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Common Roots – Student Development and Identity Emergence

Engaging Minds JPGBrent Davis, David Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler (2008) utilize the term “recursive elaboration” (p. 52) to describe their articulation of rethinking the language of ‘development’ in education.  In their book Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times, Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler discuss the common roots of traditions in education, teaching, curriculum, and learning that often are pitted against one another. For example: theory versus practice; individualized versus normed; biology versus culture.

This particular book should be used as a corollary to Brent Davis’ (2004) excellent book Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy.  While I am still working my way through Engaging Minds, I find both of these books important for any college student educator, including my student affairs colleagues.  The premise of these books might be summarized as “rendering the familiar strange” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 28).  As educators, it is critical we think through assumptions guiding our work, and these books help us recognize how concepts and world views normally placed in opposition often work together in our pedagogical practices in education.

I started with “recursive elaboration” for a specific reason.  This semester, I am co-teaching our Student Development Theory course. Each week our students write a one-page reflection piece to critically engage the theories we study. Last week we discussed Erikson and Chickering.

As I listened to discussion in class last week, and spent the weekend reading student responses to these theories, one point stuck out to me.  Our students questioned whether students could not be in two stages/statuses at the same time.  They were challenging the linearity of Erikson’s theory, for example.  They were questioning whether ‘identity’ is not a lifelong process, rather than one simply ‘developed’ during college.  These are bright young scholars and professionals.

Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) utilize the concept of “recursive elaboration” to make a similar point: “development should not be thought of as a linear, predetermined progress through clearly defined stages” (p. 52).  Rather, ideas presented in developmental theory “should be regarded as rough sketches of emergent possibility” (p. 52).  For Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, emergence might be a better concept for thinking about ‘development’ in education. Rather than thinking linearly, “different images might be more appropriate to describe development, ones that involve recursive cycles and feedback loops” (p. 51).

These researchers are drawing on a concept from complexity theory known as simultaneity.  Complex systems are theorized to carry with them their entire history of responses, both patterned and novel (Capra, 1996).  Thus, while our students may grow or change, their ‘development’ is not linear, nor is it normalized.  Rather, students carry with them all possibilities for interpretation of experience.  In this regard, development is about “appropriate adaptation to the immediate situation” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 51).

I too draw on these theoretical concepts in my dissertation. One of the central philosophical questions I sought to address was whether student affairs educators should ‘discard’ the developmental language of the 20th century for the language of complexity theory: identity emergence and becoming.

Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) seem to suggest discarding developmental language altogether might be necessary: “The language of developmentalism is used to refer to any theory or model that presents a sequence of stages through which a person is expected to progress on the route from birth to death” (p. 48).  The authors discuss the rise of standardization in education. Historically, the use of empirically based measurements in education to measure intelligence, for example, paralleled the rise of linear developmental theories (this occurred in the early to mid-20th century).

Seeking legitimization, educators soon took up this discourse.  In my dissertation I call this education’s embrace of empirical, modernist, positivistic standardization – and I argue that student affairs continues, in some ways, to adhere to this philosophy in the present day.  This is why I question whether, in our quest to develop the “whole” student (Braxton, 2009) we might need new language.

While reading, it appeared Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) might agree with me: developmental language is problematic and should be discarded.  However, this is not the researchers conclusion.  Rather, they state “even if it were possible to leave such notions behind, it wouldn’t be a good thing” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 53).  Why?  The authors clearly articulate the problems with processes of normalization: discarding of diverse perspectives and experiences and the rise/ stranglehold of standardized testing and tracking in all sectors of education.

The reason for not discarding development appears to be the common roots of development and emergence in the eyes of the researchers.  Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) conclude that humans are naturally inclined to look for patterns. This is what theory is about – including developmental theory – and it constitutes “most of what we know.”

However, emergence, and the language of emergent phenomena, reminds us that “such knowledge should not be understood in terms of collections of facts that exist either out in the world or inside our heads” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 53), but rather as possibilities for action.  When we work with students, we may use ‘developmental theory’ to inform our practice, but we should hesitate in letting the “embodied prejudices” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 53) of such theories cut off perceptions of “emergent possibilities” (p. 52) of difference in student reaction, interpretation, or becoming.

There is a subtler, deeper message in my dissertation, and this chapter by Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008), involving a shift from epistemology toward ontology.  The researchers claim it is not our role as educators to tell students how to develop, but rather actively participate “with learners in the development of strategies” to respond to unique environmental situations.  In other words, our work is not about the past or the future, but “about the present” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 51). Or, as the researchers conclude “in more pithy terms, what we know is inseparable from what we do. Knowing acts” (Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 53).

I do not necessarily agree that we cannot and maybe should not envision an educational future without the language of development.  However, I believe that Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2008) are helping me think through whether ‘development’ and ’emergence’ have common roots that might not be pitted against one another, but rather discussed in tandem.


Braxton, J. M. (2009). Understanding the development of the whole person. Journal of College Student Development50(6), 573-575.

Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Davis, B. (2004). Inventions of teaching: A genealogy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging minds: Changing teaching in complex times. New York, NY: Routledge.

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