Overview of 21st Century adult development theory and practice

CONCEPTUAL frameworks

In 1982, Robert Kegan published The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. While many found The Evolving Self to be a difficult book, it nonetheless launched a revolution in the way we think about adult development. Between 1982 and today, Dr. Kegan's ideas have established a new, unique way of understanding, investigating, and supporting adult development.

Before Kegan, academicians and clinicians were primarily interested in investigating adult development from a point of view that emphasized age-related issues, problems, and patterns that evolved predictably over the course of an adult's lifetime. For example, in 1968, Erik Erikson published Identity, Youth and Crisis, a study that offered a theory of human development that identified the stages of ego development through which a person evolved from birth to death. Following Erikson, Gail Sheehy (Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life), George Vailant (Adaptation to Life), David Levinson (The Seasons of Life), Roger Gould (Transformations: Growth and Change in Adult Life), and Bernice Neugarten (Life Span and Human Aging) all developed their own theories and published their own longitudinal studies about the predictable age- and issue-related stages of growth that they thought characterized the adult lifespan. 

Kegan's New Approach

Kegan went a different way. Between 1982 and 2011, he published four books (In Over Our Head; The Mental Demands Of Modern Life:- A Guide To The Subject-Object Interview:- How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work:- and Immunity To Change: How To Overcome It and Unlock The Potential In Yourself And Your Organization) that together expanded and fleshed out the way we look at, understand, and support the processes of adult development that he’d first offered in The Evolving Self

Metaphorically, it feels like Dr. Kegan sculpted his new approach to adult development out of a truism embedded in Aldous Huxley's famous quote; "Experience isn't what happens to you. Experience is what you do with what happens to you." In a sense, it feels like Dr. Kegan grasped the essence of Huxley's aphorism, and morphed it into a launch pad for a new way of thinking. In The Evolving Self, Kegan moved away from Erickson, and all the other age-related experts, and focused our attention on adult development as a meaning-making process. For Kegan, adult development was/is a meaning-making process that adults use when they consciously grasp their raw sensory experiences and then transform their awarenesses into conscious perceptions, concepts and intentions. Early on, Kegan described his way of thinking like this; "....it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making."

Kegan saw adults' meaning-making processes as a lifelong activity. One that begins in infancy and gradually evolves in sophistication and complexity across an individual's entire life. Once he saw this, Kegan understood that adults' meaning-making processes had to be ones that progressed by advancing through a discrete series of "evolutionary truces or balances." These balances are made up of two things. First, they include all the ideas and concepts that an individual can, when they want, bring consciously to mind, think about, and act on; what Kegan labeled "subject." Second, these meaning-making balances involve all the ideas and concepts that an individual can’t intentionally call to mind, think about, talk about, and/or act on; what Kegan labeled "object." Across a lifetime, Kegan showed us that what for a person is subject and what is object can change. Sometimes our subject/object balances are stable (Kegan's "evolutionary truces or balances") and sometimes they're much more fluid (Kegan’s “transformations”).

Today it's clear that Kegan's theory of adult development describes a compelling developmental trajectory for the phases and stages through which an adult's meaning-making capabilities can evolve. Kegan's image of adult development portrays evolving orders of consciousness, where each order signifies new, more complex and sophisticated ways of knowing the world. Kegan says it like this: "Our arrival at a given plateau is not to a place on a temporal continuum that's guaranteed by the passage of time. (Rather) it's to a place on an evolutionary continuum made possible by the emergence of a qualitatively new order of consciousness." 

21ST CENTURY adult development

Over the last decade or so, Kegan's approach to adult development has been augmented, extended, and improved by integrating into his Orders of Consciousness model five new, very important advances.

  • First and most important, there is David Kolb's ideas and insights about experiential learning (Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development and The Experiential Educator: Principles and Practices of Experiential Learning). 

  • Second there are Herb Simon's ideas about "focused attention" (Skill in Chess). 

  • Third, there is Anders Ericsson's "deliberate practice" techniques (Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise). 

  • Fourth, there's Jack Mezirow's ten-phase model of transformative learning (Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning). 

  • And fifth, there is Jan D. Sinnott’s exploration of complex, post-formal thinking.

Slowly, all we've been discovering about experiential learning, focused attention, deliberate practice, transformative learning, and post-formal complex thinking is being integrated into a comprehensive approach to self-direct learning that can be tailored to encourage and support each individual’s' own particular learning journey. 

Exploring New Developments

Over time, TLO's Adult Development Resource Center will explore and discuss issues that are associated with the ways in which Kolb’s, Simon's, Ericsson’s, and Mezirow's new insights regarding how we can best support and encourage positive meaning-making contribute to and improve Kegan's initial Orders of Consciousness theory. To learn more about all this, explore the resource available all across TLO's Adult Development Resource Center. If you have comments, requests, or questions related to anything in this area that's piqued your interest, please reach out.