Learning in Stages

Conventional wisdom (that is, not really ‘wisdom’ at all) suggests that learning proceeds in four neat and tidy stages. The model is taught as though it’s the be-all and end-all but what it doesn’t do is to depict the subtleties involved in the shift from one assumed ‘stage’ to another. This essay is an attempt to suggest a way of describing a joined up process as opposed to a simple move between discrete ‘stages’.

According to the much-touted self-development model, first there’s what’s called Unconscious Incompetence which is sometimes categorised as ‘blissful ignorance’: at this stage we are supposed not to know we don’t know.

If we don’t know something it surely follows that we can’t possibly know that we don’t know we don’t know – whatever it might be, it’s just way beyond our ken.

Anyway, then, hey presto, there’s what’s called Conscious Incompetence when we are supposed to know that we don’t know: leaving aside knowing and not-knowing, it’s certainly possible that we might become envious of others who we notice can do something with apparent ease; we want to be able to do what they do but just don’t know how to set about it – if we dare to admit that, we might even get called ‘stupid’. There was a guy in a park juggling with eight thuds – how did he do that? I’d have liked to be able to operate with such finesse. My attempts resulted in what’s often called ‘failure’. I become aware of something I’m sure I would be no good at even if I really stuck at it. There is a bit of learning in there somewhere.

Conscious Competence occurs to us when we manage to juggle three thuds. To get to eight you just have to keep going… It’ll happen when you want it to. “Look at me – I’m a juggler!”

Sticking at a piece of learning apparently gets you to the stage of Unconscious Competence – that’s presumably the status of the guy in the park juggling eight thuds who probably wouldn’t be able to tell you how he’d managed to make a blend of the skills involved. It’s just become a habit for him, like falling off a log. Persisting with the activity has provided him with the ‘confidence’ to carry on.

By the way, why are juggling balls called ‘thuds’? Because that’s the noise they make when you drop them when you’re learning… The label ‘thud’ made me smile every time I lost control thus dissipating any annoyance that might have got in the way of learning. In fact I became quite good at juggling four thuds, then I lost interest and, without either need or desire, I’ve even lost the ability to juggle three of them.

As a system the model looks like this:-


Whatever they mean, the labels in the model run the risk of cajoling us into pre-supposing that progressing through these neat and tidy stages is all there is to learning something – a skill or a way of thinking or feeling. It conveniently skates over the how? of it. It is assumed that a boost in something known as ‘confidence’ is all that’s needed to be able to move forward.

Any description of the model is riddled with abstractions: ‘consciousness’, ‘competence’, ‘incompetence’, ‘confidence’, ‘ignorance’, ‘failure’, ‘awareness’, ‘habit’, ‘ability’…

The unwitting permutation of abstractions in speech episodes frequently subverts sensible thinking in all of us in many spheres of activity. As always, things are rather more complex than they seem when one reduces events to abstractions.

My main objection to the Incompetence Model is the fact that it welds the notion of ‘incompetence’ into the brain. ‘I can’t draw…’ ‘I’m tone deaf…’ ‘I can’t do maths…’ It functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I’m so incompetent…” The word ‘incompetent’ should be abolished.

The way to bust abstractions is to turn them into actions taken by different parts of oneself (see my The Campaign Against Abstractionism 2006). The Incompetence Model could be reframed thus:-


Working it Through on the Enneagram

The other day I was with a group of great people looking at the Enneagram once again. I encouraged them to look carefully at the common Competence Model of learning in order to deconstruct it and turn it into I-activity and then test whether it could be mapped on to the Enneagram somehow. One of them coached me through the dynamic system of the Enneagram with the idea that I might discover the diachronic process of becoming the kind of ‘teacher’ I fondly imagine myself to be. Imagination is all it consists of in the end!

The process of Enneagram discovery firstly involves identifying how you originally became fixated in one particular pattern depicted in the Fixations represented on the circumference and then journeying round the internal dynamic in the ‘Direction of Integration’ to find manifestations of resourcefulness you picked up along the way. It is important to follow the internal dynamic in order to get a sense of building on strengths.

