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When is Development “bad”?

2010 December 2

The last meeting of the Constructive-Developmental Inquiry Group explored the question, “When is development ‘bad’?”  Educators often assume that development is inherently good.  But is it?  How do we know?  Are there situations where adult cognitive development would not be helpful?  Helpful to whom?  And what exactly do we mean by “good” and “bad”, anyway?  This is a particularly important question for educators to wrestle with because, let’s face it: we’re biased.  In development lies our own job-security; if a student has no need to develop, we may be out of a job.

Our discussion explored the web of relationships that are in-play when an individual develops.  The diagram below attempts to summarize these relationships.

One interesting scenario for discussion is when the individual develops beyond the complexity of the social system of which they are a part.  For example, the character of Nora in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House appears to begin her 3-4 transition beyond her 3rd order surroundings.  This causes enormous pain to both her and her family.  Yet, we are led to believe that at least Nora will eventually benefit from this pain with a greater sense of self in the future.  Hence, it seems important to add “Present” and “Future” to the diagram.  “Others” represent people that the individual already knows.  Clearly, they, too, are affected by the individual’s development, either in positive or negative ways, in the both the present and in the future.

In addition, we looked at the possible relationship between an individual’s development and society as a whole.  In cases such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, one could make the case that their 5th order thinking increased pain in their society in the short-run but led to benefits in the future.  Of course, in both cases, one could say that their development eventually contributed to their deaths.  Is this a case of development being “bad”?  They might not think so, but their loved ones might.

One scenario we came up with where development might be regarded as bad would be the case where someone is challenged beyond their capacity to grow so severely, that they are too scared ever to meet a similar challenge again.  “Being scarred for life” could be seen as a negative outcome.  For example, one can imagine immigrating to another country as a possible developmental experience because it might enable one to take an external perspective on one’s culture-of-origin.  However, one can also imagine someone having such a horrible experience immigrating that they retreat back to the comfort of home, never to set foot on an airplane again.

Of course, even in such a scenario, one might imagine a possible positive outcome at some later date.  Perhaps one day their grandchild marries a foreigner, and somehow this event allows the person to see their prior negative experience in a positive light for the first time.

This leads to a possible refinement to the above diagram.  In reality there are two “futures” to be considered: a predicted future and an actual future.

So, who’s got a crystal ball?

Playing with CDT Pedagogy

2010 December 2

When someone asks me what my research interests are and I reply, “Adult developmental psychology,” more often that not after a perplexed pause I get, “What’s that?!” I’m interested in how best to answer this question in a concise, understandable and meaningful way.

In previous posts I’ve shared two other ways of doing so:  Sarah Levine’s Self-Other Stage Diagrams and Ellie Drago-Severson’s “How do you know?” Chart.  The new banner on this blog represents my stab. Below is the same diagram annotated.

Technically, one could say that I’m drawing just the interpersonal domain of thinking (as opposed to the cognitive, intrapersonal, and affective domains), but so far I’ve had great success with it in getting across the basic idea of stage theories of development to people who are new to the idea.

Sarah Levine’s Self-Other Stage Diagrams

2010 November 17

Constructive-developmental theory is complicated, and I’m always interested in learning about different ways to teach the ideas in CDT.  I recently ran across a representation of the stages that I thought was novel.  It appears in Sarah Levine’s book Promoting Adult Growth in Schools (1989: 102-107).

Levine represents the interpersonal dynamics of stages 2 to 5 with the following four diagrams.  Here “S” denotes “Self” and “O” denotes “Other”.  (I find this ironic because everywhere else in CDT Land those two letters would stand for “Subject/Object”!)







Nice, huh?

Mentoring Through the Lens of CDT

2010 November 16

Last week our Constructive-Developmental Inquiry Group had the pleasure of meeting with Lecturer Eileen McGowan.  She discussed her research on the application of CDT to the field of mentoring, some of which is discussed in her chapter “A Constructive-Developmental Theoretical Approach to Mentoring” in The Handbook of Mentoring at Work edited by Belle Ragins and Kathy Kram (2007).

