Much of what we do everyday requires problem solving. This
can be from dealing with problems that are emotional/personal, problems at
work, and even problems at school. These problems very from how abstract they
are, to how simple they are.
Types of problems High school students might be dealing with:
Finding the answer to a hard deduction problem in math
Being able to relate to slaves and write about slavery in History
Deciding on how much to spend on a prom outfit
Deciding how much time to spend on video games when you have
a assignment to finish
Planning on their future after high school
Thinking about pregnancies and Contraception
How do students solve these problems?
According to Piaget, Cognitive development happens in
stages. In the adolescent years, the youth move beyond the limitations of
concrete mental operations and develop the ability to think in a more abstract
manner. Piaget called this new ability “Formal Operations”. The formal
operational stage corresponds to roughly 12 years of age through adulthood.
This is when children are able to think abstractly about can answer problems
and think of things that might not physically exist.(Bergin&Bergin, 2012)
But wait.... who is Piaget again?
Jean Piaget was born in 1896 in Switzerland. He suggested
that children sort the knowledge they acquire through their experiences and
growth, which happens in stages. He didn’t identify himself as a psychologist,
but as a genetic epidemiologist. He influenced many notable psychologists
including Howard Gardner.(Cherry, n.d.)
What does Formal Operation consist of?
Proportional thinking: making assertions
evidence and stating what may be possible in things not seen by
Relativistic thinking: subjectivity making
an opinion on facts
involving ones own bias, prejudice of faces- which may be
either right or wrong.
Real Vs. Possible: examining a situation and
exploring the possible terms
of a situation, or solution.
The formal operational stage is the fourth and final stage of
Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Characteristics of The Formal Operational Stage: This
stage begins around age 12 and continues into adulthood. Throughout this period
the development of the ability to think abstractly is present. Logical thought,
deductive reasoning, and planning now come alive. (Brain, 2005)
Logic: Logic is very important during this developmental
stage. This requires the ability to use things that you’ve learned and use the
skills and knowledge to determine an outcome. Hypothetical thinking is very
much so present here. This is most required for math and sciences. (Cherry,
Abstract Thought: Abstract vs. Concrete thinking. Different
from previous stages the ability to think abstractly becomes present in the
formal operational stage. You now don’t just rely on previous experience you
start to consider possible outcomes and consequences for what you do. (Cherry,
n.d.) This type of thinking is extremely important for development.
Problem solving: Different from the trial and error methods
used in previous stages you are now able to solve a problem logically and by
following a method. During this stage you are able to quickly plan an organized
method to solve a problem. (Cherry, n.d.)
Observations About the
Formal Operational Stage: Concrete objects are no longer required. Methods and
movements can now be processed in a hypothetical order in your head. "The formal operational thinker has the ability to
consider many different solutions to a problem before acting. This greatly
increases efficiency, because the individual can avoid potentially unsuccessful
attempts at solving a problem. The formal operational person considers past
experiences, present demands, and future consequences in attempting to maximize
the success of his or her adaptation to the world." (Salkind, 2004)
Abstract thinking is present especially,
when it comes to literature, a lot of authors will "pack a lot of
meaning" into short phrases, passages, or even particular words. When we
read like a detective or are observational readers, we must "unpack"
that language to determine the layers of meaning the author poses.
So, below (on the left) we see that as readers we start with the
concrete and unpack, but then as creators or writers, we have to take
those abstract ideas and pack them into something concrete (a metaphor) for
others to then make sense of. (Wessling, 2012)
In high school, math tends to get very
different. Less actual numbers are seen, and more letters are being
represented. In math, students need to use logic when using formulas. When
doing word problems that require students to think about scenarios, students
are using a higher level of thinking. This can be seen in problems that are
asking how fast a car will travel if it traveling at 60 mph for an hour.
with abstract thought, students are beginning to
consider outcomes to some actions. For example, before an experiment is even
started, students are required to write a hypothesis to their question. They
are thinking of the future and having reasoning for it.
For teenagers, sexuality is developing just as quickly as cognition and behavior. The question about contraception and pregnancies are very popular during high school. According to Piaget, formal operations allow for consideration of the "possible," in such a way that reality becomes secondary to possibility.(Gordon,1990) This is suggesting that formal operation thought is needed when thinking about intimate relations. Evaluation of alternatives demands the use of propositional logic. Teacher Tips
Ask your students for explanations. When teachers ask
students to explain their own or even another’s reasoning, they are encouraging
cognitive development. Ask questions that deal with the “Why?” aspect of a
situation in order to improve their problem solving.
Provide feedback on strategies used by students, and also modeling
for students to observe and create their own ideas. Students learn by observing
each other more than by observing an expert or adult. For example, in a physics
class, or any other mathematics or science course, it is helpful for students
to watch how other classmates correctly solve certain problems.
Ask students to reflect on their own strategies. This
simple, metacognitive-strategy training method allows students to develop
better reasoning abilities as they evaluate their own work.
Make time for peer review in order to allow students to
compare their work. In mathematics especially, this lets students view
different perspectives on solving problems. Sometimes a mathematical equation
can be solved in more than one way, and if students see how the problems are
solved differently first-hand, they can begin to question which strategy would
be more efficient. This helps students understand abstract concepts as well as
According to Piaget, argument promotes reasoning ability as
well as metacognition. Implement argumentation skills during class by requiring
students to defend their statements and reasons. Class discussions are an
excellent way to do this.
Not only is it helpful for students to support their own claims
with evidence, but it is also effective for students to identify and address
the weak points in another’s argument.
If teaching an English class, have students (in groups) choose
an appropriate topic that peaks their interest and create a class debate; this
will require students to research and find supporting evidence for their claims
which allows them to develop better reasoning and problem solving skills.
If teaching a science class, try to create hands-on
experiments with variables and data to promote students’ reasoning skills.
Bergin, D. A., Bergin, C. C. (2012). Child and Adolescent
Development: In Your
Classroom (2nd ed.).
Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
K. (2014). Formal operational stage of cognitive development. Retrieved from
K. (2014). John Piaget biography (1896-1980). Retrieved from
D. E. (1990). Formal operational thinking: the role
of cognitive developmental
processes in adolescent
decision making about pregnancy and contraception.
Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 346-356. Retrieved from
S. (2010). Formal operational stage. Retrieved from
S. Cognitive development of the high school learners [PowerPoint slides].
Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/SAMNasser15/cognitive-development-of-the-high-school-learners