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Three Different Types of Change

Three Different Types of Change

by Deborah Helsing, Eleanor Drago-Severson, Robert Kegan, Kathryn Portnow, Nancy Popp, & Maria Broderick
As adult basic education (ABE) students progress, teachers know their students are changing. How can teachers best understand and support multiple types of changes? In this article, the NCSALL Adult Development Research Group presents findings from our longitudinal study. We found that adults' participation in ABE and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs were adult developmental events in which the learners generally extended the reach of an existing way of knowing to a wider range of applications, and in which some learners actually transformed their ways of knowing.

The NCSALL Adult Development Research Group views development as a lifelong process, meaning that even as adults we continue to grow and become more complex. We mark this growth along a spectrum of sequential and qualitatively distinct levels of development. The three most common levels for adults are the Instrumental way of knowing, the Socializing way of knowing, and the Self-Authoring way of knowing. Instrumental knowers tend toward a concrete, external, and transactive orientation to the world; Socializing knowers have more a more abstract and internal orientation; and Self-Authoring knowers take responsibility for and ownership of their own internal authority. A given way of knowing may frame and influence one's experience of oneself, others, and events. To grow from one level to the next involves a qualitative shift in the ways an adult knows and makes sense of the world.

In researching the experiences of 41 adult learners at three literacy programs over the course of a year or more, we found that learners' descriptions of their experiences varied notably across different ways of knowing. Participants who shared a particular way of knowing had intriguing commonalities among their descriptions. We were also struck by the three types of changes occurring in learners' lives, which we will first introduce briefly and then describe in more detail. 

Changes: An Overview

Most of the 41 participants in our study were undergoing changes of acculturation. As immigrants to the United States, they were confronting the formidable tasks of gaining fluency in the English language as well as in their new culture. How participants experienced and navigated these changes was related to their developmental levels. That is, learners with different ways of knowing demonstrated notable differences in their descriptions of these changes.  Learners with the same way of knowing, on the other hand, gave descriptions of change that had striking similarities. 

All participants were seeking to gain new kinds of information, skills, and ideas throughout the course of their program. Often, these changes contributed to consolidation and elaboration of their perspectives, through which learners made connections among and extended their ideas and values within their existing ways of knowing. Participants also described their learning as contributing either to occurring or hoped-for improvements in many other aspects of their lives, including their sense of identity, their careers, their social and economic status, their home lives, and their self-confidence.

Some participants experienced transformational changes. These learners not only made gains in what they knew, they also modified the shape of how they knew. They grew to demonstrate new and more complex ways of knowing, along the lines of the distinctions suggested in Tables 1 and 2 of the previous article, "Three Developmentally Different Types of Learners" on pp. 8 and 9.  For these qualitative shifts in participants' ways of knowing to occur even for a few learners over the short span of one year is remarkable. 

To give an overview of these changes here, as well as the developmentally driven similarities and differences among learners, we discuss each type of change as we saw it in one particular site and around one particular aspect of the program. Remember, however, that the changes we describe were evident at all three sites and were related to learners' conceptions of several aspects of the program (including for example, how they perceived themselves as students, their teachers, their peers, and their learning).


At all three sites, many learners experienced changes relating to acculturation and, in particular, to their understanding of what it meant to be a good student. At Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), in Charlestown, MA, all participants were immigrants growing accustomed to their new roles as students in an American community college. To succeed in these new roles, the learners needed to acculturate: to understand and demonstrate the specific skills, behaviors, attitudes, and types of knowledge that are valued in these settings. As with other aspects of their learning experiences, the ways that BHCC students described their understandings of a good student were shaped by their different ways of knowing.

Learners' Ways of Knowing


  • Knowledge is a kind of possession, an accumulation of skills, facts, and actions that yield solutions; a means to an end. You get it and then you have it.

  • Knowledge is right or wrong.

  • Knowledge comes from external authority that tells you the right skills, facts, and rules you need to produce the results to get what you want.

  • Knowledge helps one meet one's own concrete needs and goals, and obtain Instrumental outcomes.

  • The purpose of education is to get X.


  • Knowledge is general information one should know for one's required social roles and to meet expectations of teachers and authorities.

  • Knowledge is equated with objective truth.

  • Knowledge comes from high authorities and experts who hand down truth and understanding.  Authorities and experts are the source of the legitimate knowledge and informed opinions.

  • Knowledge helps one to meet cultural and social expectations, gain acceptance and entry into social roles, and feel a sense of belonging.

  • The purpose of education is to be X.


  • Knowledge is understood as construction, truth, a matter of context.  Bodies of knowledge and theories are seen as models for interpreting and analyzing experience.

  • Knowledge comes from one's interpretation and evaluation of standards, values, perceptions, deductions, and predictions.

  • Knowledge comes from a self-generated curiosity and sense of responsibility for one's own learning.

  • Knowledge helps to enrich one's life, to achieve a greater competence according to one's own standards, to deepen one's understanding of self and world to participate in the improvement of society.

  • The purpose of education is to become X.

