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In over Our Heads: Applying Kegan's Theory of Development to Community College Students.

 An epiphany enables you to sense creation
 not as something completed, but as constantly
 becoming, evolving, ascending.
 (Matt, 1995)

 While training increases the fund of knowledge,
 education leads us out of or liberates us from one
 construction or organization of mind in favor of
 a larger one.
 (Kegan, 1994)

 I know when I came here I was not sure if I belonged
 in college or framing houses.... I came into this
 semester as a framer and came out a student.
 (Brian, 1996)

As we attempt to reach out to students as instructors, counselors, or administrators, we often wonder what is going on in their heads. Our earnest attempts to "reach them" sometimes succeed but just as often leave them with blank or quizzical faces. We wonder whether we have been clear enough or whether we have used the proper methods. Too often we are left frustrated and either blame ourselves or, more often, the students.

Psychologist and educator Robert Kegan's response to this dilemma is to go beyond the "blame game" to uncover what is going on in the heads of our students as well as ourselves. Kegan's constructive-developmental theory represents an attempt to conceptualize the process of human development from infancy through adulthood. In so doing, he builds on the pioneering work of developmental theorists such as Piaget (1974), Erickson (1964), Kohlberg (1984), and Perry (1970). Erickson "was the first to look at personality development in a social context," and Piaget saw children and adolescents "moving from simple to more complex mental processes, and through equilibrium/disequilibrium stages" (Moore & Upcraft, 1990, pp. 5-6). Kohlberg created a theory of moral development, and Perry constructed a stage theory that examined the intellectual and ethical development of traditional college-age students.

The emphasis of Kegan's theory is on the period of adolescence onward, which encompasses the ages of students who enter the community college. Kegan views human growth (cognitive, affective, moral) as the interplay between internal psychological capacities and the demands of the external environment. As with most other developmental theories, Kegan's scheme considers the uniqueness of each human being while providing us with a model that allows for generalizing about how humans make sense of the world at different stages or phases of their lives. He is clearly aware of the social factors that condition our view of the world. He takes into account the work that has been done in the last decade by feminist theorists such as Gilligan (1983) and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1987), whose work has stressed the differences between men's and women's cognitive and affective development. He is also aware of the racial, ethnic, and class issues that still divide our society. Although he does not employ a socioeconomic analysis as do such educational critics as Giroux and McLaren (1989), Freire (1971), or Shor (1986), Kegan's sources are wide-ranging and provide him with a complex view of the interplay of societal forces and psychological capacities.

In the first part of this paper we will outline the basic features of Kegan's theory, particularly as it applies to education. We then provide an illustration of how it can be used by instructors to understand better the dynamics of the community college classroom and to determine what type of student development has occurred during the course of a semester.

Kegan's Theory of Human Development

In two major works, The Evolving Self (1982) and In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (1994), Kegan constructs his theory of development on the principle stated succinctly by Perry that "organisms organize and human organisms organize meaning" (Kegan, 1994, p. 29). The ability to make sense of the world is an ongoing process from birth to death. According to Kegan, we develop levels of consciousness or capacities of mind that begin with the fantasy or "magic" stage (birth through 6 years old) when things come and go and do not appear to have any permanence. Eventually the child becomes aware of self and the outside world. The world becomes more reliable and seems to follow the rules of nature. Although at this stage the child is self-centered or egocentric, he or she recognizes by at least 10 years old that people and things have an existence outside of him- or herself, and each person has a set of preferences and abilities that are enduring and can be differentiated from other people and things. This understanding is what Kegan calls the principle of durable categories, and, in his scheme, this is a particular order of the mind, a way of seeing the world. This principle, or second order of consciousness, is operative throughout the teens and is an essential part of development (Kegan, 1994, p. 29).

Nevertheless, the second stage is limited by a failure to objectify or to be able to have a perspective on one's own beliefs, acts, or (in a sense) the world as a whole. To achieve such a perspective takes a different order of mind, the interpersonal or third order of consciousness, what Kegan calls the cross-categorical principle of meaning making. At this stage a person can subordinate "durable categories to the interactions between them"; thus one can think abstractly, reflect on his or her own emotions, and "be capable of loyalty to a community of people or ideas larger than themselves" (Kegan, 1994, pp. 29-32). The ability to be more "objective" about the world and not be completely "subject" to an idea, feeling, or the outside world is an important developmental step. As Kegan points out, "we have object; we are subject." "We cannot," he adds, "be responsible for, in control of, or reflect on that which we are subject" (Kegan, 1994, p. 32). For example, the capacity to realize that we have a set of values that inform our actions--that we can name and describe such values--is represented by a the third order of consciousness, the cross-categorical.