Eileen first described five paradigms of mentoring as described in her 2001 Qualifying Paper “Texts and Contexts of Reciprocity: Five Models of Mentoring”.  The table below describes each model (McGowan, 2001: 9-10).  In the conceptual diagrams, “M” denotes mentor and “P” denotes protege.



Five Mentoring Models


In the Traditional Model of mentoring, the mentoring relationship is hierarchical with the goal of the relationship being to pass on the cultural legacy of one generation to another.

The Exchange Model is based on reciprocity, where mentor and protege negotiate the fair trade of professional “commodities”.

The archetype of the Helper-Therapy Model is Alcoholics Anonymous, where the relationship ostensibly benefits the protege but is predictably of more benefit to the mentor.


The purpose of the Developmental Model is to fulfill the needs of both mentor and protege specifically in terms of developmental stage.

The Relational Model functions to provide a context for mutual growth and empowerment.



McGowan emphasizes the importance of creating an effective holding environment for the protege through the right combination of confirmation (support), contradiction (challenge) and continuity.  To optimize development, each of these three components needs to be tailored to the protege’s current developmental stage.  The figure below depicts these components for a protege in the 3-4 transition (McGowan, 2007: 409):





The following case study elegantly illustrates such developmental dynamics as they play-out in two mentoring relationships (McGowan, 2007: 415-416):



During her college years, Laura attracted two highly skilled yet very different mentors.  Rose, the Director of Human Resources at Laura’s college, employed her as a work-study student, took a personal interest in her career development, and assigned her projects with high visibility.  Rose was proud of Laura and regularly complimented her on her performance.  Laura was reliant on her mentor’s affirmation and found that it motivated her to undertake increasingly challenging tasks.  Over time, Laura and Rose’s relationship developed into a personal friendship.  Rose was quite opinionated about the professional path she believed Laura should follow, and frequently offered unsolicited, yet welcome advice on how Laura should proceed with her career.  Laura recognized in hindsight that she was dependent upon Rose for approval and eagerly accepted her mentor’s direction without much questioning.

At the same time that Laura was being mentored by Rose, she developed a relationship with one of her teachers, Professor Eleanor Wharton.  Laura joined a study group in which Professor Wharton refused to provide the students with concrete, definitive answers to their questions, but rather challenged the students to form their own responses and opinions by inevitably turning questions back upon the questioner, “Well, it doesn’t matter if I like your paper or not, what do you think?”  Laura found the professor’s approach to self-directed learning to be utterly frustrating.  She could not obtain from Professor Wharton the clear direction or explicit judgment she sought.

Over the next fifteen years, Laura maintained a relationship with both mentors.  As Laura matured, she came to find Rose’s desire and efforts to influence her decision-making to be increasingly uncomfortable, and eventually unacceptable.  While she valued Rose’s opinions, she no longer felt compelled to follow her mentor’s advice without questioning.  As Laura pushed back, Rose responded hurtfully, taking her protégé’s inquisitiveness as personal attacks.  In response, Laura increasingly distanced herself from Rose’s mentorship and instead concentrated on strengthening their friendship.  At the same time, Laura found herself turning more and more to Professor Wharton when wrestling with important life decisions.  Laura chose to make decisions for herself, but not always by herself.  She began to rely on Professor Wharton to help distill complex situations, to ask tough and relevant questions, to be respectful (but not always approving) of her personal decisions.  While both women remain an important part of Laura’s life, it is Professor Wharton who continues to function as a mentor.



Such dynamics lead McGowan to emphasize that there is no “List of 10 Best Mentoring Practices”.  Modern life is a little bit more complicated than it was in the days of Athena and Telemachus of Greek mythology.  To be effective, modern mentoring relationships must continually adapt to meet the evolving needs of both mentor and protege.  Constructive-developmental theories provide one lens for doing do.

Moral implications of stage theories of adult development

2010 October 15

Flammarion Wood EngravingI would like to seed a conversation around the ethical and moral implications of stage theories of adult development, particularly for educators.  [For those unfamiliar with the notion of stage theories, a summary of one such theory is here: http://developmentalobserver.blog.com/2010/06/09/an-overview-of-con... ]

This is a complex topic that can go in a variety of directions.  Here are a few of my starting points.

