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Kegan's Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Kegan (1982, 1994) saw the process of development as an effort to resolve the tension between a desire for differentiation and an equally powerful desire to be immersed in one's surroundings (Kegan, 1994). The evolutionary truces evident at each developmental stage of Kegan's (1982) model are "temporary solution[s] to the lifelong tension between the yearnings for inclusion and distinctness" (p. 107). 



The posting below gives a brief overview of Robert Kegan's levels of consciousness development with a look at its implications for college age students. It is from Chapter 10, Development of Self-Authorship in the book, Student Development in College, Theory, Research, and Practice by Nancy J. Evans, Deanna S. Forney, Florence M. Guido, Lori D. Patton and Kristen A. Renn. Published by Jossey-Bass:A Wiley Imprint. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 []. Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Hang In There! Dealing with Students Resistance to Learner-Centered Teaching 


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Kegan's Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness



Kegan (Robert) introduced his theory of self-evolution in 1982 in his book, The Evolving Self. In his later book, In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (1994), he presented a revised version of his theory and further discussion of the implications of his work for society. Kegan (1982) noted that Piaget's work served as inspiration for his own. Pointing out that Piaget had attended very little to emotion or to the process and experience of development, Kegan sought to address these omissions, drawing on the work of object-relation theorists such as Kernberg (1966), who explored how interpretations of self-other relationships evolved over time, and psychosocial theorists, particularly Erikson. Kegan especially valued "building strong intellectual bridges" (Scharmer, 2000, n.p.) to educational practice, leadership, and organizational development.

Kegan's Theory

The focus of Kegan's (1994) theory is the "evolution of consciousness, the personal unfolding of ways of organizing experience that are not simply replaced as we grow but subsumed into more complex systems of mind" (p. 9). Growth involves movement through five progressively more complex ways of knowing, which Kegan referred to as stages of development in 1982, orders of consciousness in 1994, and forms of mind in 2000. The process of growth involves an evolution of meaning that is marked by continual shifts from periods of stability to periods of instability, leading to ongoing reconstruction of the relationship of persons with their environments (Kegan, 1982). Each succeeding order consists of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal components.

Kegan (1982, 1994) saw the process of development as an effort to resolve the tension between a desire for differentiation and an equally powerful desire to be immersed in one's surroundings (Kegan, 1994). The evolutionary truces evident at each developmental stage of Kegan's (1982) model are "temporary solution[s] to the lifelong tension between the yearnings for inclusion and distinctness" (p. 107). While initially stating that his ways of knowing alternated between favoring autonomy at one stage and favoring embeddedness at the next (Kegan, 1982), he later modified his view, stating that "each order of consciousness can favor either of the two fundamental longings" (Kegan, 1994, p. 221) and that neither position is better than the other. He suggested that increased differentiation could mean finding new ways to stay connected. Paradoxically, as people make meaning in a more differentiated way, they also develop the capacity to become closer to others.

Kegan (1982) was clear that the process of growth can be painful since it involves changing one's way of functioning in the world. Borrowing from Winnicott (1965), Kegan (1982) introduced the idea of the "holding environment" (p. 116) to assist individuals with these changes. The holding environment has two functions: supporting individuals in their current stage of development and encouraging movement to the next evolutionary truce. Kegan (1994) equated a holding environment to an "evolutionary bridge, a context for crossing over' (p. 43) from one order of consciousness to the next, more developed order.

Descriptions of Kegan's levels of consciousness follow. They have had different names in different iterations of his theory. We provide the numerical orders used in the 1994 version, as well as the names used for the later orders in the 2000 version. In addition to describing each order, we provide Kegan's (1982) suggestions regarding ways to challenge and support development to the next order.

Order 0. Kegan (1982) described newborn infants as "living in an objectless world, a world in which everything sensed is taken to be an extension of the infant" (p. 78). As a result, when the infant cannot see or experience something, it does not exist. By the time infants are eighteen months old, they begin to recognize the existence of objects outside themselves, propelling them into the next stage. Parents must remain steadfast as the child pushes against them to determine where the boundaries are between its self and the environment.

Order 1. Children develop order 1 meaning making at about age two, when they realize that they have control over their reflexes (Kegan, 1982) and become aware of objects in their environment as independent from themselves (Kegan, 1994). Their thinking tends to be "fantastic and illogical, their feelings impulsive and fluid, [and] their social-relating egocentric" (p. 29) in that they are attached to whatever or whoever is present at the moment. Parents should support their children's fantasies while challenging them to take responsibility for themselves and their feelings as they begin to perceive the world realistically and differentiate themselves from others while moving into order 2.

