A summary of the Constructive-Developmental Theory Of Robert Kegan1

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A summary of the Constructive-Developmental Theory Of Robert Kegan1

Jennifer Garvey Berger


As the world grows more complex, those in organizations want their workforce to be able to handle complexity, ambiguity, etc. Coping well with such issues is not simply a skill anyone can acquire, however, but a way of living in the world. These ways of living in the world are not inborn, but rather are developed over time as we increase our capacity to take perspectives, view authority in new ways, and see shades of grey where we once saw only black and white. Just as it is vital for teachers of 6-year-olds to understand the developmentally related capacities of children at that age, it is vital for those who work with adults to understand the particular ways adults may make sense of the world. In an era marked by an effort (although not always successful) to understand individual differences, a person’s current developmental capacity is a kind of diversity that is so hidden that almost no one recognizes it. Recognized or not, though, developmental capacity affects everything a person is able to think or do. Understanding adult development is a key feature in understanding and working with adults.

Robert Kegan’s (1982, 1994) theory of adult development examines and describes the way humans grow and change over the course of their lives. This is a constructive-developmental theory because it is concerned both with the construction of an individual’s understanding of reality and with the development of that construction to more complex levels over time. Kegan proposes five distinct stages—or “orders of mind”—through which people may develop. His theory is based on his ideas of “transformation” to qualitatively different stages of meaning making. Kegan explains that transformation is different than learning new information or skills. New information may add to the things a person knows, but transformation changes the way he or she knows those things. Transformation, according to Kegan, is about changing the very form of the meaning-making system—making it more complex, more able to deal with multiple demands and uncertainty. Transformation occurs when someone is newly able to step back and reflect on something and make decisions about it. For Kegan (1994), transformative learning happens when someone changes, “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows—not just what he knows but the way he knows” (p. 17).

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