This topic is definitely of interest to those of us in the realm of church work. You might be familiar with James Fowlerâ€™s Stages of Faith which serves us well when looking into the spiritual development of individuals. William G. Perry, Jr. wrote about his theory in a 1968 work, â€œForms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Schemeâ€.
Perry provides four levels of development and nine positions within those levels. He uses positions instead of stages because â€œthere is no assumption of duration, individuals may demonstrate some range in structures manifested at a given point in time,â€¦Finally, Perry considers position to be consistent with the image of a point of view from which one looks at the world (Evans, et al., 1998, p. 130).â€
The four levels are Dualism, Multiplicity, Relativism, and Commitment in Relativism. The first three contain two positions each while the last level contains three positions and moves into the realm of ethics instead of cognitive. With a little discussion, these positions will seem natural for most educators.
Dualism in the first position is thinking in terms of absolute right/wrong or black/white. There is one Truth and teachers, ministers are seen as Authority and are to be trusted. If information is contradictory, then the Authority (trusted one) is correct. Position two in Dualism allows that there is diversity in opinions but the diversity is â€œunwarranted confusionâ€ because the Authority person is not really qualified.
The second level is Multiplicity and the third position demonstrates an ability to see any opinion as write. This is a temporary situation and the Authority figure will correct the misinformation soon. When that does not happen, the person will transition into position four where â€œEveryone has an opinion and mine is just as correct as their opinions.â€ There is no merit given to any particular opinion.
The third level is Relativism which begins in position five. Perry acknowledges that he infers this position because research indicated an abrupt change between position four and six. Therefore, this is a very transitory stage where a person shifts from dualistic thinking (right/wrong) to relativistic thinking (it depends on the context). In position five all knowledge and values are perceived as contextual and relativistic. For the first time, the individual sees authority with a small â€œaâ€ and truth with a small â€œtâ€. There become many different truths as the individual begins to formulate their own opinion, weighing the different arguments.
In the sixth position, the individual begins to think if everything is relative then maybe I am relative too. This causes great apprehension while the individual orients to the relativistic world.
I will stop with position six because the finally three positions seem to be making ethical decisions but no change cognitively. Throughout the studentâ€™s journey, there are times when a person may regress to an earlier position. Perry allows for three different means for this to happen: Temporizing, Retreat, and Escape. Temporizing takes place within the first four stages and is where a student delays in some position for a year or more and is choosing to not move to the next position. Retreat is where the student â€œentrenches in the dualistic absolutistic structures of positions 2 or 3.â€ While escape is where the â€œstudent exploits the opportunity for detachment offered by the structures of positions 4 and 5 to deny responsibility through passive or opportunistic alienation.”
So that is Perry in a nutshell. When I came across Perryâ€™s theory, I saw a lot of late high school students and beginning college students in those positions. Perry believed a person could see one position above the one they were in but could not make sense of the higher position. How do you do ministry, teaching the faith, in this type of cognitive development? What might we need to change or rethink?
This post is already too long and definitely does not do justice to Perryâ€™s theory. My hope is that we will become familiar with the theories and maybe readjust what we do to affirm people where they are while on the journey. Finally, most college freshmen are in position 2 while most seniors are in position 4. Graduate students are normally in position 4.5 to 5. If that is the positions we are working with, how do we need to change?
Date posted: Thursday, September 27th, 2007 9:58 am | Under category: Christian Education, development theory
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