Perry’s Intellectual Development Theory

Perry's Intellectual Development Theory
Perry’s Intellectual Development Theory

Rapaport (2008) shares William Perry’s scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development which focuses on four main stages. Each student progresses through each phase, starting with “dualism” which states that there is an absolute answer. Next they come to “multiplicity” where they believe there is no way to determine what is right to “contextual relativism” which is the ability to use evidence to determine a position. Lastly, they come to “commitment.” “It is this final stage that instructors hope their students will achieve: when they will go out in the world and cope with uncertainty, define their own values and identity, make educated choices, evaluate options, create new knowledge, and become lifelong learners” (Plunk & Rohdeick, 2010, p 1).

Nilson (2003) adds that three of these stages can be broken down further. Duality remains unchanged as the level were there are only answers and no uncertainty. Multiplicity breaks into two different pieces. First, individuals believe that the uncertainty exist due to the incompetency or fault of authorities until they move to the next piece of this stage where uncertainty is only a piece of an existing puzzle until experts derive an answer.

Relativism also can be further divided into two parts. This stage begins as the student believes that everything has a degree of uncertainty. “Uncertainty is inherent and pervasive, rendering all opinions equal in value” (Nilson, 2003, p 13). The following piece of this stage demonstrates the movement of an individual’s progress toward the last stage of commitment. They reason that all relativism is qualified for many different reasons. It can be based not only on  facts or intellectual levels but also on ethical and moral decisions.

The last stage of commitment has four different levels. The student is seeking for an intellectual and ethical foundations as they determine the need to make a commitment to one view or another. The student makes a temporary alignment with a point of view as an examination of the pros and cons are inherently investigated. The individual scrutinizes what demands may be made by aligning themselves with their new theory. The final stage in commitment is a lifelong process. It is the “making and adjusting of commitments becomes part of the life-long pursuit of personal growth and wisdom” (Nilson, 2003, p 13).

Malcolm Knowles, accredited for the discovery of self-directed learning, believed that “it should be a goal of education to give each individual those skills necessary for him to make full use of his capacities” (Smith, 2002, p 1). However, Perry noted that many student graduated from both undergraduate and graduate programs without having achieved the highest level of cognitive development. In many cases, students do not pass levels three or four. Students can avoid progress through these stages through “temporizing, retreat and escape” (Wankat & Oreovicz, 1992, p 276).

It is essential for learning mentors to have an understanding of these stages and to help students navigate through each level successfully. A travesty for both the individual and society is the student who matriculates with little progress. These students have lost not just the opportunity to become constructive thinkers but also society has lost the contributions of one of their members. Sadly, many times the student is lost as a critical thinker after receiving an education in a field with little controversy.

A thorough understanding of each level helps the educator to cater and mold instruction for the students who need to be guided through these stages. Wankat & Oreovica (1992) comment the necessity to direct student thinking by pushing them to think one position above their current level of understand. However, by attempting to push students into stages which are two or more levels higher causes frustration and insecurities for the individual. Students feel comfortable answering any question which lies below their current stage of cognitive development.

Perry’s stages of development are a natural progress. They should be encouraged by guides and educators. The progression through these stages is a natural progression which is desirable (Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2010) for both the individual and the society in which they live. This knowledge leads the instructor to approach how to deliver information to students in their varying levels of understanding.


Internet Encyclopedia of Psychology. (2010). Moral development. Retrieved from

Nilson, L. (2003, reprinted 2007). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Plank, K. & Rohdieck, S. (2010). The assumptions we make about diversity. Retrieved from

Rapaport, W. (2008). William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Retrieved from

Smith, M. K. (2002). Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and anadragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from

Wankat, P. & Oreovicz, F. (1992). Teaching engineering. Retrieved from   

By Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, a master’s in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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