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Self-Authorship Theory


Constructive-Developmentalists combine two theoretical perspectives to explain how humans grow/learn/develop.

  • Constructivist: individuals construct their own meaning of the world via active interaction
  • Developmentalists: identify qualitative changes that occur as a result of the interaction between the individual, task, and environment

Evolution of Consciousness theory focuses on the transformation of the ways learners make meaning from their life experiences.

Evolution of Consciousness

  • Subject vs Object
  • Levels of Consciousness
  • Applications
  • Simplified Application

Kegan (1994) proposes that learning/development involves movement through five progressively more complex ways of knowing. It is the "evolution of consciousness, the personal unfolding of ways of organizing experience that are not simply replaced as we grow but subsumed into more complex systems of the mind" (p. 9).

Subsequently, there will be a qualitative change in the way the learner functions, think, processes information. An interaction between the cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal factors via times of instability and reconstruction to times of stability (similar to Piaget's concept of disequilibration/equilibration).

Subject versus Object

  • Subject as "those elements of our knowing or organizing that we are identified with, tied to, fused with or embedded in" (1994, p.32). These are things that cannot be seen or reflected on, as they are considered part of the individual.
  • Objects are "those elements of our knowing or organizing that we can reflect on, handle, look at, be responsible for, relate to each other, take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise operate upon" (1994, p.32).

The further a person progresses within Kegan's orders of the mind, the more subjects that are transformed into objects and therefore the more complex meaning-making becomes. Transformative learning is "the way he knows—not just what he knows but the way he knows" (1994, p.17).

Kegan's Levels of Consciousness or Orders of the Mind

These "orders" describe how individuals construct and make meaning of their own world. Each order describes the individual's perceptive framework or lens and each is a qualitative change in complexity and how a person makes meaning from the world. Previous learning is 'transformed' via reflection and analysis.

Order 0

  • Everything in the world is an extension of oneself
  • No object independence (separate from themselves)
  • No object durability (objects retain the same qualities regardless of the individual's relationship)
  • Transformation - recognition of the existences of objects beyond themselves

Order 1

  • Object independence
  • Socially egocentric
  • Impulsive and illogical
  • Transformation - taking responsibility for self and emotions; differentiate between self and others

Order 2: Instrumental Mind

  • Object durability
  • Develop durable categories for objects, people, ideas
  • Relate to others as separate unique beings
  • Rules, directions and dualisms provide needed structure
  • Transformation - recognizing and considering other people's expectations, needs, and desires

Order 3: Socialized Mind

  • Cross-categorial thinking (relating one durable category with another)
  • Increase in abstract thinking
  • How the individual is perceived by others is critical
  • Support is found in mutually rewarding relationships and shared experiences
  • Transformation - resisting codependence, establishing independent lives and decisions

Order 4: Self-Authoring Mind

  • Kegan (1994) hypothesized that this is the minimum order to reach to function effectively in post-modern life (most adults are yet to attain this level)
  • Ability to coordinate multiple roles and the different expectations of others within their own self-generated, relationship-regulating frameworks
  • Cross-categorial construction (generalize across abstractions)
  • Taking responsibility for and ownership of internal authority
  • Establish own sets of values and ideologies
  • Relationships just part of the learner's world
  • Transformation - seeking further development with the recognition that others can/will refuse relationships that are not intimate and mutually rewarding

Order 5: Self-Transforming Mind

  • Infrequently reached (and not before 40?)
  • Able to perceive beyond self to understand the interconnections between systems and people
  • Recognize "commonalities and interdependence with others" (1982, p.239)
  • Intimate relationships based on nurturance and affiliation
  • Conceptual frameworks in this view embrace contradiction and paradox


Kegan (1994) suggests that most students are learning from an Order 3 perspective, whereas teaching is generally from an Order 4 perspective.

  • Teachers need to build a conscious bridge" (1994, p.278) and respecting both ends
  • Students seek confirmation from leaders and peers on how to think
  • Ignelzi (2000) suggests for transformation from Order 3 to 4:
      • Value and support current student thinking forms
      • Provide structure and guidance for unfamiliar tasks
      • Encourage peer and group work
      • Acknowledge and reinforce student successes toward self-authorship
  • Love and Guthrie (1999) suggest for transformation from Order 2 to 3:
      • Clarifying expectations and responsibilities
      • Providing opportunities to learn others' perspectives
      • Assist to recognize when the needs of others take priority
      • Provide opportunities for and encourage self reflection
  • A simplified application of Kegan's theory

Theory of Self-Authorship

  • Path to Self-Authorship
  • Key Elements of Self-Authorship
  • Applications

From Kegan's (1994) work, Baxter Magolda (2001) defined self authorship as "the internal capacity to define one's beliefs, identity and social relations" (p.269). This requires people to collect, interpret, analyze, and reflect to form their own perspectives (Baxter Magolda, 2001) and subsequent interactions and decisions. Identified developmental tasks people in their 20's face:

