Formal Operations Controversy

Piaget believed that formal operational thought, entered between eleven and fifteen years of age, was a fourth and final stage of cognitive development, although he did say that adults are quantitatively more knowledgeable than adolescents. Some experts argue that young adults demonstrate a fifth, postformal stage that is different from adolescent thinking. Postformal thought is characterized by an understanding that the correct answer to a problem requires reflective thinking that may vary from one situation to another. Truth is viewed as an ongoing, never-ending process. Critics of this view argue that research evidence is lacking to document this as a qualitatively more advanced stage than formal operational thought.

Research has called into question the link between adolescence and the stage of formal operational thought. It is estimated that only one in three young adolescents is a formal operational thinker. Many adolescents think in ways characteristic of concrete operations or use formal thinking only part ofthe time. In fact, even many adults have not mastered formal operations. Critics argue that individual differences and cultural experiences may play a greater role in determining formal operations than Piaget envisioned.

Piagetian theory has been notoriously difficult to evaluate. Research indicates that performance on Piagetian tasks depends on understanding the instructions, being able to attend to the relevant aspects of the problems, and being interested in the problems themselves. Adolescents who perform best on formal operational tasks are often those with interests in the natural sciences—an unlikely finding if cognitive change is largely maturational.

Adolescents who do use formal operations may experience development in two phases, one early and the other during late adolescence. The initial stage is primarily assimilation and involves the incorporation of new information into existing knowledge. Rather than using hypothetical-deductive thinking, adolescents at this point may simply be consolidating their concrete operational thinking. They tend to perceive their world in subjective and idealistic terms. During the later phase, adolescents are more likely to accommodate, restoring intellectual balance after a cognitive upheaval occurs.

Although the popularity of Piagetian theory has declined, it remains one of the most influential theories in developmental psychology. In fact, it was Piagetian theory that led information-processing psychologists to become interested in cognitive development. In a summation, understanding adolescent cognitive skills requires some familiarity with all perspectives, in spite of their respective weaknesses. Each has made a unique historical contribution to current views of cognition.

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