Would you say that you think abstractly? Do you think about the “bigger picture?” I don’t mean thinking about your life 10 years in the future. I mean thinking about the purpose of existence and why humans have evolved in the way that we have. We’re not going to tackle all of these questions today, but we are going to talk about how we came to ask these types of questions and how we answer them.
These skills aren’t strengths of children in elementary or middle school. Until children reach the formal operational stage in Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, they are going through three stages of concrete development that only allow them to think concretely. They can follow the rules of how the world works, but are limited by these concrete concepts.
What Is the Formal Operational Stage?
Once children reach adolescence, they enter what is called the Formal Operational Stage. This is the last stage in Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. The Formal Operational Stage doesn’t end – there are ways that you can heighten your abstract problem-solving skills from age 12 to age 112!
Formal Operational Stage Age
The formal operational stage begins between around 11-12. Children are usually in grade school around this time. They have the ability to take on more responsibilities than they did in earlier stages of development, but they are still considered to be young children. Health organizations typically still categorize ages 11 and 12 as “middle childhood.”
Entering the Formal Operational Stage
At ages 11 and 12, children have just finished the concrete operational stage. This stage lasts from ages 6-11. By the time a child enters the formal operational stage, they should be able to:
- Arrange items in a logical order
- Build friendships based on empathy
- Understand that 5mL of water in one glass is the same amount as 5mL of water in a separate glass
- Recognize that a ball of pizza dough is the same as flattened pizza dough
Playing games and doing science experiments with children is much more fun at this age. They understand so much more!
What Characterizes the Formal Operational Stage?
Four specific skills are signs that a child is in the formal operational stage:
- Deductive Reasoning
- Abstract Thought
- Problem Solving
During the Concrete Operational Stage, the child learns how to apply logic to certain situations. But they are limited to inductive reasoning. In the Formal Operational Stage, they start to learn (and learn the limits of) deductive reasoning.
Inductive reasoning uses observations to make a conclusion. Say a student has six teachers throughout their life, and all of them are strict. They are likely to conclude that all teachers are strict. They may find that later in life, they will change their conclusion, but until they observe a teacher that is not strict, this is the conclusion they will come to.
Deductive reasoning works differently. It uses facts and lessons to create a conclusion. The child will be presented with two facts:
“All teachers are strict.”
“Mr. Johnson is a teacher.”
Using deductive reasoning, the child can conclude that Mr. Johnson is strict.
Throughout the child’s development, they start to expand their world. In the sensorimotor stage, their world consists of only what is directly in front of them. If something is out of sight or earshot, it no longer exists.
As they begin to develop object permanence, they start to understand that the world exists beyond what they can physically see, hear, or touch. In the concrete operational stage, children begin to apply the rules of logic to things and rules that they know exist.
In this final stage, they begin to expand their worldview further. They begin to develop abstract thought. They can apply logic to situations that don’t follow the rules of the physical world.
Piaget’s Third Eye Question: The Difference Between Concrete Operational and Formal Operational Stages
One of the ways that Piaget tested for this skill were to ask the children questions. Here’s an example of a question that Piaget asked children:
“If you had a third eye, where would you put it?”
Children in the Concrete Operational Stage were limited to answering that they would put the eye on their forehead or on their face. They were typically only exposed to animals and humans that had eyes on their face. But children in the Formal Operational Stage were more likely to branch out and think of more useful and more abstract answers. They thought of putting the eye on their hand, back, or somewhere else where it would serve a greater purpose.
These skills make solving problems a whole lot easier. In the Concrete Operational Stage and earlier stages, children can only really solve a problem through trial-and-error. As they enter the Formal Operational Stage, they are able to look back at the problem, use past experience and reasoning to form a hypothesis, and test out what they believe is going to happen. This can save them a lot of time.
Piaget used another form of testing to figure out when children had developed these skills. He gave them a scale with a set of weights and asked them to balance the scale with the weights. But simply putting the same amount of weights on each side wasn’t enough. The children had to figure out that the distance between the weights and the center of the scale also made an impact on the balance.
