This week, I decided to write an educational column instead of my usual faith column. The main reason is that I am retiring at the end of this semester after 25 years of teaching at Boise State University, and I wanted my readers to know a little bit about my profession. All in all, I have been an engineering educator for close to 35 years and I have taught diverse undergraduate and graduate classes during my career. Like many other engineering educators in the United States, I did not need a teaching license or teaching certificate when I started teaching at my first institution. Other than being entrenched in the scientific method, I did not have formal training in educational psychology, which would have helped me understand how students learn, retain, and apply knowledge.
Knowing I was deficient in this area, I picked up some elements of educational psychology along the way, which have helped understand the intellectual development of college students. Many years ago, I was exposed to the research of Willian G. Perry, Jr. (1913–1998), who was a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a well-known educational psychologist. While at Harvard, he developed his classical theory of the intellectual and cognitive development of college-aged students through a 15-year study in the 1950s and 1960s.
Perry’s model of intellectual development is a nine-position progression model. At lower levels, students look at instructors as authority figures who know “everything” and can tell them what is right/wrong, good/bad, etc. At intermediate levels, students realize that everyone is entitled to their opinion and respect that all opinions are equally valid. That is, students realize that there is uncertainty in knowledge, and there is no right or wrong answer in certain matters, as in the tenets of different religions or political affiliations. At these levels, a student is comfortable in their belief system and willing to accept or tolerate a plethora of other equally valid opinions from other individuals. Finally, at higher levels, a person exercising critical judgment and thinking may discover that their original position may not be the best option, especially in the light of overwhelming facts and evidence supporting a different outcome. At one of these higher levels, a person will reconsider and even change their opinion to a more optimal one.
I remember an eye-opening study done at the Colorado School of Mines to determine what intellectual development actually takes place in the four years of undergraduate experience. Published in 1993 in the Frontiers in Education Conference, the study was co-authored by Pavelich and Moore and entitled “Measuring Maturing Rates of Engineering Students Using the Perry Model.” Three levels of Perry’s model, levels 2, 4 and 6, were discussed in this conference paper.
Position 2 is termed dualism. In this level, the world is seen as bifurcated, such as us versus them, right versus wrong, good versus bad. There is no need for evidence in an argument. One needs only quote the authority’s “right” answer. In Position 4, students accept a multiplicity of opinions as legitimate and widespread. They feel that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. Since all opinions are equal, there is no incentive in exploring alternatives once solid arguments have been developed for one solution. By Position 6, in Perry’s terminology, multiplicity has become contextual relativism. He uses this wording to mark a profound change in perception. Open-ended problem solving, making judgment, using evidence, and evaluating alternatives are no longer seen as “how they want us to think.” They have become natural and necessary approaches to our world.
The results of the study at Colorado School of Mines showed that no freshman is a true dualist (Positions 1 to 2) and that most of them were at Position 3 or above. After four years of undergraduate experience, no seniors remained at Position 3, and most were above 4. Many seniors had reached Position 5, but none was measured at Position 6. What was remarkable in this study is that a large fraction of seniors had not reached Position 5, and some were still below 4.
I use Perry’s model in design projects that I assign in my electrical engineering courses. First, I show them that there may be an infinite number of solutions that meet the specific requirements of a design. It may come as a surprise to a dualist student because they have been conditioned to find one and only one “true” answer to a problem. After showing them that there may be many equally valid alternative solutions, I will add a realistic constraint to the project involving economic, environmental, social, political, or ethical considerations, as well as health and safety, manufacturability, and/or sustainability. Students then exercise their judgment and critical thinking to come up with the best or optimal solution for their project. For example, in a project with an economic constraint, the problem may be formulated as the least-cost solution among all alternatives.
I have found Perry’s model of intellectual development very useful in teaching the design process at Boise State University. It is a fact that teaching critical thinking is difficult. In my experience, I was able to reinforce critical-thinking skills with engineering skills to help the students find and evaluate information that will help them solve open-ended or ambiguous problems, and make decisions in a relativistic world with uncertainty.
Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.