Cycle of competence
Joseph Chilton Pearce

The cycle of competence must be honored. We lead the child by modeling new possibilities, discovery. They inmate that in play roughing in a new neural pattern. Practice and variation etch and myelinate the neural structure leading to mastery. Here Joe explores how we interfere and break the cycle inhibiting nature’s natural cycle.

There's a certain cycle to this business I want to talk about.  This is the cycle of competence in all learning.  You find it right from the very beginning.  Greenfield and Tronic up at Harvard under Gerome Bruner in his department came across this years and years ago and I want to get into it briefly.  I didn't deal with it much in my recent book "Evolutions End" because I'd been dealing with it for three books and I figured my readers were sick of that but you can't count on that can you.

Cycle of competence, look at what this is, a three-fold cycle.  Very briefly the first stage is what they termed roughing in a new learning, roughing it in.  Now this is what I would call the first interaction with the model.  The first interaction with a possibility where you just perceive that this can be done.  This is a new possibility, you rough in that basic idea then you must fill in the details.  That's just a rough idea, fill in all the details, this can take anywhere from minutes to seconds, even up to years and years and years.  Filling the details and related them all together into a whole.  So this is a relational process.  You're going to look out into the world for all that which will fill in the details of this first roughed in notion and then you're going to relate it all together and into a whole, into a functional unit.  

Then finally the third period which they group together as a single one, I really think there should be four stages but I'm going to leave it at three, is practice and variation.  To me this is one of the most exciting concepts because when we get to this variation aspect, we leave the entire animal kingdom light years behind and see what makes us so truly unique as human beings, the practice and variation stage.  

Let me take a quick example, some of you have heard my examples where I put it in a couple of other books, plus I've observed the whole thing happening, let's take the little toddler, 14 or 15 months old, maybe 18 months, however it may be, 2 years, who sees her momma open the kitchen cabinet doors that are down at floor level.  They're held with a magnetic catch.  This is the first time this has ever registered on her.  She's been too busy with all the other structures of knowledge to make with her physical interaction with them, getting a name for them and all that but now she spots this.  Hey, that's a pretty interesting thing to do, and immediately having roughed in from the model imperative, monkey see - monkey do, then immediately she goes to filling the details.  This is a very simple concrete thing.  

She toddles over, grabs the handle herself and gives a pull.  The first time she might topple down, gets back up, tries again, keeps her balance this time and finally can get that door open smoothly.  And you'll see she's filled in the details with her own physical interaction.  Remember all learning in the first few years is sensory motor.  It's their own motor mechanism, their own sensations and concrete real learning and then she begins to relate it.  You'll see her paws, you can see the lights turning on, Ah Ha, this is how it works and this is how this all works and so on.  

Then what happens?  The period of practice.  Now she'll not be satisfied with having opened that door once will she?  What'll she do?  She'll start and she'll slam it over and over and over and over.   You'll think okay, all the neural structures finally myelinated, all those long axons, you see this is really true.  

Here are these sensory maps in the brain that are having to operate to locate and fill in all about this new activity and they've all got to make new connections that they've never made before.  They've got to explore new axonal dendritic connecting links, get those somatic thresholds lowered and so forth in a new way that they haven't done before with all the muscles of the body and these are all nerves with their somatic thresholds and so on.  So it's a big deal going all the way down through the motor processes and the learning process and the emotional relational processes and back in the cerebellums involved so all of that has to stabilize.  One time would not do it.  Just like one time with a story won't complete the circuitry, so she's going to do it over and over  ad-nauseam.  

Why?  Simply for that one of the things will be that myelination of new long axons connecting to various structures and so on.  The brain will wrap up, it will seize up that kind of thing and all the other things that take place will, until finally you'll get kind of a maturation of that new neural patterning and the muscular response to it established and the practice period should be over with.  But then you see she doesn't stop pounding the door at all.  All of the sudden you have this complete and total entrainment, 100% entrainment in this new muscular activity, leaves no energy left over for anything else.

She isn't involved in this activity.  She is the activity.  She isn't learning a new movement, she is that new movement.  She there's no subject-object dichotomy here at all, there's a complete subjective involvement, embeddment in that activity, that's what we call a whole entrainment of the system on that learning.  Once it's complete, then all of the sudden she can stand back from her own learning and pound that door out of the sheer joy of a new skill developed.  Do you follow this?  A new skill developed.  Like a child, once they learn to jump rope they'll jump rope by the hour madly.  That's what this little toddler is doing.  She's now pounding out of the sheer joy of something new she's learned to do that she can stand over and above and direct it rather than just be it.  Do you follow that?  This is really emphasized because it's important to remember, the total entrainment period is over now, and she’s just having a great and joyful time with it.  Then she stops and she looks around and the greatest period of human life comes in.  

