Can We Measure Our Growth by Stages?

Do you have kids or remember when you were one? Kids are obsessed with measuring their growth (maybe because parents are?).  They are eager to move up in the world, literally.  Does that end once physical growth stops?

Sadly, some people do stop thinking in terms of their growth except as it relates to occupational skills or promotions perhaps.  But I think most people are quite aware of their need for ongoing growth throughout life.  Are there, then, some meaningful markers to see how we are doing? Can such markers be used by scholars or “people helpers” who want to size up anyone from individuals to entire societies in terms of development? 

I’ll give a resounding “Yes” and “Yes”! There are some markers and these can be used by others to assess and guide us individually or communally.  Anyone who has studied child or adult development is aware of at least one or two of the “stage theories” which contain such markers and descriptions of what various stages are like.

This past Saturday I gave a seminar based on a few concepts from my book, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey” (available via the link above).  The focus was stages and issues in spiritual growth.  Besides comparing spirituality with religion, we mostly discussed how most of us have moved from one stage to another, from one place of affiliation to another, and sometimes “back” (but not in the same way of thinking and being).

I had created a relatively simple chart showing some stages of development in different but related lines of our individual and societal lives.   I hadn’t even thought about sharing it here but did after one participant suggested I put the flip-board chart onto “paper” (electronically).  I have found great interest in developmental stages from both a personal and academic point of view.  I realize not everyone values them similarly, but since I am on a mission of stimulating growth in others, for their betterment and society’s, I should indeed share my chart and some explanation of it.  

Before I do, I will note that the explanations I’ll include below the chart itself were written for the participants but mostly are not dependent on what we discussed there.  I do not give much explanation of the meanings of each stage individually.  For that, one can consult either a summary source such as an encyclopedia article, child/adolescent development book or works by the theorists themselves (some references are in my comments below).  My own book gives summaries of the spiritual (or faith) stages by James Fowler.

I will break those explanatory comments into two parts for posting here, to keep to reasonable length for each.  There is one further thing important to highlight: that stage “theories” are more than theory in certain senses.  The existence of certain neurological or learning “structures”, as they’ve been called, has been corroborated by the scholars cited and by many others, going back at least to the early days of psychology in the late 1800s.  That is, although exact descriptions and boundaries between stages seem fluid or escape the precision of a “hard” science, they are well enough established that it is beyond “theory” – there is something to them.  In some cases and to a fair degree  they are tied to brain maturation (especially up to adulthood), but I would suggest they also relate to “mind” or “spirit” maturation in ways that transcend the physical brain.

Not only is there something valid to stages, our familiarity with them is helpful in several ways.  They can be an encouragement and general “roadmap” for growth, an aid in making sense of our past (in which we may have done things we never would now, at a higher developmental level), etc.  For those in leadership positions I believe it is vital that we interact with some of the stage concepts and how to spot the issues they contain in people we serve.  If Ken Wilber is right, and I am convinced he is, then religious leaders have a special obligation and opportunity!

They can help raise their respective societies to  at least those levels which have outgrown the use of violence to try to preserve or enforce a particular view of God and moral life.  If you have a role in spiritual leadership, whether with family and friends or beyond, do you agree and have a sense that you make a difference in terms of this? 

Now, my chart with apologies to the original stage theorists for its partial nature and any inaccuracies in the approximate (only!) parallels it suggests:

Stages of Human Development

Societal / Personal          (Ken Wilber) Cognitive

(Jean Piaget)


 (Erik Erikson)


(James Fowler)

Integral (Reflection on Abstraction) 16+ Generativity vs. Stagnation  25-65 Universalizing       Mature years
Postmodern Formal/Abstract Thinking   11-15 Identity vs.Role Confusion   12-20 Individuative – Reflective
Modern Concrete Thinking               7-11 Industry vs. Inferiority   6-11 Synthetic – Conventional
Pre-modern Pre/Early Concrete Thinking    Birth – 7 Initiative vs. Guilt                 3-6 Mythic – LiteralGenerally childhood

Special Notes and References:

The chart is merely a general comparison of some key stage descriptions of inter-related lines of our development, including the idea of societal or cultural development in the far-left column.  Each of the stage theories here has additional levels below, above or between ones listed.  Childhood is included mainly because its general parallels in psycho-social and spiritual areas are often where young or even older adults get and sometimes remain stuck.  (E.g., many religious believers stay in the lower two levels on the right, which involve limited abstract thinking, at least in consistent ways.)

