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I’m proud to have been given the opportunity to co-author a report with my colleagues in RSA Projects, the think-and-do arm of the RSA.

Beyond the Big Society - Psychological Foundations of Active Citzenship has just been published, and you can download the report here.

One key conclusion in our report is that enduring ‘active citizenship’ requires individuals who are guided by their own internal compass, who have what we call a ‘self-authoring’ mind.

The Conservative-LibDem Coalition agreement stated “you create a Big Society matched by big citizens” - we argue that a 'self-authoring' mind is the prerequisite for these ‘big citizens’.

The model of adult psychological growth we draw on in the report was developed by Harvard’s Prof Robert Kegan. I will dive into his analysis as briefly as I can.

Prof. Kegan found that four qualitatively different ‘ways of knowing’ are most common in adulthood - ways in which we as adults actively interpret, organise, understand and make sense of our life experiences. These ‘ways of knowing’ represent a centre of gravity for the development of our cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities. As someone grows towards the next way of knowing, the former one becomes secondary, similar to the layering of an onion.

Self-authorship means a person has internally chosen beliefs and a view of social relations that would support authentic engagement with others for the common good

Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda

Robert Kegan’s 4 ‘ways of knowing’ - their characteristics

 

 

  • The Instrumental way of knowing

 

Has a "what do you have that can help me/what do I have that can help you" orientation; tends to follow rules and feel supported when others provide specific advice and explicit procedures to accomplish their work; struggles to take another's perspective fully/consider multiple perspectives

 

  • The Socialising way of knowing

 

Capacity to think abstractly and reflect on people's actions; subordinates his or her needs to the needs of others; interpersonal conflict is almost always experienced as a threat to the self; acceptance by authorities is of the highest importance

 

  • The Self-authoring way of knowing

 

Identifies abstract values, principles and longer-term purposes; able to prioritise and integrate competing values; competence, achievement and responsibility are uppermost concerns)

 

  • The Self-transforming way of knowing

 

Less invested in own point of view; examines issues from multiple points of view and sees where seemingly opposite perspectives overlap; strategic - can understand and manage tremendous amounts of complexity; decisions based on the common good for organisations and society

The overarching shift seen in the progression through these four ways of knowing is from dependence to independence to interdependence.

(Interestingly, the latter three stages correlate with the Traditional, Modern and Postmodern mindsets).

A leading expert on education and adult development - Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda - shared with me her view on the importance to ‘active citizenship’ of enabling the shift from the socialised/Traditional way of knowing to the ‘self-authoring’ way of knowing.

Civic engagement courses that do not attempt to develop self-authoring capacities do not offer transformational learning

Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda

“A foundation of self-authorship is necessary for authentic responsible/active citizenship,” said Marcia.

“I say authentic, because self-authorship means a person has internally chosen beliefs and a view of social relations that would support authentic engagement with others for the common good. [People with the Socialised/Traditional ‘way of knowing’] could very well be responsible citizens if the external environment supported and affirmed them for doing so. However, if the external environment did not provide affirmation, they would not be able to sustain their citizenship role because they would not have an internal compass guiding them to do so.”

In one other way of thinking about this, Charles Leadbeater – often dubbed Tony Blair’s favourite guru – has described how such changes play out in the British public’s expectations of public services, as a shift in orientation from ‘I need’ to ‘I want’ to ‘I can’.

As we highlight in the report – and Matthew Taylor highlighted in his Twenty-first Century Enlightenment pamphlet – the OECD’s 5-year study into the key competencies needed in the 21st century found that this self-authoring capacity is crucial to the success of modern economies in the 21st century.

And yet amongst Prof Kegan's most representative sample, 79 per cent of people do not yet reach this 'self-authoring' capacity.

So what?

From these insights we learn that active citizenship training will be very ‘brittle’ unless it also deliberately enables adult growth towards a more self-authoring way of knowing.

This finding is particularly relevant to the Big Society because those students who progressed developmentally were twice as likely to take on extracurricular ‘service’ projects, and three times as likely to take on leadership positions in community service organisations - as a control group.

A shift to a new way of knowing will require far more than the usual skills-based or informational learning, it will require transformational learning – that is, learning that aims to enable growth to more complex ‘ways of knowing’. So, not just changes in what we know but in how we know.

As Prof Baxter Magolda explains: “Civic engagement courses (or service learning or other learning experiences) that do not attempt to develop self-authoring capacities do not offer transformational learning” and the active citizenship training envisaged here “requires transformational learning (á la Jack Mezirow*, and thus requires "growth of the mind" (á la Kegan)”.

[*Jack Mezirow is the initiator of the transformative learning movement in adult education].

To be truly effective, citizenship trainings (such as the Saul Alinsky approach to community organising that would inspire Barack Obama and Maurice Glasman/Citizens UK) will need to fully understand the psychological changes that they are seeking to make.

Transformational learning: evidence of its success

Successful examples of this shift to self-authoring through the use of a transformational approach to education are available.

For instance, we highlight a transformational interdisciplinary curriculum (on earth sustainability) at a US college that successfully fostered psychological growth in students - compared to a control group on a traditional curriculum. Only those students on the transformational curriculum reached the stage of ‘independent knowing’, with other students remaining at developmentally prior levels as ‘absolutist’ or ‘relativist’ knowers (to use the terms developed by William Perry, a pioneer in student development research).

