In Pursuit of Excellence
There has been only one pursuit in my life that keeps me excited, energised and enthused. It is to be excellent.
Long before I contemplated the meaning of the word excellent, I just wanted to be.
At what? People ask me. I find this question perplexing. As if we should restrict our aspirations of being excellent to a single thing, to a solitary pursuit. This feels too limiting. To be excellent is a vocation, a lifestyle. It is what makes me happy.
It is also what makes me exhausted. But in a pleasant way. Like the exhaustion of a good work out at the Gym where we push ourselves that little bit more, like the exhaustion of a mother who has just delivered a baby, the exhaustion of an artist who lowers his brush after that final flourish of paint on the finished masterpiece, or like the exhaustion of a – ahem – splendid post coital bliss.
I sit here wondering what to write about for my 100th hub. Do I compose a poem? Write a story? Compile an article? Pen a parody? Wax lyrical about an artist I admire? Then it hits me.
I will write about excellence. How the pursuit of excellence is a rewarding one. Perhaps it is the only pursuit that elevates us from mediocrity. That lifts us from the heart-sink of the merely’ good –enough’.
I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.
The ancient Greeks applied the term Areté to mean excellence or virtue. This term was not gender specific or even specific to humans or living organisms. Areté is excellence of any kind. For humans it is the act of living one’s life to its full potential. It is being the best you can be. The meaning of the word can change depending on what it was used to describe. It could be excellence of a building, of a boat, of a bull or a brave warrior. It could be excellence of an orator, a soldier, a beautiful maiden or a musician.
For the purpose of this piece I want to discourse the Areté of a human. What makes one excellent? Can it be taught? Can it be learnt? What are the traits that make us pursue excellence? Is this pursuit a rewarding one?
Back to our Homeric virtue, Areté is the Goddess of Excellence. What is interesting is her family tree. She is said to be born from Praxidike, the Goddess of Justice. Her sister, another of Praxidike’s offspring, is Harmonia a goddess of Harmony, concord, unity of mind or the union of hearts.
Excellence as a virtue is closely related to Justice and a harmony of mind and heart.
Coincidence? I think not. The Greeks knew what they were talking about.
This fits with my philosophy. To do justice to anything or anyone, one needs the virtue of excellence. And it is in this pursuit that I encounter harmony, unity and concordance.
It is a wretched taste to be gratified with mediocrity when the excellent lies before us.
Can we Teach and Learn to be Excellent?
Is it the pursuit of higher and higher knowledge that leads to excellence? Does ‘knowing’ alone convey excellence? We see people – some very brainy people- on Quiz shows who seem to know so many facts. Does this make them holistically excellent? Does the possession of superior memory, an archive of facts and factoids, make us excellent? It certainly makes us excellent at Quiz shows!
But can the act of memory and recall truly mean ‘Understanding’? Surely understanding or ‘comprehension’ is a better step up.
Or is excellence about how the knowledge is used in practice - the act of applying, engaging, exercising and realising this knowledge.
So is practice the mother of excellence?
We crave more- just knowing and applying – can be done by machines- well trained computers- we need more in our pursuit of excellence.
Good enough never is.
Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives
Benjamin Samuel Bloom (February 21, 1913 – September 13, 1999) was an American Educational psychologist who has researched and published extensively on the theory of achieving mastery and excellence. Bloom studied at Pennsylvania State University where he got his bachelor’s and master’s degree. He then joined the University of Chicago and worked extensively on the learning process of students and was a University examiner. He headed a research team that focused on categorisation of educational objectives that helped the teaching and learning towards excellence.
Bloom was instrumental in creating tasks and objectives under the three domains of thinking, feeling and doing (Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor).
Blooms taxonomy of Educational Objectives provides instructional tasks and instructional assessment that can push the learner towards exceptional ability.