In his works, Kegan goes on to posit further stages that adults have the potential to achieve including a fourth position, the inter-individual, in which we see ourselves, others, knowledge, feelings, and morals as part of a complex system. This capacity of mind allows us to take perspective on our own meaning-making system and that of others. One then has a self that is capable of mediating between itself and others, between one set of ideas and another as well as part of each. To take the example from above, we are now capable of comparing our value system with that of another set of values, see the origins of our own and other values--their similarities and differences--and work together to reconcile differences. Kegan sees this capacity developing as a consequence of the demands of modern life where change is constant and diversity a fact of life (Kegan, 1994, pp. 105-106).

In yet a further stage, the transystem or dialectical phase, the evolution from modern to postmodern requires that we give up possession of our own system for a new system that incorporates our own and that of others (Kegan, 1994, pp. 312-316).

We feel that an essential part of Kegan's theory in regard to education lies in his point that we have to see both ourselves and our students as having particular mental capacities--ways of seeing the world--that differ. Consequently, what teachers expect students to understand might be different from what they are, in fact, capable of understanding, at least initially. Our job as instructors is both to gain a "reading" of where our students are and then to reach out to them in a way that helps them move beyond where they are to where they need to be.

If we are working with traditional-age college students (those under age 25), they more than likely still have a categorical frame of reference but are developing the capacity to transition to the cross-categorical. Older or returning students (those age 25 and older) can be said to generally have the capacity to think cross-categorically but are not necessarily there. In any case, we should help to facilitate the necessary transitions--to provide, as Kegan argues, a bridge from one capacity of mind to another, one which is more complex and inclusive (Kegan, 1994, pp. 280-281). To make demands on students that they cannot initially achieve creates frustration for both the students and the instructor.

Kegan feels that the college can provide a supportive environment for developmental change. He argues for a combination of support and challenge on the part of college personnel (Kegan, 1994, p. 294). Providing students with a supportive environment while creating tasks that make them stretch helps them move from one capacity of mind to the other. At the same time, reflecting on what is happening in the classroom and engaging in a dialogue with oneself as well as colleagues about what is happening pedagogically helps to focus our understanding of the learning process and ultimately ourselves and others.

To achieve such reflection, we suggest that teachers, counselors, and administrators try to capture their experience by telling their stories, much as Kegan himself narrates the experiences of individuals within such institutions as home, school, and work. What follows is our attempt to tell a story from one of our classrooms, framing the experience so as to render it meaningful and understandable.

In over Our Heads: A Narrative

It is just after 12:00 in room K232. One of us (the first author of this piece, hereafter designated as "I") waits patiently for students to settle down for another session of our writing course. The class is our college's first-year writing course, which we used to call Writing from Experience (it is now called College Writing). There are only six students enrolled in the course, which is part of a cluster of courses comprising biology, sociology, study skills, and writing, two of which the authors teach. By and large, most students are of the same traditional-age group, having gone directly from high school to the college. I plan today to lead a discussion of Mark Shone's The Diary of a First-Year Teacher, a series of vignettes describing three months in the working life of a first-year sixth-grade teacher at a Brooklyn public school (Shone, 1996). I have assigned the work in large part because I want my students to reflect deeply on school knowledge, on what it takes to do the job in the classroom. The diary is told from the teacher's point of view and thus provides my students with an opportunity to get at what this teacher considers to be important work in school, the values that he would like his students to imbibe.

To get at those values and to prepare us for our discussion, I ask my students to do some focused free-writing on what teachers expect of their students based on Shone's behavior and assumptions. I look at the faces around the room and can tell that they don't quite understand my prompt. I try again, this time writing my request on the board: "I would like you to write what you think teachers want from you, based on the expectations that Mark Shone has for his students." My students are clearly vexed and confused. One of them finds the courage to ask: "Do you want us to write about all teachers? Or do you want us to write about just this one"? I replied that I would like the students to start with this one teacher's experience but then to try to generalize about others. Very little in fact was written that day. Our discussion of the text itself did manage to bring out some of Mark Shone's expectations, but I could tell that for these students, yet again, a teacher was speaking a foreign language. One student put it this way in his journal:
 Sitting in class I can sense frustration coming on. I have no clue what
 this guy is talking about. He is making us write about what it is to be
 teacher. I don't know what it is like to be a teacher. Sitting them
 writing, I feel like an idiot because I don't know what we are supposed to
 be writing about. It was pissing me off because he was confusing me about
 the question. I did not even know what a vignette was. I still do not know
 why we're doing that. I guess it is just an exercise that I probably do not
 understand because I did not mad about what I was supposed to do, but it is
 just the confusion and everyone talking that is making me mad; maybe it is
 not the vignette, but the commotion in the classroom. (Brian, 1996)