This finding is particularly relevant to the Big Society because those students who progressed developmentally were twice as likely to take on extracurricular ‘service’ projects, and three times as likely to take on leadership positions in community service organisations - as a control group.

The overarching shift seen in the progression through these four ways of knowing is from dependence to independence to interdependence

Prof Jake Chapman FRSA, author of Systems Failure – why governments must learn to think differently (download the pdf from Demos), has found similarly positive empirical outcomes emerging in his work training public sector leaders at the National School of Government. And a recent Australian study found significant change in participants' developmental stages after a 10-week transformational course, compared to a control group.

It’s not only a training course that may enable these transformations, an institution – e.g. a school – can seek to do the same. Eleanor Drago-Severson’s pioneering 2009 book Leading Adult Learning – Supporting Adult Development in Schools looked at how school leaders can foster the adult development of their staff by understanding developmental diversity, in order that their schools be the most effective for their students.

Each of the 4 ‘ways of knowing’ will need a balance of challenge and support, if it is to grow. (Unfortunately developmental diversity is a form of diversity that is usually overlooked, despite its key role in our behaviour).

Can we create a UK map of active citizenship/self-authoring capacity?

As mentioned in the ‘Principles for Policymakers’ section that concludes the report, wouldn’t it be helpful to actually know the spread of self-authoring capacity across the UK? (And this capacity may well also underly good parenting, and much else besides).

The RSA’s report Changing The Subject: How New Ways of Thinking About Human Behaviour Might Change Politics, Policy and Practice reminds us about Anthony Giddens’ ‘Third Way’ call for autonomous ‘reflexive citizens’, who ‘self-author’ their life-stories.

Yet - in reality - how widespread are such 'reflexive citizens'?

A first-ever UK survey of the extent of ‘self-authoring’ could reveal the true picture to us.

(Prof Kegan has a labour-intensive 'Subject-Object Interview' process for assessing a person's 'way of knowing', but a quick online assessment looks potentially feasible - and would enable such a nationally representative survey to be undertaken for the first time).

And once we know the lay of the psychological land, what next?

From Alpha Course... to Genesis Course?

The Alpha Course’s “opportunity to explore the meaning of life” has attracted 3 million participants in the UK, and 15 million worldwide - and runs in churches, homes, workplaces, prisons, universities and elsewhere.

Could there be a way fuse citizens' skills, self-development, effectiveness and community engagement (and ‘Social Brain’ reflexivity) into a deliberately transformational 10-week course, that could spread across the 80 countries that have RSA Fellows? Think of it as a sort of secularised equivalent of the Alpha Course, complete with shared meals. We could call it... the 'Genesis Course'!

This is my own personal twist on the call for “transformational learning hubs which run training exercises for community leaders”, which Jonathan, Ben and I include at the end of the report.

Do read the report - we’d love to hear your feedback. What would you have said?

(And do share this thoughtful report with your contacts, you can: tweet about this blog post by clicking the button on the top right of this post; or share it with your favourite social media spaces using the 'share/save' button at the bottom of this e-mail).

Further reading:

Blog posts/radio discussion about the report

 

– 'Before we build Cameron's big society, we'll need to know what it is - Royal Society of Arts offers its advice as the prime minister's team tries to bring his elusive concept into focus and into action', The Guardian, 31st Dec 2011

'A big society needs big citizens' (Radio 4 'Today' programme audio, 2 Jan; Matthew Taylor and Prof Anthony Seldon)

'The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society' (Jonathan Rowson)

– 'Mental Complexity and ‘The Astonishing Naivety of Policymakers’ (Jonathan Rowson)

– 'The Silver Foundations of the Big Society' (Benedict Dellot)

– 'Beyond Big Society towards Big Competent Citizens' (David Wilcox)

– 'Another comeback for the big society: a case study in optimism?' (Julian Dobson)

 

Books/reports

– Transforming Behaviour Change - Beyond Nudge and Neuromania, by Jonathan Rowson (free RSA report).

– Leading Adult Learning: Supporting Adult Development in Our Schools, by Eleanor Drago-Severson.

Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

(Contains a great chapter at the beginning which describes the importance of the adult development dimension to organsational change; the rest is about their easy-to-use, yet revealing, ‘Immunity to Change’ tool. Have you used it?).

Development and Assessment of Self-authorship: Exploring the Concept Across Cultures, by Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, Elizabeth Creamer and Peggy Meszaros (Eds.).

Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-authorship, by Marcia Baxter Magolda and Patricia King.

Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers, by  Kathleen Taylor, Catherine Marienau and Morris Fiddler.

Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice, by Nancy Evans, Deanna Forney, Florence Guido, Lori Patton and Kristen Renn.

Transforming Your Leadership Culture, by John McGuire and Gary Rhodes  (Center for Creative Leadership)

– Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress, by Jack Mezirow and Associates (including Robert Kegan)

Matthew Mezey is RSA Senior Networks Manager – Online & International. Twitter: @MatthewMezey. A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here.

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