Bloom and his team theorised that knowing and ‘recall’ is perhaps the lowest end of the ladder to excellence. ‘comprehension’ comes next this implies an understanding of the knowledge gained. The knowledge is to be applied and ‘application’ is the next step up. This is followed by ‘analysis’. The act of analysing the knowledge that was understood, a mental dissection, reflection will take the learner up the spiral of learning further. Bloom strives higher, he wants ‘synthesis’ and ‘evaluation’ ( these can be interchangeable depending on the source.
This is the pinnacle, the act of synthesising new knowledge. The Alchemical magic of combining various bits of knowledge learnt and creating new thought new ideas.
Would this help our pursuit of excellence?
Bloom was clear about the necessity not only of cognitive ability but also of the feeling ‘affective’ ability. As we all know, the attitudes, beliefs and values we intrinsically hold may affect the way we learn, the way we teach and the way we strive for excellence.
Competence and Capability
There are a lot of exams that test for competence and a lot of teaching courses that aim for it. Is competence the same as capability? How often do we see a person with ‘learnt’ knowledge failing to make common sense decisions, failing to connect the dots when the dots are not aligned the way they were taught? It seems like we need more than competence to set our aspirations to excellence.
While competence can deal with the simple and the straightforward, we need capability to cope with complexity. And life, we know, is anything but simple.
So what is capability? Is a capable individual one step closer to excellence?
Competence —what individuals know or are able to do in terms of knowledge, skills, attitude.
Capability —extent to which individuals can adapt to change, generate new knowledge, and continue to improve their performance
When we read the description of capability we can see that it aligns very closely to analysis, evaluation and synthesis. It also talks about adapting to change, generating new knowledge and continually improving performance- this to me sounds like a good path towards excellence.
The renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.
Sallust (86 BC - 34 BC), The War with Catiline
Teaching for Excellence
Teaching for excellence thus no longer a set of mere instructions. It invites the learner to participate, to contribute, and to be less of a vessel for the teacher to pour knowledge into.
Knowledge is non linear, multidimensional and vast. The real world is fuzzy and unique, not neatly wrapped in containers that are labelled accurately.
This cannot be learnt from just a book, captured knowledge or a taught course full of PowerPoint presentations. This needs to be interactive, illustrated by real- life practical examples, include fuzzy problems that need to be solved. While it still needs to be built on available knowledge and an understanding of the knowledge, it can then be set free to explore, challenge, doubt, co-create and conjure.
I have mentioned in my other hubs that I learnt more from sources other than my text books. I learnt from watching films, conversing with friends, reading books that were not recommended curriculum, enjoying fiction and comics, through travel, experimentation and writing.
We need education that seeks inspiration from various sources, which creates a mash-up for life, work and personal/professional development.
But can excellence be really taught? Perhaps we can sign post the path to excellence. The journey itself needs to be taken by the one who strives for it.
The Human Brain
The best complex adaptive system we know of is the human brain. It is a wonder of creation. Capable of processing terabytes of information in nanoseconds, our Brain is a cosmic computer scientists can only dream of. It contains over 80 billion neurons that connect with each other through synapses. If you look at the structure of the neuronal connections they are like a spider web painted by a drunken Picasso.
They interconnect and transmit impulses with incredible speed. The cortex is capable of making leaps of logic, come up with new theories, synthesise information and can constantly recall, comprehend, apply, analyse, synthesise and evaluate. But the Brain can out bloom Dr Benjamin Bloom any day. For it makes such leaps of logic that defies algorithms, creates such effervescent beauty that takes our breath away. Yet not everyone uses their brain to make these leaps. We may curtail, cower, corrupt and condescend our great brain. We may do this our self or a rigid, dictatorial education system may do this for us. A system that rewards robotic conformity and fears and ridicules maverick thinkers.
So let us unleash our brains inherent capacity and reach for the stars. We can be hungry in our pursuits without fear of losing focus. You see it is in the synthesis of knowledge and understanding that are far flung that new knowledge is born. Like life born in a primordial pool of slime.
Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag.
Diane Ackerman (from An Alchemy of Mind. The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, 2004)
Is Excellence the same as Expertise?