Societal / Personal

 The name Ken Wilber is above the column mainly for his use of the term “Integral” for the higher stages above “postmodern”, both for societies and individuals.  The other “modern-oriented” terms are widely used.  “Modern” corresponds perhaps most closely with the rational-thinking focus of the Enlightenment and after, from about mid-1700s to mid 1900s.  Around the 1960s, “postmodern” became a label for the style of most academic and popular thinking which is even more critical of authority (of all types), suspicious of truth claims (especially “absolutes”).  It is at least theoretically “tolerant” or respecting of differing views.  Related to spirituality and developmental stages focused on our spiritual natures (but not from any particular religion’s viewpoint), Wilber’s key work is Integral Spirituality (2007).  Wilber is also the main current thinker who has analyzed and shown the correspondences and inter-relationships of the above stage theories and several more (he gives more categories both horizontally and vertically).  I consider this particularly helpful for both personal use and in understanding/helping others.  “Pre-modern” includes tribalism, magic, etc. but the shamanism of most indigenous cultures which were or are basically at this level also contains highly developed knowledge and skills often very effective and sometimes genuinely in touch with “high” spirituality, if not as widely “integral” as we now can be.


 Swiss psychiatrist, Jean Piaget, is the “grandfather” of cognitive stage theory work.  My top category here is in ( ) because his highest named category is Formal (or abstract) Operations.  Here, as throughout the chart, ages are only approximations and vary individually.  Basically, abstract thinking ability emerges with brain maturation in early to mid teen years, and hopefully improves thereafter, by “exercise” and challenge, much like physical skills.  Wilber makes repeated emphasis that while cognitive advancement — more knowledge and analytic ability, etc., does not guarantee spiritual or other growth, it is generally necessary for reaching higher levels of moral reasoning, spirituality, etc.  If we cannot meaningfully interpret and put our experiences into some mental framework, they are likely to remain isolated and not integrated into our whole being, thus limiting us. (This doesn’t mean everyone must be a bookworm, but purposeful, either self-directed or mentored learning is important).  “Cognitive psychology” is broad, analyzes and emphasizes use of rational thinking in various ways, well beyond Piaget’s stage theory.

Psycho-social and Spiritual category comments and concluding comments to come tomorrow.  

But please comment now with any thoughts or questions that come to mind, or in reply to my question for spiritual leaders (of all levels) above.  Love to have your thoughts!   

Review & Commentary

  • Nathan

    I found this article via Robert Kegan’s Minds at Work web site, which had a link to Tom Thresher’s Reverent Irreverence web site, which had a link to the web site of Tom’s church Suquamish UCC, which had a link to the Progressive Christianity web site, where I saw this article. I am probably not the intended audience for this article, so I apologize if I am writing in a forum where I am not welcome. I want to criticize a paragraph of this article that I find to be highly misleading. I am referring to the following paragraph:

    “There is one further thing important to highlight: that stage ‘theories’ are more than theory in certain senses. The existence of certain neurological or learning ‘structures’, as they’ve been called, has been corroborated by the scholars cited and by many others, going back at least to the early days of psychology in the late 1800s. That is, although exact descriptions and boundaries between stages seem fluid or escape the precision of a ‘hard’ science, they are well enough established that it is beyond ‘theory’ – there is something to them. In some cases and to a fair degree they are tied to brain maturation (especially up to adulthood), but I would suggest they also relate to ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ maturation in ways that transcend the physical brain.”

    It is not true that these stages are “beyond theory”; they are entirely theoretical hypothetical constructs and furthermore they are constructs that are highly contentious, if not superseded, in psychological research. Psychologist Kelly G. Wilson has divided hypothetical constructs into three classes: “(1) in-principle observable, but at some other level of analysis, (2) in-principle unobservable, and (3) in-principle observable, but unobservable for some technical or practical reason” [Kelly G. Wilson (2001), Some notes on theoretical constructs: types and validation from a contextual behavioral perspective, International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy 1:2, p. 205]. Wilson classified Piaget’s theory in the second class (and all other stage theories would have the same status); he wrote [ibid., p. 208]:

    “Memory traces in contemporary cognitive psychology (see Watkins, 1990) provide an example of a Type I hypothetical construct, where the memory trace is presumed to be a neural trace. Freud’s id or Piaget’s schema are examples of Type II hypothetical explanatory variables which are of the in-principle unobservable variety. In the case of Type III hypothetical constructs, consider the example of the astronomer who, noting the deviation in a planet’s orbit, postulates the existence of another as yet unobserved planet as causing that deviation. What is occurring in this example is that, given what is known about orbital patterns and the influence of massive objects one upon the other, and given the observed deviation in the planet’s path from what would be expected given known planets, another planet is postulated.”

