Using Cognitive Development Theory in a Higher Education Career Development Program

By Mundhenk, Leigh Gronich; Van Zandt, Zark | Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Using Cognitive Development Theory in a Higher Education Career Development Program


Mundhenk, Leigh Gronich, Van Zandt, Zark, Career Planning and Adult Development Journal


During the many years that we have been doing career development work, we have asked ourselves why some students seem to be very engaged and self-directed in their work, while others look to us for direction and answers. Some manage the ambiguity of the career development process well, while others find it painful. Some are open to the journey of self-discovery, while others seem to resist new ideas and ways of understanding themselves in the world of work. These differences seem to occur unrelated to age, gender, and socioeconomic level.

We have looked to existing career development theories, particularly those that deal with vocational personality and environment (Holland, for example), development (Super, for example), and social learning (Krumboltz, for example) to explain these differences. These founding, well-respected theories have informed career development practice for many years, but they are based on thinking from the modern industrial era and, as such, they focus on the career development needs of white middle class men in traditional organizational systems (Savickas, 2003). Furthermore, these theories do not seem to account for individual differences to adequately explain the individual cognitive processes people use when acquiring and integrating career information (Knefelkamp & Sleptiza, 1976). To that end, complementary theories that address cognitive processes in all clients, including women and adults in transition, and those which take learning styles into consideration are needed.

We have found it helpful to draw from cognitive theories beyond those used in traditional career development to inform our teaching and counseling, in order to help us work with students with varying cognitive developmental levels. In our work in the classroom, as well as in individual sessions, we have noticed that many of our students genuinely enjoy the opportunity to engage in the discovery of self. Others, however, find the lack of clarity and clear direction unbearable. Our search for answers that explain these differences has taken us to the literature on cognitive development. Here we have found insights that have helped inform our career advising and teaching.

Cognitive Development Theory

Cognitive development theory, as originally developed by William Perry (Perry, 1999) posits that people advance through stages of cognitive development that are sequential and developmental. Depending on their level, there are qualitative differences in the way they approach and understand a task. To that end, teachers and counselors should take a person's cognitive development into account when providing career information (Knefelkamp & Sleptiza, 1976).

There are several cognitive development models: Piaget's, Kohlberg's, and Perry's are among the best known. Perry's is categorized as a stage theory. This article will focus on Perry's and other stage theories similar to his.

Perry's Model

William Perry (Perry, 1999) studied the cognitive development of college students at Harvard in the 1950s and 1960s. He found that students go through four stages (with nine overlapping positions), of intellectual development, initially seeing knowledge as simplistic and dualistic, and progressing to a level where their view of the world and themselves is highly complex and contextual and where they see knowledge as actively constructed by themselves based on their existing cognitive structures. He called these stages Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism and Commitment (Perry, 1999).

According to Perry, students in the first stage, Dualism, see life in polarities, as "we-right-good" versus "others-bad-wrong," and resist thinking independently, drawing their own conclusions, and stating their own points of view. They may believe it is some external authority's role to tell what career to choose. In Multiplicity, students may wait for the right thing to happen to them before they make a decision about career choice. …

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