Order 2: Instrumental Mind. Individuals in order 2 are able to construct "durable categories"-classifications of objects, people, or ideas with specific characteristics (Kegan, 1994). As a result, their thinking becomes more logical and organized, their feeling are more enduring, and they relate to others as separate and unique beings. Kegan and others (2001) noted that at this time, "rules, sets of directions, and dualisms give shape and structure to one's daily activity" (pp. 4-5). In this order, individuals develop a sense of who they are and what they want. "Competition and compromise" (Kegan, 1982, p. 163) are characteristic themes of the second order and are often played out within peer group settings. Support at this stage requires confirmation of the person the child has become. Challenge to develop further involves encouragement to take into consideration the expectations, needs, and desires of others.

Rodney in the opening scenario, appears to make meaning using the second order of consciousness. As he considers attending college, he is mostly concerned about his own needs and desires, he is competitive with his brother, and he does not take into consideration the effect that his actions will have on his family.

Order 3: Socialized Mind. Cross-categorical thinking-the ability to relate one durable category to another-is evident in the third order of consciousness. As a result, thinking is more abstract, individuals are aware of their feelings and the internal processes associated with them, and they can make commitments to communities of people and ideas (Kegan, 1994). Kegan and his colleagues (2001) noted that in this order of consciousness, "other people are experienced ... as sources of internal validation, orientation, or authority" (p. 5). How the individual is perceived by others is of critical importance since acceptance by others is crucial in this order. Support is found in mutually rewarding relationships and shared experiences, while challenge takes the form of resisting codependence and encouraging individuals to make their own decisions and establish independent lives.

In the opening scenario, order 3 meaning making is evident in Symone's thinking and actions. She takes direction from those around her-in the past her father and husband and now her minister. She needs someone to tell her what to think and do.

Order 4: Self-Authoring Mind. Cross-categorical constructing-the ability to generalize across abstractions, which could also be labeled systems thinking-is evident in the fourth order of consciousness (Kegan, 1994). In this order, self-authorship is the focus. Individuals "have the capacity to take responsibility for and ownership of their internal authority" (Kegan & others, 2001, p. 5) and establish their own sets of values and ideologies (Kegan, 1994). Relationships become a part of one's world rather than the reason for one's existence. Support at this stage is evident in acknowledgment of the individual's independence and self-regulation. Individuals are encouraged to develop further when significant others refuse to accept relationships that are not intimate and mutually rewarding.

Laticia seems to be using order 4 meaning making. She has decided on her own that she wants to attend college, despite discouragement from those around her. She is confident in her abilities and seems to have a self-authored sense of the future direction she wishes to pursue: becoming a teacher.

Order 5: Self-Transforming Mind. In this order of consciousness, which is infrequently reached and never reached before the age of forty (Kegan, 1994), individuals see beyond themselves, others, and systems of which they are a part to form an understanding of how all people and systems interconnect (Kegan, 2000). They recognize their "commonalities and interdependence with others" (Kegan, 1982, p. 239). Relationships can be truly intimate in this order, with nurturance and affiliation as the key characteristics. Kegan (1982) noted that only rarely do work environments provide these conditions and that long-lasting adult love relationships do not necessarily do so either.

The Demands of Modern life. Kegan (1982) argued that modern life, particularly within the contexts of the family and the work environment, places enormous stress on individuals. Kegan's (1994) book, In over Our Heads, focused on the demands of modern society, or the "hidden curriculum" (p. 9). He argued that expectations of adult life-parenting, partnering, and working-require fourth-order meaning making, and many adults have not attained that level.

Kegan (1994) went on to hypothesize that postmodern life requires an ever more complex way of knowing, that of the fifth order, which very few people ever reach. He suggested that rather than demand that people think in a way that is impossible for them to do, helping people reach self-authorship, the necessary first step on the path to fifth-order meaning making, would be more realistic.


Several studies have built on Kegan's theory. A four-year longitudinal study of twenty-two adults conducted by Kegan, Lahey, Souvaine, Popp, and Beukema using the Subject-Object Interview (Lahey, Souvaine, Kegan, Goodman, & Felix, 1988) revealed that "at any given moment, around one-half to two-thirds of the adult population appears not to have fully reached the fourth order of consciousness" (Kegan, 1994, pp. 188, 191). Drawing on thirteen other studies conducted mainly by his doctoral students, Kegan (1994) reported that in the composite sample of 282 relatively advantaged adults, 59 percent had not reached the fourth order. Findings from a longitudinal study of identity development of West Point cadets using Kegan's (1982, 1994) theory as a framework indicated that for most cadets, the challenge of college is moving from self-interest (order 2) to thinking in terms of being part of a community (order 3), a goal that must be accomplished before self-authorship can be considered (Lewis et al., 2005).

