Formal operations stage: what is it and what are its characteristics?
A summary of the characteristics of the stage of formal operations according to Jean Piaget.
The stage of formal operations is the last of those proposed by Jean Piaget in his Theory of Cognitive Development. in his Theory of Cognitive Development. In this stage, adolescents present a better capacity for abstraction, a more scientific thinking and a better capacity to solve hypothetical problems.
Next we will see more in 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 assertions.
What is the stage of formal operations?
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 stages are sensorimotor, preoperational and concrete operations.
Formal operational thinking is manifested from the age of 12 years and lasts until adulthood, characterized by the fact that children, 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 arrive at conclusions.The child is now able to think about hypothetical situations, imagining all kinds of scenarios without the need 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, begins between the ages of 11 and 12 and lasts until after adolescence, has the following characteristics.
1. Hypothetico-deductive reasoning
Another of the names given by Piaget to this stage was "hypothetico-deductive reasoning", since this type of reasoning is based on the following characteristics.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 by seeing how frequent in late childhood and early adolescence are questions of the style "what if..."
Through these hypothetical approaches youngsters can reach many conclusions without having to rely on physical objects or visual supports. At this age they are presented with a gigantic world of possibilities for solving all kinds of problems.. This makes them have the ability to think scientifically, posing hypotheses, generating predictions and trying to answer questions.
2. Problem solving
As we have already mentioned, it is at this age that a more scientific and reflective thinking is acquired. The individual has a greater capacity to approach problems in a more systematic and organized way, and to stop limiting himself to the strategy of the problem-solving process.The individual has a greater capacity to approach problems in a more systematic and organized way, no longer limiting himself to trial and error. He now poses hypothetical scenarios in his mind in which he wonders how things might evolve.
Although trial-and-error can be helpful, and benefits and conclusions can be drawn from it, having other problem-solving strategies at your disposal can help you to solve problems in a more systematic and organized way. other problem-solving strategies significantly expand the young person's knowledge and experience.. Problems are solved with less practical methods, using logic that was previously unavailable to the individual.
3. Abstract thinking
In the previous stage, i.e., that of concrete operations, problems were necessarily solved by having objects at hand, in order to understand the situation and how to solve it.to be able to understand the situation and how to solve it.
On the other hand, in the stage of formal operations, children can work from ideas that are only in their heads. That is, they can think of hypothetical and abstract concepts without having had to experience them directly beforehand.
Difference between the stage of concrete and formal operations.
It is possible to see even if a child is in the stage of concrete operations or in the stage of formal operations by asking them the following questions:
If Ana is taller than her friend Luisa, and Luisa is taller than her friend Carmen, which of them is taller?
Children who are at the stage of concrete operations need some kind of visual support to be able to understand this exercise, such as a drawing or dolls representing Ana, Luisa and Carmen. to be able to understand this exercise, such as a drawing or dolls representing Ana, Luisa and Carmen and, thus, be able to find out who is the tallest of the three. In addition, according to Piaget, children at this age do not have problems ordering objects according to characteristics such as length, size, weight or number (seriation), but they do have more difficulty 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 know how to answer the exercise. They will analyze the sentence, understanding that if Ana > Luisa and Luisa > Carmen, therefore, Ana > Luisa > Luisa > Carmen. It is not so complicated for them to do seriation activities regardless of whether what they have to order are objects or people.
Piaget conducted a series of experiments in order to test the hypothetico-deductive reasoning he attributed to children over 11 years of age. The simplest and best known experiment to test this was the famous "third eye problem". In this experiment, children and adolescents were asked, if they had the option of having a third eye, where they would place it.
Most of the 9-year-olds said they would put it on their forehead, just above the other two. However, when asked, however, children aged 11 and older gave very creative answers, choosing other parts of the body for the third eye.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 peek too much, and the other was to have that eye in the back of the neck or behind the head, to be able to see who was behind following us.
Another well-known experiment, conducted together with his colleague Bärbel Inhelder in 1958, was the pendulum experiment. This consisted of presenting children with a pendulum, and asking them what they thought were the factors influencing the pendulum's swing speed: the length of the rope, the weight of the pendulum and the force with which it swings.
The experimental subjects were to test to see if they could discover 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 the correct one.The only correct answer was the length, since the shorter the length, the faster the pendulum would move.
The younger children, who were still in the concrete operational stage, tried to solve this activity by manipulating several variables, often at random. In contrast, the older children, who were already at the formal operations stage, intuited that it was the length of the string that made the pendulum, regardless of its weight or the force applied to it, move faster.
Criticism of Piaget
While the findings made by Piaget and Inhelder were useful, as were their assertions 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 known about it..
In 1979 Robert Siegler conducted an experiment in which he presented several children with a balance beam. He would place several disks at each end of the balance beam at the center of equilibrium, and he would change the number of disks or move them along the beam, asking his experimental subjects to predict which way the balance beam would tip.
Siegler studied the answers given by the 5-year-olds, seeing that their cognitive development followed the same sequence as Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development, especially in relation to the pendulum experiment.
As the children got older, they became more aware of the interaction between the weight of these discs and the distance from the center, and that it was these variables that were the most important in the pendulum experiment.and that it was these variables that successfully predicted the equilibrium point.
However, the surprise came when he did this experiment with adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17. Contrary to what Piaget had observed, at these ages there were still some problems with respect to hypothetico-deductive thinking, with some of them having trouble knowing which way the balance would tip.
This led Siegler to suppose that this type of thinking, rather than being dependent on the maturational stage, would depend on the individual's interest in science, his educational context and facility for abstraction..
- Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). Adolescent thinking.
- Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and the psychology of the child. Trans. D. Coltman.
- Schaffer, H. R. (1988). Child Psychology: the future. In S. Chess & A. Thomas (eds), Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development. NY: Brunner/Mazel.
- Siegler, R. S. & Richards, D. (1979). Development of time, speed and distance concepts. Developmental Psychology, 15, 288-298.