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

By Tinberg, Howard; Weisberger, Ronald | Community College Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

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


Tinberg, Howard, Weisberger, Ronald, Community College Review


   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. …

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