Are we developmentally abusing our young adults?

"I am afraid that we have been asking way too much of our students the last ten years! At the university where I work we use the writing of self-reflection papers a lot as a method for teaching students professional skills and an academic attitude.

We want them to reflect on their own behavior and be able to perform single, double and triple loop learning and to go from mono-disciplinary thinking to interdisciplinary or even trans-disciplinary thinking in one step. Not possible, probably... ouch!

Now I am looking for scientific research on the development of the brain that supposedly keeps maturing until 23 or 27 yrs old and I want to find out how this influences the cognitive and psychological development and the ability for self-reflection.

We as teachers would like to facilitate students' transition from mono-, to multi-, inter-disciplinarity, to trans-disciplinarity in a more conscious way...

Still with me? :-) Your tips are highly appreciated! I will post all relevant tips and articles on this website for all to benefit from. Opens internal link in current windowWrite us a contact form if you'd like to contribute.

Warm regards, Anouk Brack
- Director Experience Integral and owner of AnoukA Training at Opens external link in new
- Professional Skills trainer at Wageningen University at the Opens external link in new windowChair group of Education and Competence Studies."

What do we know about cognitive development?

Research on cognitive development shows we go through different stages of cognitive development in our life. One stage comes after the next and no stage can be skipped. The next stage typically transcends and includes the previous stage in for instance ability to deal with complexity. Sometimes we (temporarily) reject and look down on the previous stage that we have just outgrown. This development does not stop at 12 years old, or 18 or 21. It might even be possible to keep going. It takes a few years in one stage to be ready to transform into the next.

So what is the problem?

Well, recent neuro-science research indicates that the brain keeps on developing until about 23 that is not ready to contain certain stages of development of the mind. I am currently on a search for the research that confirms an average age for the brain to be completely developed and a search on how this possibly correlates to the occurrence of cognitive developmental stages.

Why should you care?

This is highly relevant for high school and higher education because we might have been asking and expecting certain capacities from students that most of them are biologically and psychologically not yet capable of. We might have even been making it worse with our very well intended pedagogy of valuing and promoting self-management, group-work and self-reflection. These are values coming from a pluralistic developmental level. Most students come into university two levels before that. It is not possible for them to bridge that gap.

Why didn't we notice this before?

Students who couldn't do it were seen as not motivated and shallow. I am ashamed to admit this. Now we are starting to see this was like expecting a baby to get up and get on a bike and drive off just by reading the manual. :-)

What students did learn, by trial and error, is to write in their reflection papers what the teacher wants to hear. They learn how to fake self-reflection. They fake it 'till they make it. A lot of students survived this and started to see the use of reflection, but we have lost a bunch along the way. We might have even turned them against it and corrupted their future development!

How DO we facilitate this cognitive development?

By at least taking the biological barriers into account. When we know what the average brain is capable of at certain ages we can foster our education to facilitate the development of the mind (cognitive) within this brain (biological) that is ready for the next step. 

On this page we will provide an overview of relevant resources on this subject.


Resources and Links

William G. Perry

  • William G. Perry was an educational researcher at Harvard University. He developed an account of the cognitive and intellectual development of college-age students through a fifteen-year study of students at Harvard and Radcliffe in the 1950s and 1960s. Perry generalizes that study to give a more detailed account of post-adolescent development than did Piaget. He also introduces the concept of positionality, and develops a less static view of developmental transitions.

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