Constructive-Developmental Theory


Subject-Object 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: Assessment tools and strategies associated with Constructive-Developmental Theory include:
  • Subject-Object Interview (Robert Kegan, 1980s) – an tool to assess where one might land among the levels of consciousness described within Constructive-Developmental Theory – that is, an assessment of the scope or complexity of one’s consciousness
Theories that were influential and/or that are related to Constructive-Developmental Theory (listed chronologically) include:
  • Five Structures of Consciousness (Jean Gebser, 1940s) – Defining consciousness in terms of “wakeful presence,” and framing shifts in consciousness as structural changes to both mind and body, this model posits five structures that operate at both individual and collective levels: Archaic (pre-conscious undifferentiation), Magic (pre-explanation awareness), Mythical (self-narrating soul), Mental (rational observer), and Integral (“presentiated” participant).
  • Emergent Cyclical Theory (Clare Graves, 1970s) – an open-ended, stage-based developmental model of bio-psycho-social coping systems that are manifest at personal, cultural, and species levels. The theory comprises pairings of existential problems with emergent coping systems, which are either parallel (in which case, problems readily handled) or non-parallel (in which case, stress and frustrations will be experienced). The theory also describes the change process involved in developing new coping systems.
  • Stages of Ego Development (Loevinger's Stages of Ego Development)(Jane Loevinger, 1970s) – Framing ego as a process, rather than as an object or entity, this model draws on Interpersonal Theory as it posits a sequence of increasingly complex modes of perceiving of oneself and one’s relationship to the world. Nine stages are proposed, the last six of which unfold in adulthood: Symbiotic; Impulsive; Self-Protective; Conformist; Self-Aware (Conscientious-Conformist); Conscientious; Individualistic; Autonomous; Integrated.
  • Ego Development Theory (Susanne Cook-Greuter, 1980s) – The model builds on Stages of Ego Development (see above) as it traces development from nonconscious union with the mother to conscious union with everything. The ego’s task is framed in terms of three categories of meaning making: operative (purpose-oriented), affective (emotions and experience), and cognitive (thinking and reasoning). Four clusters of stages are posited:
    • Preconventional Stages (1. Symbiotic; 2. Impulsive; 2/3. Self-Protective; Δ3. Rule-Oriented)
    • Conventional Stages (3. Group-Centric/Conformist/Diplomat; 3/4. Skill-Centric/Self-Conscious/Expert; 4. Self-Determining/Conscientious/Achiever)
    • Postconventional Stages (4/5. Self-Questioning/Individualist/Pluralist; 5. Self-Actualizing/Autonomous/Strategist; 5/6. Construct-Aware/Ego-Aware/Magician/Alchemist)
    • Transcendent Stage (6. Unitive)
  • Stages of Faith (James William Fowler III, 1980s) – a developmental model of human faith, positing seven stages: Primal/Undifferentiated (0–2 years), Intuitive-Projective (2–7 years), Mythic-Literal (7–12 years) Synthetic-Conventional (12+ years), Individuative-Reflective (~25+ years), Conjunctive ~35+ years), and Universalizing (~45+ years)
  • Spiral Dynamics (Don Edward Beck, Christopher Cowan, 1990s) – Oriented by evolutionary theory and based on a blend of Emergent Cyclical Theory (see above) and Memetics, Spiral Dynamics is a stage-based model of the co-emergence of value systems and worldviews through the dynamic interplay of mind capacities and the conditions of existence. In order, the value systems are SurvivalSense (Instinctive), KinSpirits (Clannish), PowerGods (Egocentric), TruthForce (Purposeful), StriveDrive (Strategic), HumanBond (Relativistic), FlexFlow (Systemic), and GlobalView (Holistic).


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.


  • Ego Development Theory (Loevinger’s Stages of Ego Development)
  • Emergent Cyclical Theory
  • Five Structures of Consciousness
  • 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)
  • Spiral Dynamics
  • Stages of Ego Development
  • Stages of Faith
  • Subject-Object Interview

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Constructive-Developmental Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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