I have no clue what this guy is talking about. That would do well to express the situation. I felt, as the teacher, that a real disconnection existed between myself and the class. Even now, as I think about what this one student read as my prompt ("He is making us write about what it is to be a teacher"), I am astounded by how different our interpretations are of the task. The class members and I were definitely in over our heads.

A Writing Course about Knowing

In retrospect I can see now that my prompt carried with it a whole complex of expectations and demanded a full range of thinking skills. I assumed, for one thing, that my students had read the piece through prior to class (apparently, the student whose writing I just noted had not) and had understood "what happened" in these vignettes. I was then requiring them, in class, to theorize upon another teacher's expectations for his students from these concrete renderings. Finally, I wanted them to distance themselves even further from the text to generalize upon all teachers' expectations. Using Kegan's language, I was at once expecting my students to engage in cross-categorical thinking before they had thoroughly thought about what they had seen and what they themselves felt about those perceptions. I was asking them to engage someone else's point of view before they had a clear sense of their own point of view. Putting it another way, I was asking them to think as Mark Shone (or as all the Mark Shones) before thinking as Brian, or Jessica, or Noreen.

As I look back at my overall objectives for the course, I now see that I was aiming at getting my students to engage in what Kegan calls "cross-categorical meaning-making" in which one can "reason abstractly, that is, reason about reasoning" (Kegan, 1994, pp. 28, 30). The writing course that I designed as part of our course cluster attempted to put the students' ways of knowing front and center in the course. Through a sequence of reading and writing assignments, I wanted students to engage such questions as the following: What do I know? How do I know it? What schemes or taxonomies do I employ to order the world? What languages do I use to capture my experience? In essence, I was asking my students to define what, for lack of another phrase, I call "working knowledge," knowledge that we put to work in the world. I was asking them to achieve an awareness of how they know as well as what they know.


Of course, the difficulty was the journey, that is, finding a sequence of tasks that would get my students to that place of self-awareness. I attempted to set up a sequence of informal and formal writing tasks (prompted by our readings) that I hoped would do just that. I began by asking them to consider what knowledge actually does and to reflect on what they want to do with what they learn at our college. I followed that with a prompt that asked them to consider how they learn tasks (incrementally, by trial and error, through sudden inspiration). I then asked that they describe and reflect on an experience in which they were "at a loss for words." Subsequent assignments required that they observe and record their observations of an object's structure, that they record and decipher the meaning of a home ritual, that they enact an experience of discovery (including the discovery of intersecting cluster subjects), that they reflect on the differences between talking in and out of school, and that they study the interaction between public writing and their private lives.

The Hidden Curriculum

Reading Kegan's work reminded me of this unfortunate fact: Teachers, in assigning tasks to their students, may assume a range of knowledge and abilities that those students have not yet attained; these expectations rarely are made explicit to the students. Instead they become part of a hidden curriculum or the "what exactly does the teacher want" game.

In retrospect, I was asking my very youthful class (most were still in their teens) to engage in exceedingly challenging tasks. I was continually asking them to achieve an awareness of their frames of experience. For example, their first assignment asked them to read Malcolm X's famous account of his jailhouse education (an account in which Malcolm claims to have copied an entire dictionary to learn the language of the system) and then to write an account of how they learn (Malcolm X, 1983). Students had both to narrate an experience in which they had to learn a task and then had to reflect on the method by which they learn generally. Do they, for example, learn best by hands-on experience, or do they feel more comfortable obtaining information second- or third-hand first before trying their hand at solving a problem? Do they learn incrementally, or do they get it suddenly (the "Eureka, I have it!" approach)?

Again, in retrospect, I believe that what I expected of my students and what my students conceived as their work in a writing course such as mine simply did not match up. Most students at the college, it is fair to say, expect a moderately painful course that will pretty much be about the mechanics of writing. One of my students described her expectations this way:
 Walking into Professor Tinberg's writing-from-experience class
 self-assured, somewhat cocky, and stubborn I thought to myself, "What am I
 doing here?" I thought, "I've already learned all the writing techniques I
 need to know, and I know how to write--so why am I here?" (Noreen, 1996)

Leaving aside the writer's self-admitted and youthful arrogance about mastering "all the writing techniques" she needs to know, how could she possibly anticipate that this course would focus as much on knowing as on writing? Like the adolescents whose confusion Kegan writes so eloquently about, my students could very well ask of me, "Whaddaya want from me?" (Kegan, 1994, p. 15).

