Many theorists believe the most difficult aspect of education is meeting the needs of individual students as each possesses a unique learning personality (Gardner, 2006; Perry, 1999; Zemsky, 2009). Armed with this position, William Perry, a prominent psychologist, formulated a theory for the intellectual and moral or ethical development of individuals. His theory was based on the principles of cognitive processing. Supporting research quickly made Perry’s postulations for the cognitive development of undergraduate students a leading theory (Nilson, 2003).
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). To achieve this ultimate goal, educators must adapt their teaching to teach their diverse learners while continuously planning for the simultaneous growth within physical, cognitive, social and emotional developmental areas.
Students generally arrive on the campuses of higher education with a simplistic view of the world around them. They believe in an uncomplicated and straightforward world where there is nothing more than a view of black and white. There are polar opposites to each situation, decision and acts. All things are seen as right and wrong, left and right, true and false or in other words, seen as absolutes. All knowledge is quantifiable. Perry (1999) shares that this is often seen as student polarize to position themselves with one side or another of an argument. Additionally, individuals within this stage of intellectual development will tend to use absolute vocabulary such as always and never and avoid qualitative terms such as better or worse.
Multiplicity begins as the undergraduate begins to recognize a touch of uncertainty within opinions. However, this discrepancy does not mean that all authorities are equal or even competent in their opinions. Because of this belief, many authorities will not receive even a second thought as they continue to believe the instructor needs to hand them a simply right or wrong answer. As the student starts to move through this stage, they begin to see a glimmer of genuine uncertainty. For some students, this recognition breeds a difficulty within themselves or an unsettling feeling. Coming to understand this unsettling feeling, bring the individual job (Perry, 1999) as they recognize themselves as having an authority to sort through the given information. They rely less on the ‘authority’ to decipher information and tell them what is right and wrong. The student still preserves his dualistic nature as he determines which topics are undeniably right and wrong in nature while approaching the thought of a being liberated from such dichotomy.
The third stage entitled relativism can be broken into two steps as the student seems to completely abandon their faith in the authority figure. Some students at this point begin to see all opinions as equally valid or equally invalid. They enter a stage of shallow despair, arriving at a point when they believe there are no absolutes (Nilson, 2003). The student may still hold onto a few principles of right and wrong which are assigned to specific situations. Perry (1999) includes that this stage is the beginning source of personal, intellectual power. The student will find their new “way of thinking to … extend beyond the courses” (p. 124). The individual experiences a personal revolutions, deciphering that the Authority from the dualistic stage has now arrived at being an authority or simply an entity who merits respect within a social function.
The final stage of commitment has been broken into several different steps. Perry (1999) suggests that there are several steps within this stage. At this last stage, the student recognizes themselves as the authority. They have gathered information and made personal conclusions as well as recognizing the impact their choice will make on themselves and their society. This last stage is life long which positions the individual as a possessor and acquirer of wisdom and knowledge. Perry (1999) terms this last stage as the point of refinement.
There are disadvantages to this learning theory. First, there is little problem solving included within his theory. Another dilemma is simply the lack of information on how students make commitments within each stage of his learning theory. Also, what happens to the student who simply cannot address question within a higher stage which are developmentally above their ability? Another situation for educators to look at is simply what happens to students who are in fields that do not demand this movement, such as sciences like engineering or technology. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley (2014) debate the veracity of this theory as it was based on qualitative research based on a small sample. Lastly, the original research was confined to a majority of male subjects which may indicate a discrepancy in developmental stages between the sexes.
Despite these disadvantages, there are numerous benefits to educators. Perry’s scheme indicates that it is an inclusive theory which will bridge sex, race, ethnicity. It is not confined to a specific group. It will aid in the development of curriculum and instruction by guiding educators to look for methodologies to reinforce intellectual growth and diversity. It helps to identify challenges for individual students (Rapaport, 2008).
Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences. New York, New York: Basic Books.
Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Plunk, K. & Rohdieck, S. (2010). The assumptions we make about diversity. Retrieved January 13, 2012 from www.nea.org/home/34691.htm
Rapaport, W. (2008). William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development. Retrieved January 13, 2012 from www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/perry.positions.html
Researchers at the University of California Berkeley. (2014). Learning theory and research of cognitive constructivism. Retrieved February 4, 2014 from https://gsi.berkeley.edu/teachingguide/theories/cognitive.html#perry
Zemsky, R. (2009). Making reform work: the case for transforming American higher education. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
By Tracy Atkinson
Tracy 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 and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. 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.