  • Values exploration
  • Making sense of information gained about the world
  • Determining the path one will take
  • Taking steps along that path

As a result, three major questions take precedence: (p. 15)

  • How do I know?
      • The evolution of assumptions about nature, limits, and certainty of knowledge
  • Who am I?
      • Sense of 'who I am' and 'what I believe'
  • How do I want to construct relationships with others?
      • Perceptions and construction of relationships

College environments fail to support development toward self-authorship. "Higher education has a responsibility to help young adults make the transition from being shaped by society to shaping society in their role as leaders in society's future," (Baxter Magolda, 1999, p. 630).

Path to Self-Authorship

Identified 4 phases as one moves from external to internal identification and ultimately self-authorship (self-in-context).

Phase 1: Following Formulas

  • Follow plans designed by others
      • Meet expectations (career, family, etc.)
  • Defined by others
      • Seek approval
  • Learn from
      • Societal expectations (perceived roles/structures, etc.)
      • Other adults (parents, mentors, advisors, etc.)
      • Peers (significant others, classmates, friends, etc.)

Phase 2: Crossroads

  • Discovery/realization the need to establish
      • Own sense of self (beliefs and values)
      • Career paths more suited to needs and interests
      • More authentic relationships
  • Seek to become more autonomous
  • "A clearer sense of direction and more self-confidence marked the end of the crossroads," (Evans, et. al, 2010, p. 185)

Phase 3: Becoming the Author of One's Life

  • Establishes own beliefs
      • Defends these beliefs against conflicting external perspectives
      • Attempts to follow/live established beliefs
  • Recognition that beliefs are contextual
      • Relationships can lead to renegotiation of beliefs
  • Intensive self-reflection leads to a clearer self-concept

Phase 4: Internal Foundation

  • Well founded, self-determined belief system
      • A "solidified and comprehensive system of belief" (Baxter Magolda, 2001, p. 155) is established
      • Life decisions based on this foundation
      • Responsibility to others based in belief system
  • Accepting of ambiguity and change
      • Peace, contentment and inner strength characterize this phase
      • Spirituality can play an important role
  • New pathways are sought/attained

Key Elements of Self-Authorship

  • Trusting the internal voice
      • Control over to think about and respond to events
  • Building an internal foundation
      • A personal philosophy or framework for actions
  • Securing internal commitments
      • Living authentically (to own convictions)
      • Integrating internal and external worlds


Self-authorship emerges from creating environments that challenged dependence on authority and meaning-making processes (Learning Partnership Model). Such environments utilize three key principles (Baxter Magolda, 1992):

  • Validating learners' capacity to know
      • Ensure students know their input is important
      • Be more human, approachable, and concerned—students more likely to see knowledge construction as reachable
      • Mute the voice of faculty as "the" authority
      • Encourage active sharing of ideas and viewpoints
  • Situating learning in learners
      • Recognize and acknowledge that students bring their personal experiences into the classroom
      • Avoid marginalizing students ("he" in examples, speaking about topics with which they are unfamiliar)
      • Use analogies, drawing from student experiences, sharing stories
      • Explain the relevance of material to students' daily lives
      • Provide opportunities for self-reflection to help students become clearer about what they know, why they hold their beliefs, and how they want to act on them
      • Develop assignments that draw from and relate to student experiences
      • Offer guidelines to students, rather than requirements
  • Mutually constructing meaning
      • Frame learning as something you do together
      • Present teaching and learning as relational where instructor and students are changed
      • Allow students to see your thinking, reasoning, learning, and writing processes
  • When advising
      • Encouraging reflection when goal setting and planning
      • Discussing nonacademic life experiences


  • Baxter Magolda, M. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus
  • Baxter Magolda, M. (1999). Constructing adult identities. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 629-644
  • Baxter Magolda, M. (2008). Three elements of self-authorship. Journal of College Student Development, 49, 269-284
  • Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F. Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Student development in college: theory, research and practice, (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Ignelzi, M. (2000). Meaning-making in the learning and teaching process. In M. Baxter Magolda (Ed.) Teaching to promote intellectual and personal maturity: Incorporating students' worldviews and identities into the learning process. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, # 82. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Banks
  • Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Kegan, R. (2000). What "form" transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. In J. Mezirow (Ed.) Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Love, P. and Guthrie, V., (Ed.s). (1999). Understanding and applying cognitive development theory. New Directions for Student Services, # 88. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Banks

Further Reading

  • King, P. and Kitchener, K. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescence and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Banks
  • Pizzolato, J. (2007) Assessing self-authroship. In P. Meszaros (Ed.) Self-authorship: Advancing students' intellectual growth. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 109, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Banks (pp.31-24)
May 26, 2022