Developmental Approach

The developmental approach seeks to identify the cognitive skills of adolescence and to contrast them with the skills found at other ages. This approach addresses both the qualities of thought and the process of change. In 1958 Piaget and his coworker Barbel Inhelder published The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood Through Adolescence, a detailed account of Piaget's four stages of cognitive development. In addition to proposing that specific cognitive skills emerge in each stage, he proposes that the move from one stage to the next is largely maturational.

This statement may be confusing. Clearly, sixteen-year-olds must "know more" than eight-year-olds, and adolescents have the capacity to learn school subjects beyond the grasp of elementary school children. The psychometric approach, however, is not designed to contrast the nature of cognitive skills at different ages. Intelligence tests are scored by comparing a specific person to other people of the same age. A score of 100 at age eight means that a person performs similarly to the average eight-year-old; a score of 100 at age eighteen means that a person performs similarly to the average eighteen-year-old. IQ score is expected to remain the same if the person matures at a relatively normal rate.

Two of Piaget's stages are of particular importance to the study of adolescence: the concrete operational stage (ages seven to twelve) and the formal operational stage (ages twelve and up). During the concrete operational stage, children acquire basic logical concepts such as equivalence, seriation, and part-whole relations. Children also master reversibility, a skill allowing them mentally to restore a changed object or situation to its original state. With reversibility, children can recognize that a small glass of juice poured into a taller and thinner glass may look like more juice but is actually the same amount. During concrete operations, children can think logically as long as their reasoning is in reference to tangible objects.

The formal operational stage follows the concrete operational stage and is the final stage of cognition, according to Piaget. Beginning at adolescence, thinking becomes more logical, more abstract, more hypothetical, and more systematic. Unlike their concrete operational counterparts, formal thinkers can study ideologies, generate a variety of possible outcomes to an action, and systematically evaluate alternative approaches to a problem. Formal thinkers also are better able to adopt a new course of action when a particular strategy proves unsuccessful. In the Piagetian model, adolescents are compared to scientists as they utilize hypothetical-deductive reasoning to solve problems. Although children during the concrete operational stage would solve problems by trial and error, adolescents could be expected to develop hypotheses and then systematically conclude which path is best to follow in order to solve the problem.

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