Jessica's Case

To bring to a sharp focus the challenges and frustrations of teaching a course to meet particular students' developmental needs, I will focus on the work of one student from that writing course. Jessica, in her first semester of college, came to campus "unsure of what ... college ... would be like." Admitting to me that in high school she had been "immature" and was able to get "her way" when she did not want to do a particular assignment, Jessica realized early on that all the writing mattered in my class. She also realized that revision and review would play a big part in the class. She was not pleased. She wrote, "I had never been criticized this much before, and I didn't like it." "Getting used to other people's opinions," she added later on, would help her in other classes (Jessica, 1996). But for her and for others, such sharing was not especially welcome.

That point became clear to me in Jessica's response to the assignment on "how we learn." She related an experience in the summer when she "managed a small business":
 When I had to train new people I would show them what to do, let them take
 some notes, and then I would leave them alone. I knew that there was
 nothing they could mess up that bad. When I would get back, they would
 always tell me that they learned something. My feeling is that you work
 better when you are by yourself and there isn't always someone there to
 answer your questions. It is not fun to be helpless; it feels much better
 to do something on your own. (Jessica, 1996)

Interestingly, Jessica viewed her own role here as trivial, even though she "would show them what to do." Borrowing from Kegan, I am tempted to read Jessica's actions as an unacknowledged belief that modeling behaviors is important as a way to break down the "durable categories" of the self (Keegan, 1994, p. 21). But Jessica's insistence that "you work better when you are by yourself" suggests for me an affirmation of those very same categories. For a journal two weeks later, I asked Jessica and the other students to read a famous account of the teacher Louis Agassiz as told by his student N. S. Shaler, in which Shaler is given a task and offered very little instruction by his teacher (Shaler, 1983). Agassiz, who is in the wings as it were, observing and yet not obviously present, wants Shaler to experience the sense of discovery himself. Jessica's reading of that classroom narrative is interesting to me in many ways, not the least of which being the way that she sees the teacher as driving the student toward discovery:
 I think the main point of this story is that sometimes people push you to
 observe something deeper then what is on the surface [sic]. To learn we
 must observe things from different angles and different points of view.
 Agassiz had this knowledge and carried this valuable lesson in his
 classroom. (Jessica, 1996)

I find it fascinating that Jessica, while not acknowledging her own influence as a teacher when training her employees, would see Agassiz, who does not obviously intervene, as pushing his student to become a more thoughtful observer. Having said this, I also recognize that Jessica may very well be getting to the point where she is ready to admit that learning may indeed be a social process in which each of us must come up against the limits of our known experience.

It is precisely those limits that became the subject of an early, extended piece of writing that Jessica and my other students did for me that semester. I asked them to recall an experience in which, like Malcolm, they felt "at a loss for words." I wondered whether they had ever felt "illiterate," as we had come to define that term (an inability to master the language codes and conventions of a particular community). Jessica decided to write about her experience in her sociology course (specifically, her struggle to read with understanding Marx's Communist Manifesto). In her first draft, Jessica can do little but state her embarrassment:
 About two weeks into the class, my professor assigned for us The Communist
 Manifesto. A small book about the effects of capitalism in the world. The
 Communist Manifesto is about 67 pages long. I figured that it would take me
 an hour at the most, so I waited until the last minute thinking that I
 could "speed read" right through it. In class, my professor would ask us
 questions about the Manifesto. I didn't know what to say. I felt as though
 I could not explain to her what I was going through. I was embarrassed
 [sic]. (Jessica, 1996)

In my comment on this passage, I asked Jessica, "What exactly was getting in your way?" I did so because I wanted her to become more cognizant of the qualities in Marx's language that proved so resistant for her. As I now reflect on my expectations, I wanted Jessica to provide two kinds of information for me, suggesting, as Kegan might say, two different orders of thinking. I wanted her, first of all, to indicate what terms or concepts were unfamiliar to her. But, beyond that task, I wanted her as well to think about and express what those terms convey about Marx's way of knowing, his way of ordering the world. I now see that the latter challenge was a very tall order.

