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Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship

Edited by Marcia Baxter Magolda and Patricia M. King,  Stylus Publishing, 2004. 342 pp.

Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004) is the first of three selected books in the field of self-authorship that I will review in this ongoing series.  This book, as well as a second one, Assessment of Self-Authorship: Exploring the Concept across Cultures (Baxter Magolda, Creamer & Meszarosare, 2010), is  directed to educators, while Authoring Your Life: Developing an Internal Voice to Navigate Life’s Challenges (Baxter Magolda, 2009) is written for a general readership.

All three books are linked in various ways. First, they provide a knowledge base for those who want to explore the theoretical and pragmatic implications of the theory of self-authorship. Second, they are authored, co-authored, and/or co-edited by Marcia Baxter Magolda, Distinguished Professor of Educational leadership at the Miami University of Ohio, who will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming 2011 Dalton Institute on College Students Values (which we are highlighting in this issue). Third, all  of these books offer insights (either as a main focus of the book or one of the foci of the book) into the various stages of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development of a cohort of adults who attended Miami University.   Reviews of Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship and Authoring Your Life will be in future issues of Clearinghouse.

Organization and Audience

Learning Partnerships is divided into four main parts. In Part I, “A Theoretical Framework to Educate for Self Authorship,” Baxter Magolda, presents excerpts from interviews with individuals in her longitudinal study. This section focuses on the importance of providing educational contexts for students to develop self-authorship, which the author argues should be a primary goal of higher education.

Various authors of the six chapters in Part II, “Models of Educational Practice to promote Self-Authorship” show how the Learning Partnership Model (LPM) can be implemented in multiple ways, such as in a writing curriculum or internship program.

Part III, “Implications of Implementing the Learning Partnerships Model” presents two examples of how faculty and student affairs educators work to promote student learning by employing the LP Model.

Part IV “Designing Learning Partnerships” by coeditors Patricia King and Baxter Magolda, presents a framework for applying LPM to one’s own work context. In this section, authors of the preceding chapters offer their reflections on some points of which  educators would likely need to be aware when applying the framework (p. 306). A working structure (in the form of an illustrated notepad) follows, which guides readers to design their own program, course, or initiative. The framework incorporates a detailed example of how LPM was used in developing a writing curriculum for college students. Thus the book opens with a theoretical basis, shows concrete examples in the intermediate chapters, and then concludes with a synthesis of theory and examples in the form of an interactive guide to applying the LPM.

Although the intended audience of Learning Partnerships is educators, student affairs administrators, and others interested in the field of college student development and learning, it offers a rich background for those, like me, who want to explore the theoretical basis of self-authorship and its ethical implications. If readers are looking for a work that is not technical or academic and is directed to a broader audience, Baxter Magolda’s Authoring Your Life (2009) might be a better first book on the topic.

Introduction to Self-Authorship

Self-authorship theory was first developed by Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, building on the work of Piaget and others (Kegan, 1994). In Learning Partnerships (hereafter, LP), Baxter Magolda and co-editor Patricia King mine the wisdom and test the applications of Kegan’s ideas, challenging educators and others who are in caring partnerships to rethink what it means to be an adult and what it means to be supportive in ways that help individuals to grow and  develop.

Baxter Magolda and King argue that the primary goal of higher education should be to guide students to become self-authors because a flourishing democratic society needs citizens who can think for themselves with complexity and prudent openness and are willing to challenge existing norms, traditions, policies, and types of leadership that they might find to be destructive (Preface, p. xxiii). A self-authored person is able to pay close critical attention to multiple perspectives, one’s own and those external to one’s self, in order to determine their intended meanings, assess these perspectives on the basis of relevant evidence, and form conclusions that are still open to further challenges and tests.

But, based on their studies, the authors found few who graduate from college and who embark on careers or seek advanced education to have these skills. The reason, Baxter Magolda and King explain, is that it is considerably demanding for those who are  primarily dependent on external authorities to sort out their beliefs, values, and commitments in order to envision learning as constructive, dynamic, and complex.

Learning Partnership Model

A way for higher education to provide conditions for helpings students to cultivate self-authorship is the Learning Partnership Model (LPM), which is the focus of the book. Here, the emphasis is on what may seem paradoxical at first: independence and support. While autonomy involves taking responsibility for one’s own learning and constructing, testing, confirming, and rejecting beliefs, values, and personal and social commitments, learning is also a shared experience—mutually constructed with others (Preface, p. xviii ). Individuals interpret the world through an individual consciousness, but they are related to others for survival, knowledge construction and evaluation, and supportThus, mutual autonomy and dependence equal interdependence.

LPM directs faculty and student affairs leaders to provide conditions for learners to engage in challenging problem solving and creative tasks, while these leaders also offer learners support so that they will have confidence and tools to meet these challenges. These two aspects make up the learning partnership between learners and educators.

LPM centers on three dimensions of development: epistemological, intrapersonal, and interpersonal (p. 8). The epistemological dimension concerns the ways that individuals make claims to knowledge based on their basic assumptions and views about nature and reality. Intrapersonal refers to ways persons view and construct their identities.  Interpersonal focuses on ways persons view and create relationships.

Self and Others

Although the term “construction” is used often when the authors refer to knowledge and reality, they point to stubborn facts of the world that stand as challenges with which we must deal; that is, self-authors must construct knowledge and act within a limited context—life is not a blank slate upon which one writes one’s life story with oneself as sole character. Furthermorewhile “self-authorship” might seeem to connote isolation and radical independence, the authors in Learning Partnerships emphasize that knowledge is mutually constructed with others with whom we experience the world. In fact,  we can only be responsible citizens if we are independent thinkers with the confidence to trust our “inner voice” in order to lead and serve others in times of conflict and challenge.

