Stages of Intellectual Development

Sunday, December 30, 2012

This post is somewhat related to a previous one where I try to explain problems with people's inferences in discussions.

Have you ever had a discussion with someone who insists that things are black and white, when really they are not? On the opposite end of the spectrum, have you ever had a conversation with someone who insists that everything is a shade of gray and there's no way to really prove that anything is true? There is a continuum of people's understanding of knowledge, and it comes into play in daily life more often than you would guess.

This "continuum" consists of four states of mind: absolute, transitional, independent, and contextual. It should be noted that a person does not always progress sequentially from the less sophisticated "black and white" views of knowledge, to the views that accept complexity. A person can actually be in multiple stages at once, depending on the intellectual, social, and emotional challenges the person is facing.

As you read through these stages of development, you should maybe ask yourself which one you align with most when it comes to various topics: global warming? economic policy (or any sort of policy, really)?

Absolute Knowledge
Knowledge is always known, is passed down from teachers (read: experts), and what matters most is if facts are right or wrong.

Transitional Knowledge
Knowledge is passed down, right/wrong is still what matters most, but sometimes knowledge is not known.

Independent Knowledge
Knowledge is just opinion, teachers (i.e., experts) are just another opinion, and people can disagree but both can still be right. Because of this, you shouldn't judge people for their opinions.

I'm fairly certain the saying "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" is a reflection of the Independent Knowledge stage.

Contextual Knowledge
Knowledge is based on evidence, which is important for supporting your arguments. Teachers are guides and knowledge changes depending on the context. You don't need to choose from 'right' and 'wrong', but instead you have multiple possibilities with varying levels of support.

Now, we can look at how students at university progress through these intellectual stages. You can see how even after four years of undergraduate education most students (who by this time are fully in adulthood) are not in the Contextual Knowledge stage. That is, most believe that all opinions are equal and downplay the importance of evidence.

If the person you're discussing with is in one of the first three stages, you may be unable to convince them of anything as the finer points of evidence-based arguments are lost on them. And the chances of your discussion partner being in the Contextual Knowledge phase is apparently rather slim. Knowledge and "knowing" are so complex, I just wish more people could understand it that way.

The bulk of this information comes from Baxter-Magolda's (1992) "Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students' intellectual development.". There's also a presentation online that summarizes to what I'm referring in this post, you can find it here.


rooth said...

Iris, I am SO glad that you shared this. I'm definitely one that leans toward the "absolute" side of things - where it's either one way or the other way. It's really good to know and understand this and it'll be fun classifying people into these different categories now and understanding how they tick.

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