A summary of the characteristics of the stage of formal operations according to Jean Piaget.
The stage of formal operations is the last one proposed by Jean Piaget in his Theory of Cognitive Development. At this stage, adolescents have a better capacity for abstraction, more scientific thinking and a better ability to solve hypothetical problems.
Below we will see in more depth what this stage is, from what age it begins, what are its characteristics and what experiments have been done to confirm and refute Piaget’s claims.
What is the formal operations stage?
The stage of formal operations is the last of the four stages proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in his Theory of Cognitive Development, the other three being the sensorimotor, preoperational and concrete operations stages.
Formal operational thinking manifests itself from the age of 12, covering up to adulthood, characterized by the fact that children, now almost adolescents, have a more abstract vision and a more logical use of thought. They can think about theoretical concepts.
It is during this stage that the individual can handle hypothetical-deductive thinking, so characteristic of the scientific method.
The child is no longer chained to physical and real objects in order to reach conclusions, but can now think about hypothetical situations, imagining all kinds of scenarios without having to have a graphic or palpable representation of them. Thus 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, has its beginnings between the ages of 11 and 12 and lasts until after adolescence, has the following characteristics.
1. Hypothetical-deductive reasoning
Another name that Piaget gave to this stage was “hypothetico-deductive reasoning”, since this type of reasoning is essential during this period of development. Children can think of solutions based on abstract ideas and hypotheses.
This is observable seeing how frequent questions such as “what if …” are frequent in late childhood and early adolescence.
Through these hypothetical approaches, young people can reach many conclusions without having to rely on physical objects or visual aids. These ages are presented with a gigantic world of possibilities to solve all kinds of problems. This gives them the ability to think scientifically, posing hypotheses, generating predictions and trying to answer questions.
As we have commented, it is at these ages that a more scientific and thoughtful thinking is acquired. The individual has a greater capacity to approach problems in a more systematic and organized way, ceasing to be limited to the strategy of trial and error. Now he raises hypothetical scenarios in his mind in which he wonders how things might evolve.
Although the trial and error technique can be of help, obtaining benefits and conclusions through it, having other problem-solving strategies significantly expand the knowledge and experience of the young person. Problems are solved with less practical methods, using logic that the individual did not have before.
3. Abstract thinking
The previous stage, that is to say, that of the concrete operations, the problems were necessarily solved by having objects at hand, in order to understand the situation and how to solve it.
In contrast, in the formal operations stage children can work from ideas found only in their heads. That is, they can think of hypothetical and abstract concepts without having to directly experience them before.
Difference between the stage of concrete operations and that of formal ones
It is possible to see even whether a child is in the concrete operations stage or the formal operations stage by asking them the following:
If Ana is taller than her friend Luisa, and Luisa is taller than her friend Carmen, who of all of them is taller?
Children who are in the stage of concrete operations need some type of visual support to be able to understand this exercise, such as a drawing or dolls that represent Ana, Luisa and Carmen and, thus, to be able to find out who is the tallest of the three. In addition, according to Piaget, children at these ages do not have problems ordering objects based on characteristics such as length, size, weight or number (seriation), but they do find it more difficult with tasks in which they have to order people.
This does not happen in older children and adolescents, who are already in 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 know how to answer the exercise. They will analyze the sentence, understanding that if Ana> Luisa and Luisa> Carmen, therefore, Ana> Luisa> Carmen. It is not so difficult for them to do serialization activities regardless of whether what they have to order are objects or people.
Piaget carried out a series of experiments to be able to verify the hypothetico-deductive reasoning that he attributed to children older than 11 years. The simplest and most known to prove this was the famous “third eye problem”. In this experiment, children and adolescents were asked if they had the option of being able to have a third eye, where they would place it.
Most 9-year-olds said they would put it on their forehead, right above the other two. However, when asked to children 11 years and older, they gave very creative answers, choosing other parts of the body to place the third eye. A very common response was to place that eye in the palm of the hand, to be able to see what was behind the corners without having to lean too much, and the other was to have that eye on the nape or behind the head, to be able to see who was behind following us.
Another well-known experiment, carried out together with his colleague Bärbel Inhelder in 1958, was the pendulum experiment. This consisted of presenting the children with a pendulum, and they were asked which or which they believed were the factors that influence its oscillation speed: length of the rope, weight of the pendulum and the force with which it is propelled.
The experimental subjects had to go testing to see if they discovered which of these three variables was the one that changed the speed of movement, measuring this speed in how many oscillations it made per minute. The idea was that they should isolate different factors to see which of them was correct, with only the length being the correct answer, since the shorter it is, the faster the pendulum will move.
Younger children, who were still in the concrete operational stage, tried to solve this activity by manipulating several variables, often at random. On the other hand, the older ones, who were already in the stage of formal operations, intuited that it was the length of the rope that made the pendulum, regardless of its weight or force applied to it, move faster.
Criticisms of Piaget
While the findings made by Piaget and Inhelder were useful, as was the case with their claims regarding 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 knew about her.
In 1979 Robert Siegler carried out an experiment in which he presented several children with a balance beam. In it, he would place several disks at each end of the center of balance, and he would change the number of disks or move them along the beam, asking his experimental subjects to predict where the scale would tip.
Siegler studied the responses given by the 5-year-olds, seeing that their cognitive development followed the same sequence that Piaget had proposed with his Theory of Cognitive Development, especially in relation to the pendulum experiment.
As the children got older, they took more into account the interaction between the weight of these discs and the distance from the center, and that it was these variables that allowed them to successfully predict the equilibrium point.
However, the surprise came when he did this experiment with adolescents between 13 and 17 years old. Contrary to what Piaget had observed, in these ages there were still some problems with hypothetico-deductive thinking, some of them having trouble knowing where the balance would tip.
This led Siegler to suppose that this type of thinking, more than dependent on the maturation stage, would depend on the interest of the individual in science, its educational context and ease of abstraction.
- Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). Adolescent thinking.
- Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and the psychology of the child. Trans. D. Coltman.
- Schaffer, HR (1988). Child Psychology: the future. In S. Chess & A. Thomas (eds), Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development. NY: Brunner / Mazel.
- Siegler, RS & Richards, D. (1979). Development of time, speed and distance concepts. Developmental Psychology, 15, 288-298.