am sure we have all seen the natural curiosity and creativity of four-year-olds almost totally eradicated and systematized into some kind of assessable or measurable ‘achievement’.  In doing so, however, I feel we are ‘breaking’ what I see as a creative/productive cycle, where belief in an idea leads to an achievement which generates further ideas.  For me, belief in ideas and a willingness to explore their possibilities is more likely to produce and maintain an active, learning mind, as well as leading to a greater sense of achievement or satisfaction.  This is where I see Angela’s habitudes fitting into education.  This is also more likely to lead towards what I call the Genius Loop, where conception and achievement feed directly into each other.

The Genius Loop

I have to say that I don’t agree with Angela’s statement “you are genius” as directed to every child.  Although I do understand and sympathize with the sentiment, for me it sets up two conflicts: it devalues ‘true’ genius in whatever field (and whatever genius is); and it may create unrealistic expectations for the person it is said to or about.  For me, a genius skips over the ‘belief’ part of the cycle.  For a genius, there is usually no need to believe in your ideas or creation, you just know instinctively that it is right or it will work.  True geniuses, for me, are absolutely consistent in this feedback loop and rarely doubt themselves or fail to believe in their work: when they do, it can lead to breakdowns or personal crises (Sergei Rachmaninov springs to mind).  I do think we all have moments of genius, though.  Perhaps this is the moment described by Csíkszentmihályi as flow.  So, I would like to tweak Angela’s statement to “this is genius” because I think this will help reinforce belief in the idea or the model of what is expected, and not belief in the achievement.  I do, though, believe that Angela’s approach will increase the number of moments of genius that her students will experience in her class and in the future.

As a parting thought, when was the last time you felt a sense of achievement over something?  Was it an idea you had and put into action, or was it when someone told you that you had done a good job?

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