In your first brush with the Ichazo/Palmer/Don Riso version of the Enneagram it’s important to focus on what might be your main Fixation – the one that you’ve learned to inhabit through First Education & upbringing – that which determines the way you make sense of life – whether by, for example, rising above things, by picking things apart, by caring about others, by following leads or by working hard and so on. When people first look at the many variables in all nine Fixations, they are inclined to say something like, “There’s a bit of me in all of them…” And that’s true, but the first step is to discover the Fixation that best describes you in your entirety. From there, eventually, one can make a journey round the dynamic system that is the Enneagram to make a rich synthesis of the whole package of possibilities for oneself.

Being coached myself, what I found I became interested in, through the conversation, were the stages in my life when I had actually acquired experiences that took me from my main Fixation to tacking on to my being ‘desirable’ elements of other Fixations in my Direction of Integration. I did the circuit entirely in relation to ‘becoming a teacher’. I was never, of course, aware of the way things were adding up while they were doing so in ‘real life’! The Enneagram dynamic is a tool that offers profound analysis before and after the event.

The first bit of enlightenment that came out of our conversation was that although at an early age I would certainly have been ‘Unconsciously Incompetent’ at being a teacher, in the sense that the idea was way outside my ken, I would nevertheless have had the concept ‘being a teacher’ somewhere lodged in my system because I’d seen teachers at work. What’s blithely called ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ is by no means an exclusive state of being – much else is going on apart from not-knowing. We should abandon the term – it’s all too easy to be bamboozled by the words we use.

Deconstructing the Incompetence Model into I-events and placing them on the Enneagram begins to flesh it out, according to the above reframe, and to connect the hitherto black & white ‘stages’ so that they become more like shades of grey.

This is a Reconstruction of What Came Out of My Being Coached

Being-aware-that-there-were-such-entities-as-‘teachers’-I co-existed with a virtual Having-no-idea-I-would-ever-be-able-to-step-into-their-shoes-I. As a young lad, the label ‘shy’ had been stuck on me – I accepted it without question, but it nevertheless generated in me, at that stage, an un-verbalised Desiring-to-escape-frozenness-in-the-presence-of-others-I. The frozenness was real enough.

My father went off to fight some battle in India in 1941 (I was 4) and my mother began the long descent into anxiety both about his survival and about my sister’s hopeless disease (from which she eventually died in 2005) so that there developed in me a very strong Thrown-on-own-resources-I and also a feeling of being abandoned so that there also came the gift of a Being-useless-and-fearful-of-others-I. In Enneagram terms there was a yawning Hole in my Being which I could have fallen into except that Being-very-curious-I led me towards a Needing-to-piece-things-together-for-myself-I in a meticulous kind of way. Filling the Hole in one’s Being with meaning in order to get to the Wholeness of things is a strong characteristic of Fixation 5 in the Enneagram – that’s how ‘I’ fancy I started and where ‘I’ start from.

Thrown back on my own resources, I began to exercise Fantasising-I and I suppose I acquired a Being-good-at-creating-internal-stories-I. In our south London suburb, I experienced the Blitz: nightly bombing raids threatened extinction, though I didn’t think of that at the time, so there was no fear involved in it. However, Feeling-rather-precarious-I must have had a few outings. Preserving-the-integrity-of-my-being-I resorted to creating an inward-turning, somewhat bizarre, world-view; my Doing-weird-things-I was quite relaxed about this. I remember being on a train one evening between Waterloo and Worcester Park in Surrey where we lived: I became the organiser of the entire railway system, working the signals, determining which passenger and goods trains went where, announcing fanciful directions through station loudspeakers; I even controlled the setting of the sun, delaying it so that the rather short-sighted driver of a certain train could see where he was going.

Being-wrapped-up-in-myself-I sailed through Junior School picking things up with ease from rather straight-laced earnest female teachers. Walking home one afternoon, aged 10, I observed my shadow advancing along the vertical strips of a wooden fence and thought of it as a way of depicting progress through life! I didn’t yet have the word ‘metaphor’ to construct things with.

It was amazing then to find a quite different kind of teacher at Kingston Grammar School – all more or less eccentric and, while I was sometimes afraid of their likely response because I hadn’t done my homework properly, I revelled in their eccentricity: Modelling-on-weirdness-I became a very strong piece of my being; it fitted my pre-existing view of how things ought to be. It seemed at least possible that the generally eccentric methods demonstrated by Basher & Bunter & Techy & Gasbag, to mention but four, might provide a guide for the rather lost Wanting-to-know-how-I-could-transmit-weird-things-I… Entirely separate from a Being-keen-to-write-literary-essays-I, Storing-things-up-I merely filed everything carefully for future reference – as it turned out.