The topic is on my mind because I recently gave short talks to two different audiences introducing them to constructive-developmental theory.  In each case it was quite clear that despite my attempts to provide disclaimers, both audiences privileged the higher stages of development.  Is there a way to teach stage theories while avoiding “developmental elitism”?

I’m concerned about this because I see a tension between valuing any adult for who they are while simultaneously being biased in favor of more complex thinking for the species as a whole.  A conventional thinker who has grown up in a conventional community, settled in a conventional community and retired in that same community is probably quite happy right where they are–both geographically as well as cognitively.  Is it not presumptuous to assume that anyone would be “better off” if they developed more complex thinking?

In such a conversation, I think educators need to be especially self-reflective because in development lies our own job security.  Perhaps one hard question educators should reflect on is, “What are situations in which cognitive development is unnecessary or even counter-productive?”

When is anyone within their rights to offer developmental challenges and supports to another human being?  Only when the other asks for it?  When it’s part of one’s official job, such as someone’s teacher?  As a family member?  As a friend?

There are certainly analogous questions in dealing with children and adolescents, but in those cases I think society gives adults an implicit “mandate to teach” because there is a shared expectation that children are still “growing up”.  Meanwhile stage theories of adult development suggest that we are all still “growing up”, yet this idea has not been widely disseminated.  This can be outright offensive to some, adding yet another layer to the above dilemmas.

While the following passage does not directly answer the above questions, I feel it sheds some light on them.  It is from Nancy Popp, a faculty member at Antioch University.  She writes:

“Gardening perfectly presents the inherent individuality, even within the species, of the developmental process–each species of plant has its own developmental timetable and agenda. There is no rushing a wisteria into bloom. Nor is there any amount of cajoling and fertilizing that will turn a wisteria into a tomato, or a cactus into a leafy tropical plant. And why would anyone want to do such a thing in the first place? Such are the lessons which provide comfort and perspective in the parenting of a willful and precocious nine-year-old boy, and in the attempts to understand the unique meaning and experience of conflict for
each of us.”

[This posting is also posted on the Civic and Moral Education Initiative (CMEI) Ning of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.]

CDT as a Lens for Climate Change Education

2010 September 27

I recently had the pleasure of giving an introduction to orders of consciousness to fellow volunteer climate change educators who are members of Al Gore’s Climate Project.  I entitled the talk Constructive Developmental Theory as a Lens for Climate Change Education.  The resulting discussion was rich, and I wanted to try and capture some of my reflections here.

First, there was discussion about whether, with a crisis situation like climate change, we have time for a developmental perspective at all.  Should climate change educators bother to try and plant seeds of higher orders of consciousness or simply strategically target those who are already “on-board”?  Is it possible to do some of both?  What would that look like?

These climate educators normally deliver presentations based on Al Gore’s film an Inconvenient Truth. Since the majority of adult audience members at these talks will most likely be either 3rd or 4th Order thinkers, one can imagine a 2×2 matrix of those one is likely to encounter:



Brainstorming Climate Change Education Strategies as a Function of Developmental Level



3rd Order Thinkers 4th Order Thinkers
Climate Change Supporters Connect them with current community leaders and organizations that are already involved in furthering “climate-aware communities”. Encourage them to engage in education and organizing in their own communities around climate-change issues.
Climate Change Deniers Tease out from them the aspects of their communities which lead them to their conclusions.  Try and identify authority figures within their world-view who could serve as examples of individuals who are members of their communities but who hold a different point of view. The hardest nuts to crack because they will have reached their conclusions by their own, unique paths.  The best we can do is to tease out from them the thinking behind their denial and address it as best we can on a case-by-case basis.



In every case, the approach appears to be the same: speak in terms of the language of the person’s meaning-making and go from there.  To do so first requires spending more time listening than talking to learn what that language is.  CDT can assist in providing a framework for identifying that language and then some guidance as to what to say next.

