Tech Forward: The Self-Authoring Mind

Michigan Tech students in The Alley maker space
Michigan Tech students in The Alley maker space
Lorelle Meadows, dean of the Pavlis Honors College, explains the importance of helping students develop self-authorship and critical reflection skills.

Michigan Technological University’s thought leaders share their ideas to prepare students and the University for a rapidly changing future. Lorelle Meadows, dean of Pavlis Honors College, explains the importance of critical reflection and a self-authoring mind.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus recognized that change is the only constant, asserting that change is central to the universe. We now live in a time where change is not only constant, but rapid and often disruptive, bringing with it a high level of uncertainty for the future. Technologies continue to evolve and advance that are capable of handling our more mundane undertakings. Artificial intelligence and automation will continue to enter the mainstream and displace humans in fields for which students are currently preparing.

How might we prepare the student of today to address the needs of society at a level that machines cannot?

It’s an exciting time and a daunting time, as we as educators consider how best to prepare our students for the world they will enter after graduation. As we do so, I believe it’s imperative to consider the whole student—the development of our students as highly skillful and knowledgeable in their chosen field and as individuals with the competencies needed to manage uncertainty and change and to enter the post-graduate world as participants and contributors. This requires that our students build their own self-concept, learn to develop meaningful and rewarding relationships, and mature their capacity for deep learning.

As I’ve navigated higher education myself as a student, teacher, researcher and administrator, working in collaboration with people across numerous fields, my perspectives on higher education have evolved. I have come to value the development of students across many domains, including cognitive (or thinking), affective (feeling) and psychomotor (kinesthetic). I’ve grown to appreciate the value of an education that challenges students to struggle with the messy problems of engaging with the bridge between themselves and the real world, bringing in aspects of the humanities, arts and social sciences, in ways that develop not only competence in a given field, but autonomy and relatedness.

The socialized mind versus the self-authoring mind

As I explored educational theory, I found that psychologist Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development provides a framework around which higher education could coalesce to provide students with a foundation in the competencies needed to advance their ability to become flexible professionals, and also balance their knowledge across the technical and social worlds.

Kegan’s theory suggests that as we mature, we encounter disorienting dilemmas that cause us to question our worldviews. With sufficient support through these challenges, we develop our own sense of self rather than depending on external authorities to define who we are. We begin to shift our perspective from simply reacting to the world around us, to examining ourselves as objects operating within the world with autonomy. It is exactly this internal definition that provides individuals with the capacity to manage complexity, uncertainty and change—the world our students are entering.

Kegan categorizes developmental stages from adolescence to adult as a shift from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind. The individual with the socialized mind is a good team player and faithful follower who is reliant on others for direction. While these can be admirable traits, the prime motivating factor for behavior is the approval of others, not an internal sense of direction or value. When confronted with a rapidly changing and uncertain future, this lack of an internal voice can cause increased stress in identifying a path forward.

"If you exhibit self-authorship, you stop thinking just as society does—for example, I must be a 4.0 student to be successful—and you start shaping society by what you choose to do. Success for myself is being a knowledgeable, experienced, respectable and respectful human being."Pavlis Honors College Student

The self-authoring mind has a greater capacity for independence and leadership driven by an internal compass and worldview—a strong problem-solving and agenda-driving orientation, with the capacity for perspective taking and adaptation. Here, the motivating factor is an internal compass based on individualized values and principles. When confronted with change, this individual can rely on themselves to navigate an uncertain landscape and design a way forward.

In his research, Kegan finds that about 58 percent of adults primarily operate with a socialized mind, and only 35 percent of adults operate with a self-authored mind. The remainder operate primarily at lower levels, with 1 percent achieving even higher levels of development. Research exploring the development of college undergraduates shows that most undergraduates remain externally defined and driven at graduation.

To the degree that we can encourage our students to develop higher levels of self-authorship while in college, we can produce graduates who are better equipped to manage the unique challenges of continuous and potentially disruptive change and shape the future, rather than simply experiencing it. But how?

A platform for critical reflection

At its most basic level, development of self-authorship relies on exposure to an environment that balances challenge with support. As students are challenged, they require a system of support that assists them to confront the challenge, reflect on the experience and identify the learning that has occurred. The learning is then available to be put into action moving forward. This process requires the development of the student’s capacity for critical reflection—to examine themselves and their experiences from an external perspective.

As students build this capacity, they advance their ability to see themselves as objects in control of their environment—an important shift in their development toward the self-authoring mind. Thus, providing students with a platform in which critical reflection can occur instills a habit of thought that drives adult development.

With this in mind, the Pavlis Honors College has identified nine key abilities that every student in the College is encouraged to cultivate through a curriculum of critical reflection, design-thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration. These include merits like valuing diverse perspectives, embracing ambiguity, welcoming challenge and balancing confidence with humility.

"The Pavlis Honors College is helping me to achieve self-authorship by providing a community and situation in which I am fully free to express my ideas and learn from those around me. The discussions are thought provoking, with no simple solutions, if solutions at all. In this, I am fully engaged, by sharing my life experiences and drawing further conclusions."Pavlis Honors College Student

While most other honors colleges use GPAs and standardized tests to measure whether a student can enter and stay in their program, we’re unique in that we work with all students who want to work with us to define and achieve their own success.

Students in our program articulate what success looks and feels like for them, and we help them design their path forward. Our program pushes students outside their comfort zone and gives them the opportunity to test ideas, learn from failure and better understand who they are and where their passions lie. We know that if students are shaping their own goals and charting their own path to achieve them, they are developing a self-authoring mind.

"To me, self-authorship and the honors abilities are all about being intentional and being present: present with ourselves, with our interactions and with every situation or problem or experience we encounter. This presence allows us to integrate past experiences, and the insight we have gained from them, into intentional value-driven action. The experiences I have gained and reflected on during my time in the honors college, have given me many opportunities for personal growth and provided me with some of the skills and tools to be able to make those value-driven decisions and actions."Pavlis Honors College Student

Michigan Tech faculty do a great job of giving our students the knowledge they need in their majors. Pavlis helps students develop competencies that prepare them for the unique challenges they’ll face after graduation. This approach is critical because we educators are no longer training students for the jobs we know—we’re educating them for a rapidly changing future where they will need to rely on skills and competencies like comfort with uncertainty and a bias for action.

The nine abilities are a distillation of the forward-looking competencies that our external advisory board felt were critical to the future success of our graduates. They complement a STEM-focused education, providing a foundation for our students to lead themselves and others through the challenges they will encounter in our rapidly changing world, ensuring their place in the future.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.