Perry on Cognitive Development

The following long synopsis of Perry's work is quoted from Joanne Kurfiss' Intellectual, Psychosocial and Moral Development in College: Four Major Theories, pp. 16-20


While Piaget chronicles development of ability to use logical thinking, William G. Perry, Jr., has chronicled the evolution of beliefs about what constitutes knowledge, truth, and fact, and the role of authorities in defining and conveying knowledge. The later positions shift to issues arising from the problems of making commitments in a relativistic context as epistemological reflection generalizes to personal choice and action (Perry, 1970). His "positions" share some characteristics with Piaget's stages; for example. they are orderly in their sequence, both logically and psychologically (Kurfiss, 1975, 1977). The more advanced the position, the more likely it is to require formal reasoning. The processes which are presumed to stimulate development include disequjlibration; more will be said of this shortly

Although Perry's original work identified nine positions, grouping these into four major periods makes the scheme more manageable and accessible on first exposure; These periods are somewhat arbitrarily defined, since the positions shade gradually into one another; for those who intend to pursue the topic further I have indicated specifically which of Perry's positions I am including in the four periods below.

1. Dualism (Perry's positions 1 and 2): For the Dualist, knowledge is absolute; there is Truth and Falsity, Right and Wrong, Good and Bad. "For every question there is a simple answer" would be a characteristic Dualist statement. Authorities are those who have the Answers. Disagreement among them is unthinkable--facts are facts! Belief systems are not chosen, they are given--unquestioned, unanalyzed backdrops to the student's experience.

2. Multiplicity (Perry's positions 3 and 4 Multiplicity Correlative.)Most knowledge is still viewed as absolute, as in Dualism. But in some fields or on some questions, we don't have all the answers--yet. We see a hedging admission that knowledge does have its grey areas, and authorities may not be infallible. But the reaction to this realization may be rather anti-establishment. Values? Ideology? Why have any? Just do what seems right at the times "Go with the flow." In response to a low grade on an essay exam, a student may contend that since there is no one right answer, all we have is opinion, and one opinion is just as good as another. This form of epistemological nihilism is particularly common among sophomores. Liberal educators may realize their greatest potential influence by developing strategies to overcome the tendency for this belief structure to persist through graduation. A common path out of this position is to attempt to discover and use the "rules of the game" to the students' best advantage. Thus, presentation of a balanced, documented ''opinion' in a paper may become a strategy for managing the grey areas, but one adopted only to satisfy the instructor and get the grade. The irony is that the tools of independent thinking are acquired as the student discovers and seeks to conform to "what the professor wants," as Perry (1970) wryly notes. Regardless of motives, however, the student who can articulate principles for the use of critical thinking processes has already slipped into the next position.

3. Relativism (Perry's 4 Relativism Subordinate, 5, and 6). As noted above, and given the right conditions, students will begin to discern patterns or regularities in the way their professors (and others) approach grey areas of knowledge. They may recognize such strategies as analysis of evidence, comparison of interpretations, or designing experiments. At first this recognition may come in a limited area of study, but at some point a flip-flop occurs and the student comes to view the grey areas as the rule rather than the exception. Procedures for negotiating within uncertainty begin to be articulated by the student (e.g., "I try to present d balanced view, look at the evidence on both [or all] sides, and then come to a conclusion that seems most reasonable"). The context within which facts are viewed is recognized as having a bearing on how those facts will be interpreted. Authorities are now recognized as fellow seekers of understanding, different primarily in that they are experienced at making sense of the profusion of knowledge in their fields. During this period, students may feel that belief systems are difficult to think about because so many good arguments exist for any one approach, "no matter how you look at it."

Toward the end of this period (Position 6), they begin to experience the necessity of choosing despite the difficulties involved. TheY also realize at some point during this period that this state of affairs is relevant to their own life choices, a disconcerting discovery for many.

4. Commitment in Relativism (Positions 7, 8, and 9). Skilled in rational (formal operational) processes and drawing upon the accumulated learning and experience of the college years, the student can commit herself to the opinions, ideologies, values, and interests with which she will identify. Recognition of the fallibility of her choices, acceptance of responsibility for their consequences, and willingness to accept others' right to their own choices characterize the Commitments of the Relativist. There is full recognition that choices restrict one from some choices and open the way to others; there may be sadness accompanying specific decisions as well as positive feelings and apprehension about the future. Commitments may not be made all of a sudden, though a gradual realization that a particular direction is being taken may occur. A student may reaffirm or reject old beliefs; either way, the decision is based on a conscious consideration of alternatives as opposed to the blind acceptance of the Dualist.

Throughout these four periods we again see the trends which recur in developmental models: from concrete and simplistic to abstract and complex thought processes; from absolute to relativistic belief systems, and from external to internal control, as the student increasingly reflects upon and takes responsibility for actions, choices, and the selection/ formulation of a world view.

What characteristics of college environments contribute to the changes documented by Perry and others? Perry (1970) suggests that students' growth is enhanced when we create the sense of being participants in a "community of scholars." In such a community, students observe and engage with faculty in a variety of contexts, all of which encourage critical analysis, empathetic discussion, and reflection of ideas, information, and choices. Many independent colleges provide ideal environments in this. respect, and there is considerable evidence that students who participate in this type of community do progress more rapidly, on a variety of measures of maturity, than do students who do not become thus engaged.

. . .

Disequilibration is also relevant to the question of transition mechanisms in Perry's model. particularly for students in Dualistic or Multiplicity positions (1 through 4 M.C.). An optimum amount of disequilibrium is generally considered to be induced by stretching the student to consider ideas approximately one position beyond his own. This is termed the "+ 1 principle" by developmental psychologists. Applying this concept we hypothesize that for development to occur, Dualists must be helped to discover that authorities disagree and that often there is no single right answer, while students in Multiplicity must discover that although there are not always right answers, authorities do have methods useful in studying and comparing ideas. Relativists can benefit from observing that although commitments are difficult, people do make them and authority figures persist in making judgments and defending them even while tolerating--even welcoming discussion of--the views of those who disagree. They can even remain friends through their disagreements--sometimes! And they can give you an "A" on a well-reasoned paper even if it presents a view completely contradictory to their own.

Creating disequilibrium about such fundamental assumptions requires the counterbalancing influence of supports appropriate to the concerns likely to be salient at each position. This may be especially true for some Dualistst who may reject or deny the possibility that truths long held are not absolute, or whose concrete way of thinking may be too limited to handle the complex differentiation of ideas demanded by many college courses. In the later periods, Relativism and beyond, disequilibrium may be less important than guidance. encouragement, objectivity, and support for those facing major life decisions such as choice of a major, or whether to get married Wove away from home, or even transfer to another college.

Although Perry's initial study and validating sample drew from a rather restricted population (Harvard males, traditional-aged, during the late 50s and the 60s), subsequent research has provided evidence of the relevance of the sequence in other settings. For instance, the sequence and cohesiveness of the positions were experimentally validated using a sample of sophomores and seniors at a large state university (Kurfiss, 1975, 1977). Clinchy and Zimmerman (1981) have found the scheme provides a useful framework for studies of women's development in a women's college, although they note some differences from men's experiences. . . .

Progress in other settings may not be as rapid as it was in the Harvard saniple, but the assumptions and behavior of students have changed little over the intervening years. Many researchers find modal positions of freshman at around Position 3, the pivot-point from Dualism to Multiplicity; seniors may be Relativists yet not have a strong sense of Commitment.


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