Children under the age of 10 heavily struggled with the task, both because they could not understand the concept of balance (if they were in the Preoperational Stage) or they could not grasp that the center of balance is also important. (These children were in the early stages of the Concrete Operational Stage.) At age 10, the children could solve the problem, but at a much slower pace due to their process of trial and error.
It wasn’t until age 11 or 12 that children could look at the problem from a distance and use logic to use both the distance and size of the weights to balance the scale.
Not all of these thought processes are perfect the first time around. You know that, I know that, and children in the Formal Operational Stage are just starting to discover that. By using MetaCognition, they are more likely to assess how they are thinking and transform it into a more effective form of problem-solving.
MetaCognition is simply “thinking about thinking.” It is the ability to run through your own thought process, figure out how you developed that process, and maybe unwind some things that aren’t logical or can be disproven. This can help you “rebuild” your thought process as if it were building blocks, creating a more solid structure for you to solve problems.
Piaget did not actually coin this term while he was developing his theory on the Formal Operational Stage. John Flavell, an American psychologist, actually proposed the theory on MetaCognition in the late 1970s.
We’ve seen throughout these videos that the Theory of Cognitive Development has continued to grow and change with additional input and studies. Our minds can also change their thought processes and begin to notice imperfections and flawed logic as it comes up. But this often requires going back and asking yourself how you built certain thought processes and where you could have made flawed conclusions.
How to Support a Child in the Formal Operational Stage
Children don’t just develop these skills in school. The following activities can help your child develop the skills that will bring them through the formal operational stage.
Play board games. At this stage, a child is not going to throw chess pieces across the room or walk away from a game of Clue. So offer to play board games with them. Board games can help further develop verbal communication and deductive reasoning.
Ask silly questions. “If you had a third eye, where would you place it?” sounds like a silly question, but it helps a child think abstractly! Asking silly questions gives the child the chance to build upon those skills. Get creative with your questions. You might find that your kids are pretty darn funny!
Answer their questions logically. Children will have questions of their own at this time. Don’t shoo them away or write them off as silly. Take the time to answer their questions so they can continue to develop an idea of the world around them.
Formal Operational Stage vs. Other Stages of Development
Jean Piaget is not the only psychologist to create stages of development. Other psychologists have offered their theories on how a child develops social skills and how their experiences during each stage impact their relationships and behavior. Some theories, like Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, last for the span of the person’s life. Other theories, like Piaget’s, only cover childhood and early adolescence. When we compare Piaget’s theory to other theories, we see some overlap and other perspectives on what makes a child the person they grow up to be.
At ages 11-12, a child is exiting the Industry vs. Inferiority stage and entering into the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage. The child should be aware that they are responsible for their own decisions and how they affect others. They also start to see that they are different from other children. If they feel confident that they can advocate for themselves and live the way they want to live, they will exit these stages successfully. Otherwise, they may develop insecurities. Erikson coined the term “identity crisis.” This crisis could take place in the identity vs. role confusion stage!
Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
During the ages of 11-12, a child is in the latent stage of psychosexual development and may be entering the genital stage. The change in stages all depends on when the child goes through puberty. Freud’s stages, clearly controversial, focused on a child’s erogenous zones and their sexual interests. As the child discovers sexual interests in the latent stage, they must learn to channel their energy into intellectual activities. By letting the superego tame the id, the child can form healthy relationships. In the genital stage, the teenager and then adult learn to explore their maturing sexual interests.
Which Theory is “Right?”
All of these theories can play out at the same time, but remember that these are just theories. Some ideas, like Freud’s Oedipal Complex that occur in earlier stages of development, have been discredited and largely rejected by today’s psychologists. We continue to learn about Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and other psychologists to understand how psychology developed into the field we know it today.
Thanks for checking out these pages on the Theory of Cognitive Development! I hope these will give you a way to look at your own thinking and build a stronger foundation for solving problems and understanding the world around you – no matter how old you are!