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University of Wyoming

William G. Perry Jr.

A Model of Cognitive Development


William Perry's research on the stages of intellectual and ethical development evolved into a model of cognitive development (Merriam and Brockett, 1997). William G. Perry, Jr., has chronicled the evolution of beliefs about what constitutes knowledge, truth, and fact, and the role of authorities in defining and conveying knowledge. The later positions shift to issues arising from the problems of making commitments in a relativistic context as epistemological reflection generalizes to personal choice and action. (Kurfiss, 1983). The more advanced the position, the more likely it is to require formal reasoning.

Assumptions about learning:

Perry's (1970) theory assumes that development occurs through interaction with others and is sequential, hierarchical, and irreversible.

Brief History:

William G. Perry Jr. of Watertown, former professor of educational at the Graduate School of Education and founder and longtime director of the bureau of Study Counsel, died Jan. 12 at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He was 84.

Perry was born in Paris and received the A.B. degree in 1935 and the A.M. degree in 1940 from Harvard. After teaching elsewhere for several years, he returned to Harvard in 1946 as lecturer on educational psychology at the graduate School of Education, and he was appointed a "clinical" professor of education in 1965.

In 1946, Perry also became director of the Bureau of Supervisors, which he soon transformed into the Bureau of Study Counsel and led for 33 years. He also coauthored a translation of Homer's Ilaid with Alston H. Chase in 1950.

Perry's book, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years (1970), which was based on a decade-long study that Perry and his staff conducted on undergraduates (William Perry).

Major Proponents and Their Work:

  • Steven Toulmin, An Introduction to Reasoning, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  • Joanne Kurfiss, (See reference section)
  • David Alan Kolb. Experiential Learning : Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984
  • Also see other references

Major Tenants:

William Perry (1970) proposed a nine-stage theory of cognitive development which is widely accepted in the fields of education and psychology.


  • knowledge is absolute
  • authority (the professor) is the source of knowledge
  • it is authority's responsibility to provide true knowledge
  • facts and right answers are desired


multiple perspectives on both true knowledge and morality exist