Now we speak of one chemical that drives the brain to search continually for novelty, that's the one that drives the structure up here, looking for novelty, that which is new.  If she stopped at this point we have nothing called correlation of one learning to another.  There would be no way to take one learning and apply it on an ever wider basis.  That comes through variation.  

Now all of the sudden what's she doing?  She stopped and she looks around and she says ah-ha, what new world can I conquer through this new tool I have, this new ability and she goes over and tries it with the other doors.  She wants to pound those for a while and then she'll start and she'll look for other types of hinged objects, literally out searching for ways to take this neural pattern and apply it to ever greater fields.  What happens to each one of these new devices that she tries it on?  You've got to make some new connections and it will further stabilize as well as expand the basic neural structures involved in that structure of knowledge, as Piaget calls it.  

So now finally she's discovering all hinge objects, the potty seat you know and nothing is safe in the house now.  The hinge objects of the music box and all these things, she wants to pound them up and down and exercise this new ability and then this will lead on into further and further unrelated fields.  Partially related such as jar tops.  Any kind of top sitting on something else she will now start and explore.  Which means that the basic structure is being expanded into completely new territory and this will be an expansion of the brain itself.  New axon dendrite connections being stabilized, myelinated and so forth.  Am I making any sense?

Now that's the variation stage.  Later on we're going to find that's the whole aspect of learning in the later stages that we speak of.  Now let's look very briefly at what can happen to this.  I'm always posing these marvelous things and then showing what can happen, the negative side, but we do need to know about that.  This one example, the little girl who was pounding on this door, it really did happen and it was not my child, she was pounding on this door, she'd really just discovered this thing and she was pounding on this door and the telephone rang right there in the kitchen.  Mom said, "honey stop that, the phone's ringing, hello!"  There was no response whatsoever from the child.  Right ahead pounding and pounding, she was in the practice stage and mom said, "honey I said stop that, I'm trying to talk" and of course pound, pound, pound, and finally she was shouting at the child, "I said stop it".  No response whatsoever.  Finally momma threw the telephone down and went over, picked her up and literally dusted her britches and said, "can't you hear me, I'm shouting, I'm telling you stop that, I can't hear on the telephone".  

Of course now the child is screaming, the telephone conversation is pretty difficult, the whole thing is a great mess.  Why did the child not pay any attention to what she was saying?  Because of entrainment.  A new learning in this early child requires 100% of the whole energy of the system on that one particular developmental adventure.  No energy is left over for processing other forms of information.  

The child didn't respond to momma because the child didn't hear momma.  There was literally no energy left for that kind of thing and so when suddenly the practice period is broken out of the clear blue sky by momma picking up and dusting her britches, it's a complete non-secretor, isn't that what you would call it?  Completely out of logic, doesn't fit anything.  Now a few times like this of when the child is attempting to explore the world, practice it and doing all of that to start and vary her structures of knowledge, she gets clobbered for it because a parent says "DON'T" and the child doesn't comprehend what the parents saying because of the entrainment factor, then what going to happen?

Little by little the child will find that they can't afford to entrain.  They can't afford to invest all of their energy on a new learning because they can't trust the world around them enough to turn their back on it.  That means they're going to split their psychic structure, they're going to split the energy of the brain mind and between the attempt to practice and their defense system guarding themselves against a world that might clobber them out of a clear blue sky for no particular good reason.  The child’s open acceptancy without question you see has to be honored in every respect and when we don't, when we interfere with, our kind of intellectual commands appear and break the pattern, then what's going to happen?  Little by little they won't go with this complete involvement, this complete entrainment.  We say our children can't concentrate.  What do we mean by concentrate?  Concentrate the totality of the energy on a single specific task.  Later on they won't be able to do that because they've got to take some of the energy for the task and some to maintain their defense system against a world they cannot trust.  Do you understand?

As long as you don't trust your world implicitly and totally, and as long as you don't become again as a little child, and that's what it means.  An absolute implicit trust in the maintenance system taking care of you.  Then you can't entrain or concentrate your energies on any single task and we're a house divided against ourselves.  Does that make any sense?  We're a house divided against ourselves.  One half of us trying to defend ourselves, the other half trying to do what we must do to survive.  So this cycle of competence is a critical thing to be aware of in all children’s learning.