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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue B ::: October 2001

Our Developmental Perspective

We employed a constructive developmental perspective of growth, based on the work of psychologist Robert Kegan (1982, 1994), to understand: how the adults in this study experienced - or made sense of - what they learned in their programs; and  the supports and challenges they named as facilitating their growth. Our perspective is informed by the past 30 years of research in the field of adult development, which suggests that developmental principles can be applied to adults (Basseches, 1984; Belenky et al., 1986; Daloz, 1986; Kegan 1982,  1994; Kohlberg, 1984; Piaget, 1952; Weathersby, 1976).

The first premise in a constructive developmental perspective is that growth and development are lifelong processes. Growth does not end in adolescence; as adults we continue to grow and develop. Another is that these growth processes are gradual and in the direction of greater complexity. Adults evolve from  one way of knowing, or underlying meaning system, to another more complex way of knowing at their own pace and depending on the available supports and challenges.  While these developmental processes are sequential, people  of similar ages and phases of their lives can be at different places in their development  (Broderick, 1996; Drago-Severson, 1996; Goodman, 1983; Kegan, 1982; Popp, 1998; Portnow, 1996; Portnow et al., 1998; Stein, 2000).  Moving from one developmental stage to another is a progression of increasing complexity in an individual's cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal capacities. Each stage includes the capacities of  the prior stage, but adds new capacities as well. Some readers may wonder therefore whether we are suggesting that a higher stage is necessarily a better stage. We prefer to look at this question in terms of the natural learning challenges (or "hidden curricula") people face in their lives. If the complexity of one's meaning system is sufficient to meet  the challenges one faces, it would not necessarily be  better to construct a more complex meaning system.  But if the complexity one  faces outstrips the current complexity of one's meaning system, a change in one's meaning system in the direction of greater complexity would indeed be better, in the practical sense. We do not believe that a person is a better person for having a more complex meaning system.

Development, from our  point of view, involves more than learning new skills or acquiring new knowledge, which we refer  to as informational learning. Development also involves transformational learning: a qualitative shift in how people know and understand themselves, their worlds, and the relationship between the two. Transformational learning enables people to take broader perspectives on themselves (seeing and understanding different aspects of the self) and others (Cranton, 1994; Kegan,  1982, 1994; Kegan & Lahey, 2001; Mezirow, 1991).  In our view, transformational change is intimately linked to the way in  which people conceive of their adult responsibilities. This transformational learning, which underlies changes  in how people construe their roles, helps them enhance their capacities to manage better the complexities  of their daily lives as learners, parents, and workers. In our view, transformational development occurs across domains. Therefore, people tend to, but do not always, exercise the same meaning systems across all domains of life.

To understand how adults  made sense of and interpreted their experience, we used a framework (Kegan 1982, 1994) that considers the way people construct - or make sense of - the reality in which they live, and the way these constructions can change or develop over time.  We refer to an adult's underlying meaning system - through which  all experience is filtered and understood - as a way of knowing or  a developmental level. People's  ways of knowing organize how they understand their experience of themselves, others, and life events and situations. Our ways of knowing may feel more to us like the way  we are; and the world we construct through our way of knowing may seem to us less the way things  look to us, and more like the way things are.

Each way of knowing has  its own logic, which is different from and builds upon the previous logic by incorporating the former into its new meaning system. We are all engaged in the universal and continuing processes of meaning making. Understanding how a person is making sense of her world creates an opportunity  to join her and offer support  in a way that she will experience as being supportive. Three qualitatively different ways of knowing (and several identifiable transition points between any two) are most prevalent in adulthood: the Instrumental, the Socializing, and the Self-Authoring. Instrumental learners tend toward a concrete, external, and transactive orientation  to the world. To Socializing learners, the self is identified with its relationship to others or to ideas.  Self-Authoring knowers take responsibility  for and ownership of their own internal authority.

People's ways of knowing shape how they understand  their responsibilities as students and how they think about what makes a good student. It also frames how adults think about themselves as family members, learners, and workers. We used this lens in our research analysis  to understand how participants made sense of their motives  and goals for learning, expectations of themselves as learners and for their teachers, supports and challenges to their learning, and sense of themselves in their social roles. This framework  also allowed us to trace how participants' sense making changed - and grew more complex - over time.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL