Adult Development


The chart below maps the psychographics of my learners to support for these phenomena found in the literature of adult development.
[The fact that a box is empty does not mean that a theorist did not address the question or that an opinion might not be inferred from his writing; it only means this was not a major theme for this theorist.]

All of the theorists described the developmental stage my learners are in as a period of testing independence and adult behaviors (1 & 2). With the exception of Kohlberg (who is not really concerned about these things) there is also uniform agreement that learners are shedding their dependency on parents and old support networks (9 & 11). Relationships, and particularly boy/girl relationships, are of prime concern to these learners (4 & 5).

Most comprehensive of the theorists was Havighurst. This is perhaps understandable as he was one of the earliest writers about adult development and his goal was a broad description of the field.  Least descriptive of my learners was Kohlberg, but I think this is related to his focus on moral decision-making. Nonetheless, he extended Piaget’s ideas about cognitive development into the years of my learners, and as such, analysis of the types of moral decisions made by my learners gives insight to the maturity of their thinking.

Finally, theorists describe my learners’ stage of development as a volatile period – a crisis (Erickson) or transition (Gould, Levinson).  Further, all hold that success at this stage is critical to leading a full and satisfying adult life. Without a clear sense of identity and the ability to engage in meaningful relationships (the foundations of adult life), development will be arrested. Consequently, while the potential for personal growth is high, so are the consequences of failure.

Cultural considerations

I cannot leave this analysis without considering the implications of culture, particularly one so different from Western traditions, on the usability of the ideas of the developmentalists when applied to Chinese university students.

"Many of the dominant theories have been devised within particular value systems and in relation to a limited range of cultures. The problem has been that they are then hawked around as apparently universal theories. If our sense of selfhood varies from one culture to another, then this places a major question mark against universal theories of adult development" (Smith, 1999).  The response to this argument is that different cultures do teach different beliefs, but that stages/ages/tasks refer to underlying modes of reasoning not to specific beliefs (Kohlberg, 1971). While there is research to support this argument (Edwards, 1980), there is also research that contradicts it (Tennant, 1988). I will need to watch for cultural differences in the classroom.

For the time being I am inclined to accept the argument that the tasks are universally applicable, but I will need to make cultural adaptations. For example, developing satisfying adult relationships with members of the opposite sex is a critical developmental task at my learners' stage. While there is clear evidence that my learners are addressing this task, they do so at a less mature level than their  Western counterparts. That is, their relationships tend to be superficial based on a romanticism that fails in the face of reality. Western adolescents go through this stage at ages 12-15; my learners are just entering it at 18-20. Another difference is conformity to social norms. In this instance, my learners are demonstrating these behaviors well ahead of Western learners. Perhaps this is the result of Confucian tradition or Communist education, but in any case, it is an integral part of my learners’ thinking.


Given the observations I have made and the conclusions I have reached, I think the core elements of developmental theory apply to my learners. These core elements are: there are certain developmental tasks everyone must address; while these tasks may be revisited from time to time, they are more-or-less sequential; success at one level is contingent on previous successes; and, the developmental tasks of my learners are defining a self image and building adult relationships. I think culture creates timing differences and I may need to adjust the details of developmental theory to account for them.

Like action research, the reliability of my conclusions are dependent not on scientific evidence, but on triangulated results of research, tests, surveys and observations.  It is anecdotal and subject to continuous refinement, but it offers insight into the needs and propensities of my learners.   I can use this information to inform my teaching by delivering what learners need when they need it. The next section, Lessons Learned, describes techniques I might use to make such a delivery.