Finally, I wanted to make a point I didn’t get around to in the talk.  Question: Let’s say you see someone driving down the highway in a Hummer.  What Order of Mind do you think they might be?

Answer: You can’t judge someone’s developmental level by their actions, only by the thinking behind their actions.  To explore this, we can imagine what kinds of stories a 3rd Order and 4th Order person might tell themselves about why they own a Hummer.

A Possible 3rd Order Story: They live in a community where masculinity is expressed through competition and the perpetual pursuit of status.  They see a Hummer as the highest status vehicle there is, hence they bought one.

A Possible 4th Order Story: They grew up in a very liberal community with parents who were environmentalists.  Their parents did not own a car.  Later in life, their first job earned them more money that their parents ever had.  They began to appreciate what they could do with money in a capitalist society and how deviant their parents actually were.  They began to form their own identity, holding onto some of their parents’ conventions while embracing other aspects of mainstream culture.  To symbolize their individuation from their nuclear family, they decided to buy a vehicle that was as different from where they came from as they could: a Hummer.

Higher Order doesn’t mean that one’s thinking is “better” or even “good”, just more complex.

Avoiding the “Value Judgement Trap”

2010 September 23

I recently ran across the following chart, “How Do You ‘Know’?” made by Ellie Drago-Severson for Yes! Magazine.  The main thing that struck me about it is that it is devoid of any obvious indication of hierarchy between the stages: there’s no “2″, “3″, “4″, or “5″ anywhere.  As the urge to rank orders of consciousness is strong, I think this is really cool.  I also like the row headings.  How else can we teach Orders of Mind while avoiding the “value judgment trap” of thinking that higher stages are inherently “better”?





There are a few details on the chart I would change.  I’m not sure I would use “I am reflective” as the mantra of the 4th Order.  That sounds more 5th Order to me; in fact, the word “reflecting” appears in the next line in the 5th Order column.  Also, while I love the heading “Tasks at your ‘growing edge’”, I’m not sure “Accept that some differences cannot be resolved” belongs under the 5th Order for that row.  Sounds more 4th Order to me.

But, again, I like the overall approach very much.

The Philosopher Kings

2010 September 8

“Do you think the porter and the cook have no anecdotes, no experiences, no wonders for you? The walls of their minds are scrawled all over with thoughts. They shall one day bring a lantern and read the inscriptions.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“There will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers.” — Plato

When I was an undergraduate, I remember walking into the main campus dining hall and looking up at the prominently displayed color photographs honoring dining employees who had worked there for 15, 20, 25 years. I confess having had judgmental thoughts about such accomplishments.

I was reminded of that moment recently when I saw a compelling documentary, The Philosopher Kings. The film interweaves nine intimate portraits of people whose stories are rarely heard: university custodians. Their stories are inspiring: a paralyzed veteran who learned to walk again, an artist soaking up inspiration at a college of art, a Haitian who devotes his life to building a sustainable water supply in the rural village where his family lives while cleaning dormitories at Princeton.

The film did two things for me. First, it settled once and for all the impossibility of judging people’s complexity by their job titles. Second, it shined a light on a struggle of my own: the tension between believing that the world would be a better place with more complex thinking while simultaneously wanting to value individuals who represent the majority of humanity who may never develop beyond the Socialized Mind. As I view the world more and more through the lens of stage theory, I am wary about the possibility of such a lens enabling elitism.

The other day I was part of a conversation with a school administrator who was frustrated by the resistance he was experiencing with certain members of his leadership team. During the conversation, his coach pointed out a pernicious duality that is endemic to the education profession.  It was the coach’s observation that many educators who say “I would never give up on a kid” frequently do “give up”, in some way, on some of adults they work with.  Someone who would never say, “Why doesn’t this kid just get it?” might very well say exactly that about an adult colleague.

Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been raised to see adults as being “done”. We’ve been taught that there’s nowhere for them to go, developmentally. While with a child, we can all imagine an adult version waiting to be brought forth.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became known for his “Last Lecture”, seemed to encapsulate a more generous alternative outlook with his following principle:

“Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress. When you’re pissed off at someone and you’re angry at them, you just haven’t given them enough time. Just give them a little more time and they almost always will impress you.”