(By K. Portnow & N. Popp, (1998). "Transformational learning in adulthood." Focus on Basics, 2D. Adapted from R. Weathersby,  A Synthesis of Research and Theory on Adult Development: Its Implications for Adult Learning and Postsecondary Education, 1976; pp. 88-89.)

Instrumental learners are oriented largely to the specific and concrete, externally observable behaviors and skills that they had to acquire to be successful as students. They described the importance of improving their academic English language skills, including learning new vocabulary, and constructing five-paragraph essays according to accepted rules of grammar, punctuation, organization, and style. They mentioned the importance of developing successful strategies for studying, such as note-taking, using a textbook effectively, and completing homework regularly and correctly. Other particular behaviors that Instrumental learners emphasized included asking questions and offering opinions in class discussions; attending all classes and arriving at them promptly; and utilizing institutional forms of academic support such as personal tutoring and computer software programs. Considering the identified behaviors and concrete skills as the keys to academic success, these learners were likely to evaluate their learning based on the grades and course credit they received and according to their ability to produce the "right" answers. While all learners name many of these concerns, Instrumental learners described only these concerns.

Like Instrumental learners, Socializing learners saw the need to learn the skills and behaviors valued by American educational institutions and included these concerns in their explanations. However, they also gave weight to abstract purposes and internal characteristics, such as considerations of character and personality that could help them acquire and were augmented by particular skills and new types of knowledge. To become good students and learn effectively in their new environment, they emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive attitude, a sense of hope, and the will to learn. Accordingly, these students tended to refer to their attitudes and their personalities when evaluating their learning, judging themselves on their ability to remain open and receptive to new learning.

Demonstrating similar concerns about acquiring new skills and knowledge and acknowledging the importance of more abstract internal states, Self-Authoring learners referred to and concentrated on additional priorities. These students often described their struggles to master the English language in terms of how effectively they were able to communicate the complexity of their ideas. They showed interest in differences of opinion: each perspective could be considered as a possible and viable alternative that could inform their own understanding. Thus, rather than relying on teachers to communicate correct information or ideas as both Instrumental and Socializing learners did, Self-Authoring students regarded themselves and other students as additional valid sources of knowledge. These learners could evaluate their teachers and the subject matter by their usefulness in meeting the learners' own self-constructed goals.

Consolidation and Elaboration

Another dimension of the changes in participants' lives, across all three sites, centered on how acquiring new learning enabled participants to consolidate and elaborate on their existing social identities within a given way of knowing. In addition to gaining new skills, knowledge, ideas, perspectives, and values, learners formed new relationships among these ideas, and perhaps reconsidered their own beliefs. These changes in their perspectives on themselves and their roles - what we call consolidation and elaboration - are developmental changes: they allowed participants to build up and deepen their way of knowing. At an Even Start family literacy program in Cambridge, MA, learners described how various aspects of the curriculum helped them broaden their understanding of their parenting roles and supported them in enacting their visions of themselves as effective parents. 

Instrumental parents had a concrete focus on their own and their children's needs and often found it difficult to put themselves in their children's shoes. They understood proper discipline as meaning that their children did what they were told, followed the rules, and met parental needs. In recounting how various aspects of their program enhanced their ability to parent, Instrumental learners described their increasing ability to perform practical behaviors. They reported that the program enabled them to help their children better because they were more effective in communicating with doctors and teachers, assisting their children with homework, and making better use of public transportation. Unlike their Socializing and Self-Authoring peers, Instrumental learners did not identify additional criteria by which they understood their parenting role.

Parents with a Socializing way of knowing demonstrated the ability to internalize their children's perspectives. They held values of parenting that were prescribed culturally or by authorities, and they disciplined their children according to the externally mediated values they had internalized. In many cases, Socializing learners at Even Start accepted the underlying values of the parenting curriculum, through which they were able to consolidate and elaborate their own views and values of parenting. These learners explained how their increasing ability to participate in educational activities with their children, such as reading aloud or working on a school project, deepened the emotional bonds between them.

Self-Authoring parents saw themselves as the creators and generators of their parenting philosophies. These parents were able to take into account both the child's internal psychological perspective and their own, and recognized that children's successes and struggles were distinct from and not determined by their parents'. At Even Start, Self-Authoring learners often adopted the program's approaches to or information about disciplining their children. However, they were able to assess the program's values according to their own self-generated parenting philosophies. Increased parenting skills and information were valued as important fuel for their own self-definition of parenting competence.


At several points during their programs, we invited all learners at each site to describe their understanding of what makes a good teacher. Over the course of the program, we observed how several Polaroid learners experienced transformation, growing to demonstrate new ways of knowing and qualitatively changing their conceptions of, in this example, good teachers. 

 Learners with an Instrumental way of knowing wanted their teachers to provide clear explanations, corrections on written and oral work, and step-by-step procedures. They focused on their own concrete needs and felt supported when teachers gave them information and task-oriented scaffolding to help them build the mechanical skills they needed to complete their assignments. These learners identified good teachers as those who made them learn. At the end of the program, we noticed changes in how several of these learners conceived the teacher-learner relationship. In many of these cases, Instrumental knowers began to recognize a more internal psychological and abstract quality to their learning, describing, for example, the way that their teachers made them feel about themselves. We marked these transformational changes as the emergence of a Socializing way of knowing.