Teacher-training-I which came what seems like a long time after this would have had very severe things to say about the teaching methods of these eccentrics: they had very little idea of packaging anything so it made sense; one history teacher just dictated endless notes; the music teacher had us copying out notes from large printed sheets; mostly they just went on from where they’d left off the previous lesson.

But before that, came so-called ‘National Service’… I idled into it assuming that it was just something you did. No principles stood in the way of ‘joining up’. I’m glad now they didn’t because the two year experience of ‘being in the army’ contributed profoundly to the person I imagine I am now – anarcho-pacifist-vegetarian…

At the initial stage of presenting myself for ‘National Service’ I had ticked a box which said ‘Education Corps’. As I’ve pointed out before, I was dumbfounded when it turned out that I had opted to become an army teacher-instructor. This dumped me into Being-forced-into-becoming-aware-of-being-unaware-of-how-to-teach-I and reinvigorated Seeming-to-be-terrified-of-other-people-I.

However, in order to survive, great parts of my being shifted immediately round the Enneagram in the Direction of Integration – Fixation 8: Being-decisive-I, Finding-one’s-strength-I, Sticking-with-it-I, and above all, perhaps, Can-do-I.

Plunged into making up lessons to order, my pre-existing Telling-a-story-I found it quite easy to oblige and quite a bit of quiet excitement was generated by a new Creating-by-gut-reaction-I. A very important new ‘I’ emerged from the combined wit of those parts of me which, had I possessed the concept then, I might have called Learning-during-doing-I and Noticing-feedback-I – the important new ‘I’ was the rather obvious one (now) of Just-doing-it-I. It struck me that standing up as ‘teacher’ in front of a practice class, just doing whatever it was inevitably provoked a response; then, when you simply went wherever the feedback took you, you were propelled into further exchanges again just by doing ‘it’.

Following-my-nose-I Took Over!

One weekend on guard duty, when the officers were off on some beano, a group of us decided we’d nosey-parker the files they kept on us in their offices. There was an interesting comment in my file: ‘Blundell has a quietly dry sense of humour’. I didn’t know that yet. So I took inside me Being-quietly-humorous-I which thenceforth I built into my lessons in a quietly dry sort of way.

When I was posted to a National Service RE Training Camp in Farnborough, Hampshire, where I spent the remainder of my military daze, I began to find that not only did Having-to-teach-weird-things-I come into action but that there was a Nurturing-I who could help people who had signed on for years to succeed at furthering their education. The idea of being able to do that would have been way beyond me when I was a mere private soldier not many weeks before, subject to vicious NCO’s every random disciplinary whim. And so I drifted into Enneagram Fixation 2 to use what I had acquired at 8 (being able to lead myself) to help others.

Being-of-service-to others-I Was Born

However, there was opening up a huge discrepancy between what I had to do to survive being in the army and my growing sense of antipathy towards wielding a rifle. My Regular Army colleagues were all for going off to Suez to ‘bash the wogs’ as they picturesquely described what they thought would be their part in the 1956 Crisis; I was rather afraid they might want to take me with them.

I had to teach what I regarded as weird things like ‘Badges of Rank’ and ‘NATO’s role in the Mediterranean’; later, having failed History at O Level, I found myself teaching Military History. I even started teaching New Testament Greek to one sergeant but he didn’t have much sticking power. I discovered that I had a strong Being-willing-to-give-it-a-whirl-I which derived in part at least from Having-a-sense-of-the-absurd-I. In any case, I could just make it all up as I went along. It really didn’t matter what you did. So here I was integrating to Enneagram Fixation 4 owning up to a sense of the absurd, capable of serious larking about. Coming-to-terms-with-life’s-little-ironies-I.

Apart from what I regarded as the silly things I had to teach, there were some important ones – for example map-reading, which I delighted in. In these crass days the ability to read a map has disappeared into the e-contraption that you just feed a postcode into; thus does so-called Artificial Intelligence destroy the chances for the survival of real intelligence.