    Wilson’s account of hypothetical constructs shows that in this article Howard Pepper makes a fundamental confusion when he claims that the “existence of certain neurological or learning ‘structures’, as they’ve been called, has been corroborated by the scholars cited and by many others…”; Piaget’s stages (and the stages of neo-Piagetians like Robert Kegan) are not neurological structures. To claim that Piaget’s stages are neurological structures is (using Wilson’s terms) to confuse a Type II hypothetical construct (developmental stages) with a Type I hypothetical construct (neural structures). Piaget’s developmental stages are measures of demonstrated abilities; they do not refer to neural structures.

    Likewise, to claim that Piaget’s theory and similar stage theories of psychological development have been scientifically established in a way that puts them in a category of knowledge “beyond theory” is baseless. Psychologist Daniel Roth and his colleagues noted that “while it has certainly been among the most dominant theories in the area of cognitive development, most psychologists would agree that Piaget’s program has been rigorously criticized. His central theoretical accounts and his methodology have been subjected to severe scrutiny, and many counterexamples have emerged to his empirical findings” [Daniel Roth, Michelle Slone, and Reuven Dar (June 2000), Which way cognitive development?: an evaluation of the Piagetian and the domain-specific research programs, Theory & Psychology 10:3, p. 353].

    In conclusion, I say to the readers of the article: Read recent literature on psychological development if you want, but be skeptical of people who claim that their “stages of growth” are “beyond theory” and please create your own evolving theory of growth that is relevant to your own unique life.

    There are many places to look for a more up-to-date account of the state of the art of theory in developmental psychology. The following books are not bad places to start:

    Richard M. Lerner, ed. (2010). The handbook of life-span development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    Jaan Valsiner, Peter C. M. Molenaar, Maria C. D. P. Lyra, & Nandita Chaudhary, eds. (2009). Dynamic process methodology in the social and developmental sciences. Dordrecht; New York: Springer.

    Ellen Bialystok & Fergus I. M. Craik, eds. (2006). Lifespan cognition: mechanisms of change. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

    William Damon & Richard M. Lerner, eds. (2006). Handbook of child psychology (6th edition). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    Carol Hren Hoare, ed. (2006). Handbook of adult development and learning. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

    Kathleen McCartney & Deborah Phillips, eds. (2006). Blackwell handbook of early childhood development. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell.

    Andreas Demetriou & Athanassios Raftopoulos, eds. (2004). Cognitive developmental change: theories, models, and measurement. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Jack Demick & Carrie Andreoletti, eds. (2003). Handbook of adult development. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    Robert J. Sternberg & Elena L. Grigorenko, eds. (2003). The psychology of abilities, competencies, and expertise. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Jochen Brandtstädter & Richard M. Lerner, eds. (1999). Action & self-development: theory and research through the life span. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    • Howard Pepper


      I want to thank you for the detailed comment on my article. First, you are not at all out of place to comment here, as far as I’m concerned, whatever perspective or point of interest you are coming from. Second, I actually welcome being thoughtfully and respectfully “called” on anything that may be misleading, in error or even just unclear. I will, in fact, admit to not keeping up with much reading on developmental research in the last number of years, and it was never a deep specialization although I have been more exposed to it than the majority of religious writers and leaders and I do follow some aspects of ongoing neurological research, memory theory, etc. I DO appreciate the detailed reference list of resources you recommend on recent work in this area.

      I also will consider your critique regarding wording to use in the future in speaking about “structuralism” or the nature of cognitive or other stage theories. I do agree that my wording might be misleading as to what may be happening in the brain as it both matures physically in the child and young “adult” and as it learns or is particularly “exercised” at any age. The term “structuralism” or “structures” of the brain are probably unfortunate terms which themselves are misleading, and we who do find value and usefulness in that conceptualization (and lineage of research) should perhaps update or revise that kind of language… I’ll know more after pursuing some of the resources you mentioned.

      I will also add, however, that I think my wording about “theory” and the implication of that term to most people can and should stand. While the cited developmental “theories” certainly have limitations and may be themselves misleading at points, I believe they also do have explanatory power and do account for certain observations made and corroborated in detail over lengthy periods. Thus they are somewhat akin to a “theory” like evolution — far from airtight or perfect, but strong and validated enough that it (or they) can be considered confirmed in at least a limited sense. That as opposed to how lay people with minimal education in science tend to think of theory — more as somebody’s guess that has NOT been validated with lots of data, cross-checking, critiques, etc.

      I also think these developmental theories are useful educationally in various ways, including providing a structure and relatively workable shared language for discussion — sharing person-to-person and in groups. Of course, they should also be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. So thank you again for your comments!

      Howard Pepper