Jun 19, 2011

R. Kegan's theory of cognitive development

From Tomorrow's professor email newsletter (based on the book "Student Development in College, Theory, Research, and Practice" by N. J. Evans, D. S. Forney, F. M. Guido et al., 2010, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Full posting here):

Cognitive development concerns the evolution of consciousness, the ways we organize experience in our minds. According to Kegan, the process of cognitive development is an effort to resolve the tension between a desire for differentiation, or distictness, and an equally powerful desire to be immersed in one's surroundings, or inclusion (Kegan, 1982, 1994).

Generally, the following five stages, which Kegan referred to as stages of development, then orders of consciousness, and, finally, forms of mind, can be distinguished:

Order 0 (~newborn - 18 months). At this stage, everything sensed is taken to be an extension of the person. By the time infants are 18 months old, they begin to recognize the existence of objects outside themselves, moving to the next stage.

Order 1 (~18 months - 3 years). Children realize that they have control over their reflexes, become aware of objects in their environment as independent from themselves. They are attached to whatever or whoever is present at the moment. Parents should support their children's thoughts while challenging them to take responsibility for themselves and their feelings and begin to perceive the world realistically.

Order 2: Instrumental Mind.Individuals begin to classify objects, people, or ideas. As a result, their thinking becomes more logical and organized and they relate to others as separate and unique beings. In this order, individuals develop a sense of who they are and what they want. "Competition and compromise" (Kegan, 1982, p. 163) characterize instrumental mind. Support at this stage means to confirm the person's identity; challenge is to encourage them to consider the expectations, needs, and desires of others.

Order 3: Socialized Mind. Cross-categorical thinking, or the ability to relate one category to another, is characteristic for the third order of consciousness. As a result, thinking becomes more abstract, individuals are aware of their feelings, and they can make commitments to people and ideas. At this stage other people are seen as sources of validation and authority, therefore acceptance by others is crucial in this order. Support should be in mutually rewarding relationships and shared experiences. At the same time authority figures can challenge co-dependence and encourage individuals to make their own decisions and establish independent lives.

Order 4: Self-Authoring Mind. Cross-categorical constructing, or the ability to generalize across abstractions, is evident in the fourth order of consciousness. In this order, individuals can establish their own sets of values and ideologies. Relationships become a part of one's world rather than the reason for one's existence. Supportive actions for the individual at this stage will be in acknowledgment of the individual's independence and self-regulation. Challenge involves encouragement to develop further when others refuse to accept relationships.

Order 5: Self-Transforming Mind. In this order of consciousness, which is infrequently reached and never reached before the age of forty [sic], individuals see beyond themselves, others, and systems of which they are a part and form an understanding of how all people and systems interconnect. They recognize their "commonalities and interdependence with others" (Kegan, 1982, p. 239).

Kegan argued that modern life places enormous stress on individuals. He called such demands, the expectations of adults in parenting, partnering, and working, "hidden curriculum" (1994, p. 9) and argued that those expectations require fourth-order meaning making, and many adults have not attained that level. Kegan hypothesized that life requires an ever more complex way of knowing, that of the fifth order, which very few people ever reach. And yet, he thought that it's unrealistic to demand from people order 5 thinking, the most realistic thing would be to help people reach self-authorship, or order 4.

This theory seems similar to other theories of cognitive development, but I'm always surprised how little such theories are incorporated into education and other related activities. They should be taken into consideration not only in formal teaching and learning, but in providing information and literacy services in other settings. I can see how science or citizen engagement projects won't work simply because they require order 4 and 5 thinking, while the targeted population thinks within the third (if not second) order.

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