5.7 What drives intellectual development?

Both [Sayers, 1947] and [Gatto, 2002] have argued that normal intellectual development is a natural process. Van Rossum and Hamer agree and describe its driving dynamic as follows.

After describing the various developmental stages (see especially Table Developmental model of students’ learning and teaching conceptions), one might wonder about the logic of why students develop at all. What is the process and what are the questions that may drive development? We feel that it may be a series of cycles of differentiation and integration. Because the majority of students start higher education as level-two-thinkers we start with them, and not the level-one-thinkers who are not aware of the option of reflection.

In traditional secondary education level-two-thinkers have learnt to focus on what is important to pass examinations, addressing the important issue of “How do I pass exams?” So exams define what to learn and know. After a while, perhaps confronted with the demands of higher education and life, level-two- thinkers may experience discomfort with memorizing and passing exams alone, and the need for (reproductive) meaning making and application differentiates out of learning conception 2 into learning conception 3. Learners then become level-three-thinkers trying to answer the issue “What is useful for me to know?” For level-three-thinkers later work or practice define what to learn and know.

The imminent future as a successful professional — or working experiences — may stimulate learners to develop into level-four-thinkers (learning conception 4), where the way of thinking of level-two-thinkers and level-three-thinkers become elements in an integrated system focusing on autonomy and understanding within a context, addressing the issue of “How should I think?” or “How do I make sense of reality?” This is a big change in thinking and we have referred to this shift as the watershed in epistemology within our six-stage model. The learning and knowing of level-four-thinkers is defined by a professional’s (disciplinary) way of thinking.

The realization that there may be more contexts including other autonomous people, leads to the differentiating move into learning conception 5. Level-five-thinkers focus on connection and multiple perspectives: “How do I relate to other people and perspectives?” and their learning and knowing is still defined externally by these perspectives. (van Rossum & Hamer, 2010) (page 26 and 27)

Since universities are par excellence institutions where intellectual development is encouraged, it makes sense to speculate about intellectual development well beyond what is possible or likely within the bounds of organized academia, but is nevertheless facilitated by the presence of a university. Fortunately van Rossum and Hamer dare to speculate.

These five first tiers of development seem to focus on epistemology: knowledge and knowing. We have referred to this first set of five as a model of “learning to know”, introducing a second shift in focus within our original six-stage developmental model. We have discussed this second shift, and the provisional second tier of development introduced below, which focuses on “learning to be”.

Learning conception 6 can be seen either as the final stage or the first of a second type of development. Either way it is characterized by the integration of autonomy (level-four- thinkers) and connection (level-five-thinkers) into a new structure addressing more ethical issues such as “Who am I?” Here, for the first time the self becomes ‘the boss’ who defines learning and knowing. Level-six-thinkers have made a step upwards to another, ontological plane which led us before to propose a change of nomenclature: learning to be me or “knowing me”.

In response to a query what then would constitute learning to be 2 and beyond, we have used both the idea of differentiation and integration used above, as well as the idea of ‘stepping out of embeddedness’ that Kegan introduced (see chapter 3) to extrapolate a possible developmental trajectory. So if level-six-thinkers ask “Who am I?”, level-seven- thinkers might focus on differentiation and finding out “Who are you?”, embracing the other in a new way of knowing Parker Palmer might be referring to when he says “a way of knowing and of living that has moved beyond fear of the other into respect for, even a need for, its otherness”. Level-eight-thinkers then — stepping out of ‘you-and-I’ — might integrate this into the question “What defines humanity (to me)?” […]

And after considering humanity, in becoming a level-nine-thinker, one might differentiate towards non-human life: “What about all other living things?”, perhaps in time progressing towards a new structure. Becoming a level-ten-thinker could mean addressing the issue of “What is humanity’s place and responsibility in the system, in and towards the ecology and the planet we live on, in short ‘life as we know it’?” Although, this speculation seems to call us “to boldly go where no-one has gone before”, we choose to leave the contemplation of “life, not as we know it” to another time and place.

This leaves the issue why people ask these questions undecided, although some schools of thought believe that making sense of our environment by asking questions (inquiry) may be “hard wired” into our brain.

This analysis dovetails with the highest level in the section on [Intellectual Classes]: being able to understand how the world is understood through an independence of and flexible use of paradigms. In addition it fits also with the concept to self-actualization that was introduced by Maslow to denote the process towards realizing full personal potential [Maslow, 1962]. Maslow was the first (and arguably the wisest) researcher to study the full potential of being human. Although he based himself on a low number of examples, and possibly a somewhat biased set, he found a cluster of 14 characteristics that distinguish self-actualized individuals. The main characteristic was a very good grasp on reality. In addition

… these characteristics define individuals who are accepting of themselves and others, are relatively independent of the culture or society in which they live, are somewhat detached but with very close personal ties to a few other people, and are deeply committed to solving problems that they deem important. Additionally, self-actualized individuals intensely appreciate simple or natural events, such as a sunrise, and they sometimes experience profound changes that Maslow termed peak experiences. Although difficult to describe, peak experiences often involve a momentary loss of self and feelings of transcendence. Reports of peak experiences also include the feeling of limitless horizons opening up and of being simultaneously very powerful, yet weak. Peak experiences are extremely positive in nature and often cause an individual to change the direction of his or her future behaviour. Maslow believed that everyone is capable of having peak experiences, but he believed that self-actualized persons have these experiences more often. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, Motivation)

Peak experiences as moments in which structure is seen and where previously complexly connected epistemological structures become simple and in doing so free mind-space for further epistemological development. Maybe that is also the reason why they are so pleasurable.

In accordance with Sayer and Gatto, Van Rossum and Hamer conclude:

Furthermore, we feel that this general intellectual development is a naturally occurring one, and one that is crucial to the proper functioning in a complex society including many groups, competing interests and value systems. It might even be crucial to the survival of our planet. It is a development that can be accelerated by formal (higher) education that focuses on systemic thinking, different perspectives or paradoxes. The development can sometimes be greatly accelerated by formal education or life’s turns and twists. However, it can also be arrested for long periods of time in ‘traditional cultures’, e.g. strongly traditional education, focusing on lectures, memorization and reproduction. (p 574–575)


  • Sayers, D. (1947). The Lost Tools of Learning. In The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement. Gollancz.

  • Gatto, J. T. (2002). Dumbing us down : the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers.

  • Maslow, Abraham H. 1962. Toward a Psychology of Being. D. van Nostrand company inc.