Concrete thought: what is it and how it develops in childhood

The process by which we humans form and mentally connect ideas about what surrounds us is quite complex. It starts from our early years and progresses through a series of certain stages and characteristics.

Among other things, this process allows us to develop two ways of thinking: one based on the physical objects of the world, what we call concrete thinking; and the other established in mental operations, which we call abstract thinking.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what concrete thinking is and how it relates to or differs from abstract thinking.

    What is concrete thought and how does it originate?

    Concrete thinking is a cognitive process characterized by the description of tangible facts and objects. This is the type of thinking that is related to real world phenomena, that is, to material objects. Concrete thought allows us to generate general concepts on particular phenomena and to categorize logically.

    The studies of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget on the stages of the formation of the thought are classic in this field. In general, he analyzed how cognitive processes develop from infancy to adolescence.

    From a biological, psychological and logical point of view, Piaget is interested in the way in which a child reaches his cognitive capacities. He proposed, among other things, that thought should have models derived from genetic makeup, which in turn are activated in the face of socio-cultural stimuli.

    These allow them to receive and process information, so that psychological development is still active. From there, he proposes a series of stages, each qualitatively different from the others, and which allow the child to evolve towards a more complex form of understanding and organization of knowledge.

      Stage of specific operations

      According to Piaget, concrete thinking develops at the stage of concrete operations, which takes place between the ages of 7 and 12. In this, the child is already capable of perceiving and discriminating between reality and appearances. He cannot do without reality and, unlike in the previous stages, he begins to decentralize his thinking, that is, he gradually decreases egocentric thinking.

      In addition, during this step, you can classify and report, for example, transformations of states of matter. There then occurs a series of logical comparisons that allow it to respond to stimuli in a way that is no longer conditioned by appearance, as in the previous step, and it begins to be determined by concrete reality.

      In mathematics, for example, the child is believed to be able to develop cognitive skills such as number conservation, notions of substance, weight, volume and length, as well as spatial coordination. All of the above is acquired once the child can describe objects based on their material composition.

      In this sense, to learn, the child must always have the object present: through his senses, he establishes relationships that allow him to know reality. In this period too it is not yet possible for children to make assumptionsNor is it possible for them to apply previously acquired learning to new situations (the latter belongs to abstract thought).

        Differences between concrete thinking and abstract thinking

        While concrete thinking is what enables us to process and describe objects in the physical world, abstract thinking goes through purely mental processes. The latter Piaget called “formal thought” because it occurs at the stage of “formal operations”, which takes place between 12 and 16 years. In addition to occurring at different points in development, concrete thinking and abstract thinking have the following differences:

        1. Deductive or inductive?

        Abstract thought is a deductive hypothetical thought, which makes it possible to construct hypotheses without needing to test them empirically. In the case of concrete thought, it is the reverse: knowledge can only be formulated by the direct experience of the phenomenon or the object; it is an inductive type of thinking.

        2. The general and the particular

        Abstract thinking can range from the general to the particular, allowing it to formulate more general laws, theories, and properties. Concrete thought works in the opposite direction, going from the particular to the general. A large or multidimensional phenomenon it can only be understood and described by its particular characteristics.

        3. Flexibility

        Abstract thinking allows an openness to reflection and debate, so it is flexible thinking. For its part, concrete thought, anchored in the tangible and the obvious, does not allow variations.

        4. Complexity of acquisition

        Abstract thought, as Piaget raises it, is acquired later than the concrete because it requires a more complex process. Although the concrete thought it finally consolidates towards the end of childhoodThroughout his development, the child only acquires learning and psychological maturation through direct experience with the environment. Abstract thinking only occurs after the need for purely empirical checks has been met and satisfied.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Fingermann, H. (2011). Concrete thought. Guide. Accessed July 26, 2018.Available at
        • Piaget, J. (1986). Evolutionary psychology. Madrid: Editorial Paidós
        • Pagès, J. (1998). The Formation of Social Thought, pp. 152-164. In Pijal Benejam and Joan Pagès, Teaching and learning of social sciences, geography and history in secondary education. Barcelona: ICE / Horsori.

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