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 May 2005

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Gaining Intellectual Maturity: Becoming an Independent Learning Professional

by Vern R. Johnson

A normal part of the maturing process is for a person to move from dependency toward increasing self-directedness. In fact, people become adults psychologically when they see themselves as responsible for their own lives. Adults of every age are self-directed as workers, parents and more, but when they need to learn something new they put on their dunce caps of educational dependency and say, “teach me.”

Maturity as a learner

During the 1950s, William Perry led a study of the intellectual developmental process experienced by students at Harvard University. This study focused on students’ responses to challenges of their assumptions about ethical and intellectual issues. Perry's work yielded an educational philosophy1 that defines intellectual maturation as a process with four levels of development2. Perry also found that individuals mature intellectually at different rates in different areas of their lives. So, it is quite possible for a person to be intellectually mature in scientific areas, but immature in the social sciences, or visa versa.

The following table illustrates how, as individuals mature intellectually, significant changes occur in perceptions of knowledge and commitment, their application to problem solving, and the roles of learners and experts in the learning process2.

Click on image to enlarge table [html | pdf]

These levels of development represent plateaus that learners must attain, not phases they go through. Thus, learners will profit from knowing their current positions in the process and how to proceed. It is also important for them to continuously reflect on how the journey is progressing.

Assessing your current level of intellectual development

As presented in an earlier Today’s Engineer article, self-assessment is a required skill for all life-long learners (November 2004).

The first step in taking charge of your intellectual maturation is to determine the approximate level that you have achieved. Assessing your own intellectual maturity is a very difficult task, and the techniques normally used focus on an analysis of interviews and written materials. Since you may not have access to such expert support, an exercise has been developed as an assessment tool to help you identify your intellectual maturity level. This exercise will not provide a definition of your maturity, only a means of helping you approximate your maturity level based on the Perry levels.

Before proceeding further in this article, stop now and take a few minutes to assess your personal intellectual maturity. Do this by “clicking” on the ASSESS button below and then responding to the questionnaire.

>> ASSESS <<

Welcome back! To assist you in your understanding of intellectual development, following are three general recommendations3 that encourage intellectual development to the higher levels of Perry’s model:

  1. Establish an open, inquiring approach to learning new ideas, rather than merely collecting facts.
  2. Take risks, stake a claim and defend it, learn to initiate a solution and complete it.
  3. Follow through the steps of complex problems for which there are multiple answers, analyzing each possible solution.

The learning environment needed to implement these three recommendations is a natural consequence of participating in learning activities with colleagues and working on teams to solve complex problem situations. Teams face both ‘task’ and ‘relationship’ requirements. Team assignments provide the challenging tasks that will guide the intellectual development of its members. And teammates will provide the challenging relationships that must accompany the task. Teammates will also provide the needed support to help one another cope with the stress that is experienced during the process.

Learning is a professional — and personal — process

All professions merge work and learning. Professionals cannot be secure in what they know, they must also know what they don’t know, and respect it. They need to plan for meaningful, career-long learning rather than disconnected educational experiences. Such educational experiences can culminate in advanced degrees or not, depending on the need, but a piecemeal and unplanned approach to improving career productivity is the root of disappointment for many professionals. A career plan should be a combination of:

  • strategic plans outlining personal and professional values and offering long-term perspectives
  • tactical plans listing and scheduling the necessary actions
  • operational plans detailing how financial and other resources will be identified and committed

Self-directed learning

Even though professionals can’t count on others to provide career-long educations for them, there are learning resources available to them if they will just go out and find them. Joseph Bordogna, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and past president of the IEEE, noted that:

“We are entering an age of ‘distributed intelligence’ — an era in which knowledge is available to anyone, anywhere, at anytime; in which power, information, and responsibility are moving away from centralized control to the individual.”

The percentage of working professionals who participate in continuing education programs is relatively low. According to NSF data, only about one out of three engineers with B.S. or M.S. degrees actually participate in such educational activities. And, relatively few Ph.D. engineers pursued any specific kind of continuing education. If this data represents the total learning of the engineers involved, there is reason for great concern. If, however, it merely represents the organized education they use to augment their personal learning activities, then there is reason for relief. Which of these descriptions applies to you is quite an individual matter and you will need to determine that for yourself.

What does the self-directed learning process look like? It is a process in which “individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

— Malcolm Knowles, 1975

It is interesting to note that the requirements for Ph.D. degrees are such that those who earn them must become independent learners. But, that same level of independence is available to all professionals regardless of their formal education. It takes time and effort to learn how to learn, but those who become independent learners are able to use many available facilities and programs to their own advantage. Independent learners can manage and prioritize these resources along with the other activities and demands that compete for their personal time. To independent learners, company libraries, professional journals and technical meetings are occasions for adventure and excitement — they are tickets to a career of learning.

Since each professional is responsible for the continuous learning necessary for success, and since it is available on an "any time, any where" basis, it is incumbent upon all technical professionals to learn how to become independent learners. Of independent learning, William Perry said: “This is how life will be. I must be wholehearted while tentative, fight for my values yet respect others, believe my deepest values right yet be ready to learn. I see that I shall be retracing this whole journey over and over — but, I hope, more wisely.”


  1. Perry, W.P., Jr., “Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning,” pp. 76-116, The Modern American College, A.W. Chickering and Associates editors, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1981
  2. Davis, B.G., Tools for Teaching, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993
  3. Culver R.S. and J.T. Hackos, “Perry’s Model of Intellectual Development, Engineering Education, Vol. 72, pp. 221-226, 1982





Vern R. Johnson is associate dean of engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson and is IEEE-USA's Career Activities Editor. This article is adapted from materials in his book, Becoming a Technical Professional (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa, 2003). Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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