The formal operations stage is the last of Jean Piaget’s proposals in his theory of cognitive development. At this point, adolescents already have a better capacity for abstraction, more scientific thinking, and a better ability to solve hypothetical problems.
Below we will take a closer look at what this stage is, at what age it begins, what are its characteristics and what experiments have been done to confirm and refute Piaget’s claims.
What is the stage of formal operations?
The formal operations stage is the last of the four stages proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in his theory of cognitive development, Being the three other sensorimotor stages, the preoperative and that of concrete operations.
Formal operational thinking manifests itself from the age of 12 through adulthood, characterized by the fact that children, now almost adolescents, have a more abstract view and a more logical use of thought. They can think about theoretical concepts.
It is at this stage that the individual can manage the hypothetico-deductive thinking, so characteristic of the scientific method.
The child is no longer chained to physical and real objects to draw conclusionsBut now you can think of hypothetical situations, imagine all kinds of scenarios without having a graphic or tangible representation of them. In this way, the adolescent will be able to reason about more complex problems.
Characteristics of this stage of development
This stage, which, as we have already mentioned, begins between the ages of 11 and 12 and lasts until adolescence, has the following characteristics.
1. Hypothetical-deductive reasoning
Another of the names given by Piaget at this point was that of “hypothetico-deductive reasoning”.As this type of reasoning is essential during this period of development. Children can think of solutions based on abstract ideas and assumptions.
This is observable given how frequent they are in late childhood and early adolescence of questions like “what if …”
With these hypothetical approaches, young people can draw many conclusions without having to rely on physical objects or visual aids. At these ages they are presented with a huge world of possibilities to solve all kinds of problems. It gives them the ability to think scientifically, make assumptions, generate predictions, and try to answer questions.
2. Problem solving
As we have seen, it is at these ages that more scientific and reflective thought is acquired. The individual has a greater ability to solve problems in a more systematic and organized manner, Ceasing to be limited to the strategy of trial and error. He now conjures in his mind hypothetical scenarios in which he wonders how things might turn out.
Although the trial and error technique can be useful, in obtaining benefits and conclusions, the have other problem-solving strategies greatly expand the young person’s knowledge and experience. Problems are solved with less practical methods, using logic that the individual did not have before.
3. Abstract thought
The previous step, that is to say that of concrete operations, the problems were solved necessarily having objects at hand, To be able to understand the situation and how to find a solution.
In contrast, at the stage of formal operations, children can work from ideas that are only in their heads. In other words, they can think of hypothetical and abstract concepts without having to experience them directly first.
Difference between the stage of concrete operations and that of formal operations
It is possible to see even if a child is at the stage of concrete operations or at the stage of formal operations by asking the following questions:
If Ana is taller than her friend Luisa and Luisa is taller than her friend Carmen, which one of them is taller?
Children who are in the stage of concrete operations need some kind of visual support to be able to understand this exercise, like a drawing or dolls that represent Anna, Luisa and Carmen and, thus, to be able to discover who is the highest of the three. In addition, according to Piaget, children of these ages have no problem sorting objects based on characteristics such as length, height, weight or number (serialization), but it costs them more with tasks. in which they have to order people.
This does not happen in older children and adolescents, who are already at the stage of formal operations. If they are asked who is the tallest of the three, without having to draw these three girls, they will be able to answer the exercise. They will analyze the sentence, understanding that if Anna> Luisa and Luisa> Carme, therefore, Ana> Luisa> Carme. They don’t find it so difficult to perform serialization activities, whether they have to order objects or people.
Piaget performed a series of experiments to be able to verify the hypothetico-deductive reasoning that he attributed to children over 11 years old. The easiest and best known way to verify this was the famous “third eye problem”. In this experiment, children and adolescents were asked who, if they had the option of having a third eye, where they would place it.
Most 9-year-olds said they would put it on the front, just above the other two. however, when asked to children aged 11 and over, they gave very creative answers, Choose other parts of the body to place the third eye. A very common response was to place this eye in the palm of your hand, so that you could see what was behind the corners without having to pull your head back a lot, and the other was to have this eye on. your neck or behind your head, so that you can see who was behind following us.
Another well-known experiment, conducted with his colleague Bärbel Inhelder in 1958, was the pendulum experiment. This involved presenting the children with a pendulum, and they were asked what or what they thought were the factors that influence the speed of its oscillation: the length of the string, the weight of the pendulum and the force with which it is. powered.
The experimental subjects were to keep trying to see if they discovered which of these three variables was the one that changed the speed of movement, by measuring that speed in how many oscillations per minute. The idea was that they had to isolate different factors to see which one was the right one, Being only the length the correct answer, because the shorter it is, the pendulum will move.
Young children, who were still in the specific operational stage, attempted to solve this activity by manipulating several variables, often at random. Instead, the older ones, who were already in the formal operations stage, felt that it was the length of the rope that caused the pendulum, regardless of its weight or the force applied to it, to move. faster.
While Piaget and Inhelder’s conclusions were helpful, as were their assertions about the other three stages proposed in their theory of cognitive development, the stage of formal operations was also the subject of experiments to refute what was known about it.
In 1979, Robert Siegler conducted an experiment in which he presented several children with a balance beam. He placed several discs in it at each end of the center of balance and changed the number of discs or moved them along the beam, asking his experimental subjects to predict where the balance would tilt.
Siegler studied the responses given by 5-year-olds, seeing that their cognitive development followed the same sequence that Piaget had posed with his theory of cognitive development, in particular in relation to the experiment of the pendulum.
As children grew older, they became more aware of the interplay between the weight of these discs and the distance from the center., And that it is these variables that successfully predicted the breakeven point.
However, the surprise came when he went to do this experiment with teenagers between 13 and 17 years old. Contrary to what Piaget had observed, at those ages there were still problems with hypothetico-deductive thinking, with some of them struggling to know where the scales would tip.
This led Siegler to assume that this type of thinking, rather than depending on the stage of maturation, it would depend on the individual’s interest in science, his educational context and his ease of abstraction.
- Inhelder, B. and Piaget, J. (1958). Teenage thought.
- Piaget, J. (1970). Educational science and child psychology. Trans. D. Coltman.
- Schaffer, HR (1988). Child psychology: the future. In S. Chess and A. Thomas (eds), Annual Progress in Psychiatry and Child Development. New York: Brunner / Mazel.
- Siegler, RS and Richards, D. (1979). Development of concepts of time, speed and distance. Developmental Psychology, 15, 288-298.