Constructive-Developmental Theory


Increasingly sophisticated modes of consciousness

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … meaning, as framed by current mode of consciousness
  • Learner is … an individual
  • Learning is … making and remaking meaning
  • Teaching is … challenging




Constructive-Developmental Theory focuses on one’s evolving modes of making meaning of experience, starting in infancy and extending through the entire lifespan. It posits five qualitatively distinct and increasingly complex levels/modes/orders of consciousness (i.e., ways of perceiving and engaging with/in the world) across which the individual first develops some mastery over impulses and perceptions, then needs and desires, and then interpersonal relationships. That’s as far as most adults get but some also achieve a self-authoring consciousness, and a few manage a self-transforming, systems-oriented, non-egocentric mode. Because Kegan’s model is increasingly consequential in education, brief descriptions of his identified stages are warranted:


Criticisms of Constructive-Developmental Theory tend to be similar to those leveled against other Developmental Discourses, particularly those associated with Psychoanalytic Theories. Most prominently, Constructive-Developmental Theory is seen by many to be culturally myopic. One criticism that Constructive-Developmental Theory avoids is that it might be normative, owing to the fact that its stages are not indexed to ages (although they are correlated).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Robert Kegan; Otto Laske

Status as a Theory of Learning

Constructive-Developmental Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Constructive-Developmental Theory is not a theory of teaching. It does offer occasional advice to educators, however. For example, because its stages aren’t rigidly indexed to ages, Constructive-Developmental Theory is useful for interpreting how and why classmates can make very, very different meanings of similar experiences – along with suggestions on the sorts of experiences and supports that might encourage learners to develop sensibilities that enable them to act in more context-appropriate ways.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Constructive-Developmental Theory meets most of our criteria of scientific theories. Its focus is explicit, its images and metaphors are carefully selected and deployed, and it does have an evidence base.


  • Impulsive Mind (1st Order Consciousness)
  • Instrumental Mind (2nd Order Consciousness)
  • Socialized Mind (3rd Order Consciousness)
  • Self-Authoring Mind (4th Order Consciousness)
  • Self-Transforming Mind (5th Order Consciousness)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Constructive-Developmental Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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