To teach map-reading successfully, Instructing-skills-I had to develop. This comprises Breaking-things-down-into-small-chunks-I and Formal-lesson-planning-I. Being-responsible-I began to co-exist with Having-a-high-sense-of-purpose-I. So this aberrant carcass arrived at Fixation 1.

After demob and a brief return to pen-pushing in an office, Suffering-wage-slavery-I decided that it had had enough of working pointlessly at office desks and so, highly principled, Believing-strongly-in-the-centrality-of-the-student-I, applied itself in a Teacher Training College to the study of the philosophy & psychology of teaching, determined to stake out a position for itself at last. Everything in my past had built up to this: Taking-everything-as-a-gift-to-be-relished-I recognised that my great teachers at Kingston Grammar School, who had variously survived the trauma of WW2, not only taught me how to be successfully eccentric but also what to avoid when teaching. Doing-things-differently-from-how-those-old-teachers-did-it-I was a powerful ally in my getting a B.Ed Hons.

Systematic acceptance of everything in life as a gift is a characteristic of Fixation 7


Noticing-feedback-I, Being-spontaneous-I, Grasping-nettles-I, and above all, Not-being-aware-of-what-I-do-do-but-doing-it-anyway-I are also what a Top Form 7 Fixation is about. From there one can go back to Fixation 5 with an enhanced sense of the point of the journey: everything on it conspires to give the quest for knowledge & understanding some continuing significance for me. Hence these lengthy ‘Globs’ which I might begin to call ‘Essays’ – literally ‘attempts’ (from the French) at making sense of things. It does matter what words one chooses to use!

My secondary Fixations (‘Wings’) are 4 (Being-regularly-creative-I) and 6 (Being-courageous-I). A person with a 6 Fixation not only has a sense of duty but can also have a strong Making-space-for-others-I.

The one book my parents bought me early on was called Colin Courageous – must have lodged something in my 3-brained Being!


Going in the Direction of Integration, at 9 one finds Being-self-possessed-I and, what won’t appear in any of the textbooks, Being-optimistically- pessimistic-I or Being-pessimistically- optimistic-I, turn and turn about .
The path to Fixation 3 completes the journey. A person with a 3 Fixation has a purposeful Being-inner-directed-I and a strong Believing-in-self-I.
scan0070It will be noted, perhaps, that the desirable characteristics of 6,9 and 3 appear in various ways in the other Fixations in my account. Individuals locked into those particular three Fixations are, strangely, the most challenged in holding on to their desirable characteristics.

My coach had successfully got me to explore things that I hadn’t pieced together before. ‘Piecing things together’ is a major characteristic of somebody with a 5 Fixation. I was very grateful to her.

It remains to emphasise that this account simply records the way in which I imagine I picked up these many positive aspects of the Enneagram Fixations. The process was entirely accidental: I maintain that I have drifted through life, simply noting the way things happen as they do and responding accordingly; I’m not making any claim for active consolidation of what happened to me. I don’t believe that any of us have as much purchase on life as we like to imagine we have.

My Enneagram chums and I were exploring how our many ‘I’s could be seen to fill the gaps between the notional stages in the familiar Incompetence Model of Human Learning. If it does anything in the way of depicting the process of learning how might we get from one notional stage to another and back? For the sake of demonstration, I chose to consider the part a selection from my millions of ‘I’s might have played in my path to ‘teacherliness’. On another occasion I could have chosen to make a journey round the Enneagram in the opposite direction piecing together all the cockups I’ve made in my life: Being-dictatorial-I at the bottom of Fixation 8, for example, where my Soul Child exists (see Sandra Maitri – The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram – for this valuable concept) – the unsorted characteristics from childhood; Being-very-dogmatic-I whenever I sink to the bottom of Fixation 5; Being-melancholic-I at subterranean 4 and so on.

But on this occasion I was seeking to trace what might have been the entirely accidental journey I made towards ‘teacherliness’ and mapping it on to the Enneagram to investigate whether it might say something about the inadequacy of the original model.

This is all about me. It will make a lot more sense for a notional reader to do the journey for itself, asking the question – How did I get to be …? Something you think you’re good at…

“First of all there was a virtual ‘I’ that was not not aware of what it could do… But it did have a concept of…” and so on…


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