High School Tips: Cognitive Development

Problem Solving:

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?

A.    Proportional thinking: making assertions outside visual

evidence and stating what may be possible in things not seen by the eyes.

B.    Relativistic thinking: subjectivity making an opinion on facts

involving ones own bias, prejudice of faces- which may be either right or wrong.

C.    Real Vs. Possible: examining a situation and exploring the possible terms

of a situation, or solution.

(unknown author,2013)


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, n.d.)


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)


English / Reading

    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 procedures.

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. 

YouTube Video


Bergin, D. A., Bergin, C. C. (2012). Child and Adolescent Development: In Your

Classroom (2nd ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.


Cherry, K. (2014). Formal operational stage of cognitive development. Retrieved from



Cherry, K. (2014). John Piaget biography (1896-1980). Retrieved from



Gordon, D. E. (1990). Formal operational thinking: the role of cognitive developmental

processes in adolescent decision making about pregnancy and contraception.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 346-356. Retrieved from



McLeod, S. (2010). Formal operational stage. Retrieved from



Nasser, S. Cognitive development of the high school learners [PowerPoint slides].

Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/SAMNasser15/cognitive-development-of-the-high-school-learners