In the 1960s and 70s William Perry developed a classic model for intellectual development among college students that some faculty still find useful. Students progress through three major stages.
Dualism (either/or thinking). Students in this stage believe there is a single right answer to all questions. Knowledge is “received truth” delivered by professors. Dualistic thinkers resist thinking independently, drawing their own conclusions, stating their own points of view, and discussing ideas with peers; these are “senseless tasks” because they believe teachers should deliver the facts. They are especially uneasy when teachers (authorities) disagree. They believe that learning involves taking notes, memorizing facts, and later depositing facts on exams.
Multiplicity (subjective knowledge). Students in this stage believe that knowledge is just an opinion, and students and faculty are equally entitled to believe in the veracity of their own opinions. They may rebel at faculty criticism of their work, attributing it to capricious whim and faculty inability to recognize the value in alternative perspectives.
Relativism (constructed knowledge). Students at this level recognize that opinions are based on values, experiences, and knowledge. They can argue their perspective and consider the relative merit of alternative arguments by evaluating the quality of the evidence. Knowledge is “constructed” through experience and reflection. These students view faculty as having better-informed opinions in their areas of expertise and as being able to teach students techniques for evaluating the quality of evidence underlying conclusions.
This theory might help you understand some of the cognitive and emotional needs of your students. Faculty can gently challenge students to nurture their growth through these stages.
To Challenge Dualists
Create assignments that invite dualists to consider multiple solutions to problems and the validity of alternative perspectives. Teach students to analyze, compare, contrast, and justify ideas. Role model accepting multiple points of view and challenging authority, and ask students to explain and defend their statements. Provide compassionate support, appropriate structure, concrete examples, peer interaction, and opportunities to practice complex thinking. Remember that you are asking them to give up a world view that has served them quite well and to move away from a sense of certainty about the world. As Perry (1989) said, “every step involves not only the joy of realization but also a loss of certainty and an altered sense of self,” and these losses can generate grief. Peer support can be an important source of encouragement during this process.
To Challenge Multiplists
Provide experiences that help students distinguish between well-supported and weakly-supported ideas. Help students develop, evaluate, and defend opinions. Encourage students to rethink positions based on changing evidence and encourage probabilistic conclusions. Engage students in a community of learners who explore and discover knowledge together.