In a study of adult basic education learners in their twenties, who were mostly nonwhite, nonnative English-speaking, lower-income immigrants, participants interpreted and negotiated learning depending on their developmental level (Kegan et al., 2001). Students in the cohort, partially because of the different ways of knowing they exhibited, played an important role as a holding environment in the learning process by challenging and supporting each other.


Much of Kegan's 1994 book is devoted to understanding and addressing the demands of modern life using his theory as a framework. With regard to the college learning environment, Kegan (1994) suggested that while most students approach learning from an order 3 perspective, teaching is generally approached through the lens of order 4, creating a developmental mismatch. For instance, instructors expect students to be self-reflective, engaged, independent, self-directed, critical thinkers-skills that become evident only in order 4. Rather than assuming and treating students as if they are already self-authoring, Kegan (1994) stressed the importance of building a "consciousness bridge" (p. 278) between the point at which the student enters the classroom (generally order 3) and the level at which he or she is expected to perform in the classroom (order 4), noting that "the bridge builder must have an equal respect for both ends, creating a firm foundation on both sides of the chasm students will traverse" (p. 278).

Ignelzi (2000) used Kegan's concepts to discuss applications in traditional undergraduate classrooms. Pointing out that most undergraduate students use order 3 meaning making and therefore look to their instructors and classmates to determine how they should think and the conclusions they should draw about the material being examined, Ignelzi suggested the following strategies for encouraging both learning and development: (1) value and support students' current ways of thinking, (2) provide structure and guidance in taking on unfamiliar tasks, (3) encourage students to learn from each other by working together in groups, and (4) acknowledge and reinforce students' successes in moving to a self-authored perspective while recognizing the challenges required to do so. These suggestions reflect Kegan's (1982) idea of an effective holding environment.

King and Baxter Magolda (1996) used Kegan's (1994) model to frame student affairs educational practice. They suggested that the role of student affairs educators is to assist in the creation of the evolutionary bridges Kegan discussed. Assessment and evaluation of student development are important components of this process. On going dialogue with students is needed to help students establish developmental goals and determine ways to achieve them.

To assist students in moving from the second order of consciousness to the third, Love and Guthrie (1999) pointed out the importance of letting students know what behaviors are expected of them and what their responsibilities are, working with them to understand how others' perspectives compare to their own and when the needs of others take priority, and encouraging self-reflection. The transition from the third to the fourth order of consciousness is often precipitated by a failed relationship around which the individual has constructed his or her life's meaning and the resulting need to develop independent goals and values. Educators must recognize the pain associated with this transition and support students through the process by recognizing them as independent people, acknowledging their achievements, and encouraging them to get involved in activities where their talents will be valued.

Kegan's concept of coaching can easily translate into student affairs practice (Love & Guthrie, 1999). In the challenging college environment, student affairs staff can act as "sympathetic coaches" (p. 74), providing support for students to be who they are while also encouraging them to move beyond their current way of making meaning. Coaching can take the form of programs that keep students' developmental levels in mind by providing appropriate structure and communicating in ways that students understand, while at the same time encouraging them to try new ways of approaching ideas.

Based on Kegan's (1994) ideas, King and Baxter Magolda (2005) introduced a multidimensional model focusing on the development of intercultural maturity, which they described as consisting of a "range of attributes, including understanding (the cognitive dimension), sensitivity to others (the interpersonal dimension), and a sense of oneself that enables one to listen to and learn from others (the intrapersonal dimension)" (p. 574). They identified three levels of development in each dimension that influence each other and are intertwined rather than independent. Educators will be more effective in promoting intercultural maturity if they consider all of the dimensions of development and if the process is viewed as one that evolves, given appropriate experiences (King & Baxter Magolda, 2005).

With Kegan's theory as a framework, Ignelzi (1994) investigated what student affairs graduate students and new professionals were looking for from their work supervisors. He found that expectations fell into three categories paralleling Kegan's order 3, the transition from order 3 to order 4, and order 4, with most first-year professionals falling in the transition where they desired more autonomy yet also struggled with wanting the approval of their supervisors. As such, they needed both structure and support from their supervisors. Professionals at this point of development have trouble sharing problems and concerns with their supervisors because they fear disapproval (Ignelzi, 1994). The first goal of a supervisor must therefore be establishing a strong relationship with the supervisee so that the supervisee will feel comfortable revealing personal and professional issues that may interfere with work performance. Supervisors must be aware of the developmental level of their supervisee rather than assuming it based on age or years in the field (Ignelzi & Whitely, 2004). Since it is unrealistic to expect new professionals to be at the level of self-authorship (order 4), ongoing developmental supervision is critical.