Personal Agency & Cognitive Stage Development

Twelve years ago, LAC Leadership Studies’ Leigh Mundhenk became interested in how students develop personal agency – the belief that they have the authority to manage their own lives. This interest emanated from observations that some students expect the teacher to be the classroom authority and simply lecture, while others enjoyed seeing themselves as constructors of knowledge, with classroom discussion and debate. While presenting this paradox with a colleague and editor of a major pedagogy journal, she made the decision to conduct a literature search on cognitive stage development theory. What she learned from this search, particularly the work of William Perry, was that people go through predictable stages of cognitive development. In the earliest stage, people see the world in black-and-white terms, believing that knowledge comes to them from external authorities. People develop into later stages, passing through stages of relativism and multiplicity, respecting different and contradicting views, to the stage where they construct their own knowledge and beliefs. Understanding cognitive stage development has been the focus of most of her scholarship, having written about its application in career counseling, leadership readiness, and student self-assessment. Her most recent publication was an article co-written with LAC Leadership Studies Professor and Research Council co-chair Liz Turesky in Academic Leadership: The Online Journal.