In her next draft, Jessica lay bare more of her feelings of frustration but still with little probing into the reasons for her discomfort:
 I decided to read the Manifesto the day before my professor wanted us to
 discuss the book in class. I could barely get through the introduction let
 alone read the book in one night. I began to feel very frustrated and
 eventually gave up. In class, [the professor] would ask us questions about
 the Manifesto and I didn't know what to say. I felt as though I couldn't
 explain to her what I was going through. I was embarrassed. It was then
 that I realized that I was not the only person that didn't understand this.
 A lot of the people in my class were having problems with the manifesto.
 [The professor] realized this and began to discuss the book in class. It
 was then that I decided to give the Manifesto another chance. [The
 professor] began asking questions, and I was able to comprehend and reread
 The Communist Manifesto. This time around, I didn't even attempt to speed
 read. I went slowly, and when I got confused, I referred to my class notes
 or asked questions. I felt so accomplished when I finished and really
 understood. I even went on to get an A on the quiz we had on the material.
 (Jessica, 1996)

I felt frustrated myself by the fact that Jessica was not getting to what I wanted her to get at. What was there about Marx's language that posed such difficulties? How would she describe that language and the way of knowing implicit in it? Why wasn't she getting it? Was I teaching, in fact, to a "hidden curriculum," to use Kegan's term? Was I requiring that Jessica engage in a task without fully realizing whether she could make this journey? Was I failing to make explicit the nature of the task itself? I was heartened somewhat by Jessica's final draft, which does seem to get closer to a statement of cause:
 It was almost as if this book was written in Chinese. The Manifesto was
 written in a whole other political language that I couldn't understand. The
 concepts of capitalism were way over my head (Jessica, 1996).

Certainly I would have liked Jessica to tell me more about the "political language" that she encountered. Certainly I would have liked to see a discussion of how that language is distinct from other kinds of readings in other courses and how it expresses a way of ordering experience. But perhaps I should see this as a start. Jessica, it seems to me now, may begin to develop a knowledge of the frames and become capable, in Kegan's terms, of thinking systematically rather than remain rooted in her own point of view. Perhaps she needed to write about her embarrassment first before she could get at the causes for it.

Keeping our Heads above Water

What lessons does Jessica's story have for teachers, counselors, and administrators? Kegan's theory has provided us with a valuable analytical tool to understand better the developmental tasks facing both students and instructors. We see that the journey is not the same thing as the destination. Jessica's potential for growth is reflected in her narrative, but the journey is much longer and more complicated than we might have assumed prior to reading Kegan's theory. We are not remiss in having expectations of Jessica or her classmates. Nonetheless, we have a better understanding of how far she is capable of developing in a given semester. Our own sense of frustration that she has not met our overall goals is abated because we can see that she has made progress. By the same token we also have progressed in that we realize that we are on a journey of our own.


Belenky, J.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Brian. (1996). Personal class journal for College Writing, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA.

Erickson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.

Gilligan, C. (1983). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Giroux, H., & McLaren, P. (Eds.). (1989). Critical pedagogy, the state and cultural struggles. Albany, NY: State University Press.

Jessica. (1996). Personal class journal for College Writing, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA.

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: The nature and validation of moral stages. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Malcolm X. (1983). Malcolm X. In William E. Coles, Jr. (Ed.), Composing: writing as a self-creating process (pp. 27-29). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Matt, D. (Ed.). (1996). The essential Kabbalah. San Francisco: Harper & Row

Moore, L.V., & Upcraft, M.L. (1990). Theory in student affairs: Evolving perspectives. In L.V. Moore, & M.L. Upcraft, (Eds.). The evolving theoretical perspectives on students (pp. 3-23). New Directions for Student Services, No. 51. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Noreen. (1996). Personal class journal for College Writing, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA.

Perry, W.G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in college. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Piaget, J. (1974). The child and reality. New York: Viking Press.

Shaler, N.S. (1983). Shaler and Agassiz. In William E. Coles, Jr., (Ed.), Composing: Writing as a self-creating process (pp. 51-54). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.

Shone, M. (1996). The diary of a first-year teacher. In J. Sommers, & C. Lewiecki-Wilson, (Eds.), From community to college: Reading and writing across diverse contexts (pp. 312-319). New York: St. Martin's.

Shor, I. (1986). Pedagogy and everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Howard Tinberg is a professor of English at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts (

Ronald Weisberger coordinates the Tutoring and Academic Support Center at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts (
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Author:Weisberger, Ronald
Publication:Community College Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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