Socializing learners, like Instrumental knowers, felt supported in their learning when teachers explained concepts well and talked slowly. However, unlike Instrumental knowers, Socializing learners also expected their teachers to value their ideas and themselves. They felt most supported by teachers who really cared about them. While Socializing learners felt that good teachers helped them understand concepts so that they could complete assignments, it was the interpersonal connection they had with good teachers that helped learners to feel comfortable. They appreciated teachers who employed a variety of teaching strategies that helped them to apply their learning to broader goals. Learners with a Socializing way of knowing were not only interested in fulfilling their teachers' expectations of them, but they also identified with their teachers' expectations of them. In other words, the teachers' learning goals for them became their own goals for learning. They viewed their teachers as sources of authority and expected the teacher to know what they needed to learn. Although these learners could sense internally when they had learned something, they needed the teacher's acknowledgement to feel complete. During the programs, several learners grew to demonstrate a more Self-Authoring way of knowing operating alongside of a Socializing way of knowing. For instance, these learners began to see their teachers' perspective and expectations as separate from their own. Some learners developed a capacity to appreciate the complexity of a teacher's work and began to understand their own motivation to learn as independent of the teacher's influence.

Self-Authoring knowers not only saw their teachers as authorities and sources of knowledge, but also viewed themselves and each other as generators of knowledge. These learners, unlike Socializing knowers, were often able to reflect on their teachers' instruction and offer constructive feedback. Like Socializing knowers, they voiced appreciation for teachers who employed a variety of teaching techniques and strategies to meet learners' needs. However, they were primarily concerned with meeting their own goals and internally generated standards on behalf of what they saw as their larger learning purposes. They had their own internally generated criteria for assessing and critiquing good teachers who, in their view, supported them in meeting their own goals for competence and self-mastery. Self-Authoring knowers also took greater responsibility for their learning both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, many of these learners talked about "growing" and feeling "strong" as they learned in the program. 

Combinations of Change 

The changes that participants in our study related and demonstrated were not as straightforward as the above descriptions imply. Instead, many learners at all three sites were experiencing multiple types of changes that influenced several, if not all, aspects of their lives. For example, some participants were making transitions of acculturation and transformation simultaneously, and these changes concerned not one but many aspects of their experiences. Participants were coming to many new understandings at once: of their role as students, of the teacher's role, of the subject matter they were studying, and of their relationships to their fellow classmates. We see all these dimensions of change as therefore interrelated and reciprocal.

Furthermore, these changes also combined with and fueled other changes. Across all three sites, as learners extended their skills and knowledge, their confidence and feelings of success also grew. Many adjusted the goals and expectations they set for themselves to incorporate larger and more ambitious dreams and plans. Thus, the changes they experienced in the classroom carried over into other aspects of their lives. In particular, students reported that the learning they did in their programs heightened their competency in their social role, enhancing their performance as students, workers, or parents.


In recognizing and welcoming continuing forms and expressions of growth and change, educators can support students' newly emerging identities. We submit that teachers can best aid, encourage, or spur change among their learners by understanding both the points where students are and where educators would like them to be. In terms of acculturation, teachers must therefore understand how any one learner might currently be making sense of her experiences and how her way of knowing shapes the way she might acculturate to the United States. In terms of developmental change, teachers must not only understand a learner's existing way of knowing but must also be alert to ways he might be exploring and gradually taking on new and more complex ways of knowing.

Change also has associated risks. In our study, Socializing learners were particularly at risk for internalizing empowering but also disempowering values transmitted by authorities and the surrounding culture. For example, in acculturating to the United States, these participants were not yet able to generate their own critiques of the ways that they might be devalued as immigrants, members of racial minorities, and nonnative speakers of English. Socializing learners might also be particularly vulnerable to feelings of distress and low self-evaluation in the face of teachers, administrators, or other authorities who might neglect or marginalize them. These students must receive appropriate supports from teachers, peers, and others to identify and contradict deprecating and disempowering cultural messages.

We suggest that one reason for the success of each program we studied was that the teachers were skilled in supporting learners' processes of change. Thus, while not focused consciously on their learner's developmental levels, rather than teaching in ways that cater to one way of knowing over others, they presented material, designed classroom experiences, and developed expectations that were flexible and responsive enough to meet a wide range of different learners at their current way of knowing. At the same time, in presenting learners with appropriate challenges, they were, in effect, inviting learners to move toward a slightly more complex or slightly more elaborate understanding.


About the Authors

The NCSALL Adult Development Research Group is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cambridge, MA. 

Deborah Helsing is a doctoral student at HGSE and a Research Assistant at NCSALL.

Eleanor Drago-Severson is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellow at HGSE. 

Robert Kegan is Professor of Education in the field of Adult Learning and Professional Development.

Kathryn Portnow is a Research Associate at NCSALL and Postdoctoral Fellow at HGSE.

Nancy Popp is a Research Associate at NCSALL.

Maria Broderick is a Research Associate at NCSALL.