Creating an internal voice involves cultivating the ability to pay attention to the thoughts, beliefs, and, values that one holds dear while examining them closely in light of past and new experiences (Preface, LP, p. xxii). The internal voice, although viewed as foundational, is always growing and changing and is open to novel possibilities. Its resilience helps to offset desires to win others’ approval, yet at the same time it provides the person enough confidence to take into serious account what others hold dear without fearing that one’s own values will be compromised.  One constructs one’s inner voice by considering others’ needs and values in addition to one’s own in an ongoing process of growth. As a result, individuals can contribute to the common good by being able to value mutual multiple perspectives and needs.

Students’ voices from interviews presented in various studies/chapters of the book illustrate the powerful influence of simultaneously encountering one’s self and others in profound ways.  For example, in “An Urban Leadership Internship Program” (Egart & Healy), Student “Raymond” recalls that his experiences influenced his decision to serve others in situations where he can “be on the front lines in life” (p. 145). “Jessica” relates that her intense experiences with self and others helped to bring about a pledge  to  work for the  common good:

I now have a focused idea of what my calling is. . . .  I have found a passion to pursue constitutional civil rights law. I feel that I would be happiest and best utilized in the world working to eliminate racism, discrimination, and other social tragedies. . . (p. 146).

It seems a paradox, at first, to focus on the development of self that would lead to the enrichment of others; however, Egart and Healy assert that LPM  can help guide students to “challenges that promote the transformation of other-directed students to self-directed citizens who are engaged in their communities” (p. 149).  They write that the development of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive complexity promoted a sense of citizenship or connection to others that refined their sense of “calling” and their engagement with the world around them.

In “A Learning Partnership” Kevin Yongers-Talz gives readers an opportunity to see students’ responses to their life-changing experiences in working with the poor in El Salvador.  Student “Brian” said that

The way I live my life is connected with the way others live their lives. The decisions I make have some bearing on the lives of other people. . . . the way I choose to act and the things I choose to buy and what I choose to do with my free time really does affect other people’s lives. (p. 177)

Ethical Decision-Making

In various ways authors in LP make the case that the theory of self-authorship has powerful implications for helping to guide students in their ethical decision making. When persons rely only on outside authority for moral decisions, they are subject to possible good or ill, depending upon the nature of the authority. Young people often look to external authority in such forms as messages from media/popular culture and  expectations of family, community, and peer culture.

The journey to self-authorship is a challenging one for young people and often involves conflict and emotional turmoil.  We see how these conflicts arise in “Creating a Context to Promote Diversity Education and Self-Authorship among Community College Students.” Authors Hornak and Ortiz argue that there are many factors in life that may create and reinforce a simple-minded attitude about diversity.  The cultivation of a self-authored multicultural perspective depends upon examining and questioning the values and beliefs instilled in one’s childhood. Such a process may lead to renouncing some assumptions or principles learned from parents and extended families and community (p. 118). “They [young people] may have to judge [in order to be self-authored] the idyllic small town where  they were raised as insufficient experience for living in a multicultural world.”  To do so students “must learn to follow their own paths in developing an identity that is unique and relevant to the challenges they will face in their future.” Helping students to develop a complex multicultural perspective involves not just teaching “content but also a way of being. . .” (p. 119).

In “A Community of Scholars” Rogers, Magolda, Baxter Magolda, & Abowitz relate their experiences over a period of 10 years in  implementing LPM in “College Student Personnel,” a graduate program at Miami University Abowitz, writing from her teaching experiences, sees the goal of helping students to become self-authored in their ethical decision making and actions as involving helping students to acquire the ability to identify ethical issues they encounter, see themselves as moral agents, be attentive and charitable to those with differing perspectives about moral questions, and  defend with convictional openness their moral decisions made after much deliberation and analyses (p. 23).

In light of the interdependency that self authorship theory and LPM strongly emphasize, why is the theory called self-authorship? Baxter Magolda  in  a recent interview noted that she and her colleagues had decided it would be too confusing to change the name that Kegan gave the theory. However, those who write on language (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Marcuse, 1991) make the case that labels that are associated with concepts have considerable influence on persons’ attitudes and subsequent actions. I argue that no matter how much authors who write about self-authorship stress the mutual construction of knowledge, the importance of support from  others,  and the significance of our interactions with them, the association of the term self–authorship with the concept selfish-authorship is probably too overpowering.  It is disappointing that a theory so brimming with references to persons’ needs for crucial relationships with others is unfortunately misnamed.

Importance of Educating for Self-Authorship Now

The move from external authority to self authorship is a complex and arduous journey.  Leaving students on their own to make blind decisions based on external influences is “risky” (p. 28). In Learning Partnerships, Baxter Magolda, King, and fellow authors make a convincing argument that higher education’s primary goal should be to help educate our nation’s citizens to be self-authors: challenging them to learn and perform at the highest levels, teaching them to be confident, but at the same time, helping them to know that others care about their success. Self-authored students need others, and others need them.  The authors of Learning Partnerships stress that when students travel on the path to becoming reflective, judicious, decisive, and independent thinkers, they should not travel alone.

For articles written by Baxter Magolda in the Journal of College and Character, go to




Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2009) Authoring Your Lfe: Developing an Internal Voice to Navigate Life’s Challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus

Baxter Magolda, M. B., Creamer, E. G., & Meszaros, P. S. (Eds.) (2010). Development and assessment of self-authorship: Exploring the concept across cultures. Sterling, VA:Stylus Press.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads; The mental demands of modern life. London: Harvard University Press

Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought.New York: Basic Books.

MarcuseH. (1991). One-dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. London: Routledge