Dreyfus and Dreyfus described the journey from novice to expert. The higher echelons of proficiency and expertise move more and more away from ‘taught’ rules and maxims into the territory of ‘hunches’, ‘intuitions’ and ‘visioning’. But is clear that one cannot reach these levels without some tacit understanding and experience of the lower levels.
According to these researchers, an expert can make leaps of understanding and decision making quickly, intuitively and contextually. This almost sounds like a dangerous place to be in. It is also an exciting place to be in. Is this the zone of excellence? Does it all come to intuition, instinct and vision?
An expert, according to the Dreyfus model has authoritative knowledge of the subject at hand, achieves expected standards of work with relative ease- so far so good, but wait, an expert also takes responsibility for going beyond existing standards and creating own interpretations.
Now we are beginning to see a pattern. Striving for excellence is not a vain preoccupation; it is also the journey to expertise. An expert, again according to the Dreyfus model, has a holistic grasp of complex situations and moves between intuitive and analytical approaches with ease. And finally an expert not only sees the ‘whole’ picture but is able to ‘vision’ what may be possible.
Novice to Expert
"rigid adherence to taught rules or plans"
limited "situational perception"
"coping with crowdedness" (multiple activities, accumulation of information)
holistic view of situation
transcends reliance on rules, guidelines, and maxims
no exercise of "discretionary judgment"
all aspects of work treated separately with equal importance
some perception of actions in relation to goals
prioritizes importance of aspects
"intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding"
deliberate planning formulates routines
"perceives deviations from the normal pattern"
has "vision of what is possible"
uses "analytical approaches" in new situations or in case of problems
My Journey To Excellence
So do I now have some understanding of the journey to excellence?
- I learnt something about the Greek concept of excellence, of Arete and her sibling Harmonia. I learnt from the great Benjamin bloom that the journey doesn’t just stop with acquisition of knowledge but in the comprehension, application, analysis and also in the synthesis and evaluation of new thought.
- I learnt that to be excellent, one needs to be capable. And capability is not just about having the right knowledge, skills and attitudes it lies in the ability to adapt, to change and continue to improve performance.
- I learnt that teaching and learning for excellence goes well beyond conventional methodology. It is non linear, interactive, questioning, challenging and daring to be different.
- I learnt that the human brain is a vast and wonderful organism that is capable of far more than we could imagine. There is no danger of pushing it to the limit by mere thought alone. It can assimilate a variety of information, complex or simple. So a pursuit of excellence is also a pursuit across various interests.
- I learnt the journey to excellence aligns closely with a journey to so called ‘expertise’. It is reassuring to know that trusting one’s instincts is not a bad thing. Having a holistic grasp of situations, using analysis but also intuition is alright. Looking for the ‘whole’ picture and not merely satisfied with snapshots is a preoccupation well worth the journey to excellence.
I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.
Appreciate your support
So there you go dear reader, my 100th hub. Thank you for being with me through my mad meanderings, my insane leaps between poetry and philosophy, health and humour, art and music, words and wonders.
If my profile page and my merry menagerie of hubs look like the musings of a deviant mind, my excuse is this:
For all this humble writer ever wants to be, is excellent.
Now I do not know if achieve excellence or not. For it is a relative state. A highly subjective entity. you will agree. One person’s excellent can be another one’s mediocre. It can be in the eye of the beholder.
But it is the pursuit, the journey, the process of aiming for excellence that inspires me. And hopefully, you, dear reader.
For as Clement Stone said, ‘Aim for the Moon. Even if you miss, you will land amongst the stars’.
And you are my stars.
Thank You for your following, your readership, your kind comments and compliments.
For without you, it will just be a deep, dark empty space.
Fraser & Greenhalgh, Coping with complexity: educating for capability BMJ 2001; 323; 799-803
Dreyfus SE & Dreyfus HL., A Five stage model of mental activities involved in skill acquisition, Berkeley: University of California 1980.
Bloom, Benjamin S. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956). Published by Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA. Copyright (c) 1984 by Pearson Education.
© 2011 Mohan Kumar