The word adult comes from the Latin adultus, past participle of adolescere, to grow up, from ad- + -olescere (from alescere, to grow)—in other words matured.

Maybe we’re all adolescents after all.

Diffusion of Innovations

2010 August 28

In 1962 the sociologist Everett Rogers proposed a model of how new ideas and technologies spread through a society.  He identified five categories of individuals who play different roles in such “diffusion of innovations”: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.  The graph below depicts the order and relative size of each of these sub-populations.  The yellow curve represents the cumulative total of adopters in the society as adoption progresses:

Ref. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations



How might developmental level play a role in such a process?  Here are my musings.

Innovators: I would guess that innovators would have to be the least subject to their environment and relationships in order to be able to innovate.  Hence, it makes sense that the majority of innovators are 4th or 5th order.  The more complex the innovation, the more a system-of-systems perspective of 5th order thinking might play a role in the innovation’s initial formulation.

Early Adopters: Early adopters would also have to be relatively capable of independent thought in order to do something different in society and not care very much what their neighbors thought of them.  So again I would guess mostly 4th and 5th order individuals.  On the other hand, I can also imagine a 2nd order individual adopting early for the sake of flaunting their individuality.  Think of the teenager who wants to annoy their parents by getting a Mac while both parents are subject to PCs.

Early Majority: A member of the early majority would most likely have some third order thinking in them but just enough independence to still make an early break from the pack.  I would guess 4/3 – 5.

Here it will also matter enormously who your neighbors are.  If all of one’s neighbors are early adopters, a 3rd order person would be under enormous pressure to conform by adopting while simultaneously feeling torn about the larger societal trend of not yet adopting.  It’s easier to go buy a Smart Car if everyone on your block already owns one; but you still might feel weird driving out-of-state with it.

Late Majority: Extending the above idea, with the late majority I surmise a preponderance of those levels subject to 3rd order thinking: 3/2 – 3/4.

Laggards: Laggards could be 2nd order individuals who are protesting out of not seeing what’s in the innovation for them.  They could be 4th order individuals who object to the new trend based on some principle of their own ideology.  They could also be 5th order individuals who are able to foresee systemic unintended consequences that others do not see and therefore resist adoption. By so doing, they might be initiating the diffusion of a backlash, starting the cycle over again.  However, I would guess that laggards are most unlikely to be 3rd order individuals who would be subject to the majority’s behaviors and therefore have already adopted.

No Zealot Like a Self-Authoring Convert

2010 August 21

I recently reviewed the doctoral thesis of Jim Hammerman who studied the relationship between the developmental order of teachers and the impact of a professional development program in math education.  His results are striking.

His data suggests that 3rd Order teachers, being subject to their environment, are more likely to buy-in to new ways of doing things during professional development programs.  However, once these teachers return to their workplaces, they are also more likely to regress to the old way things are done around them.

Conversely, 4th Order teachers can be a much harder sell on new pedagogy.  However, if one is able to swing them to a new way of doing things, they are much more likely to maintain their new-found behaviors once they return to their own schools.  As a result, they are more likely to become advocates for change around them.

In the conclusion to his thesis, Hammerman then goes one step further (2002: 261-262):

…reform-oriented programs might need to support not only change in ideas and practices [but] also constructive-developmental change itself.  This is a daunting task about which we know very little.  While such work may have been an implicit part of the reform agenda, by naming it we make it possible to reflect on what might be required to promote developmental change, at least for some teacher participants.  Understanding what might be needed to facilitate constructive-developmental change can, in turn, encourage teacher educators to create and experiment with innovative designs to try to meet this goal.

Amen.  It seems to me that the first step to the above is disseminating the fact that adult development is even possible at all.



Ref. Hammerman, J. K. (2002). Experiencing professional development: A constructive developmental exploration of teachers’ experiences in a mathematics teacher professional development program. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.