Humans must rely on intrinsic cognitive functions for logical conclusions in a variety of situations. Abstract reasoning is a cognitive mechanism for reaching logical conclusions in the absence of physical data, concrete phenomena, or specific instances. Abstract reasoning is essentially a generalization about relationships and attributes as opposed to concrete objects. The capacity for abstract reasoning develops from the initial reasoning about physically present, concrete objects and the subsequent formation of categories and schemas, or cognitive structures that organize and generalize information about specific instances.
In the development of abstract reasoning capacity, cognitive manipulation of objects or data is used to formulate conclusions about relationships. For example, in learning mathematics, one must proceed from understanding the concept of multiple objects in the present visual field to understanding the concept of addition. These new conclusions are successive, just like mathematics themselves. This process is a cognitive transcending of lower-level knowledge to form a new construction, or what Jean Piaget dubbed reflective abstraction.
Piaget concluded that the accumulation of knowledge was based partly on this concept of new construction. His hypothesis of schemas application involves two joint mental activities, which he called assimilation and accommodation. The former involves an integration of new information into previously existing constructs. The latter involves modifying schemas around the new stimulus. Piaget collectively called these operations equilibration, in reference to the laborious attempt to maintain homeostasis in cognitive representation. In essence, Piaget suggested that the accumulation of knowledge is a marriage of experience and adaptation.
Piaget thought that children do not form an internal representation of abstract concepts (such as time) on the basis of experience alone. Rather, they form schemas through constant conduction of assimilation and accommodation. Although his original ideas have been elaborated on, Piaget’s constructionist view has been embraced for defining universal aspects of cognitive development.
Piaget categorized cognitive development into four maturational stages, and it is in the final stage that abstract reasoning is said to develop. The first stage, the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years), involves development of goal-oriented interaction and object permanence. The second stage, or preoperational stage (2 to 6 years), is characterized by a child’s response to visual stimuli. That is, internal representations of the environment are shallow and based only on immediate experience. The child is incapable of projecting relationships within the environment to a higher level. The third stage, or concrete operational stage (7 to 12 years), emerges with the development of cognitive reversibility, or the ability to comprehend dynamic states. In the final stage, or formal operational stage, (beginning around 12 years), Piaget proposed that relative abstraction skills have been assembled.
Piaget hypothesized that a child at the formal operational level is capable of forming new constructs and make logical deductions in the absence of firsthand experience; that is, the child is able to reason abstractly. The original theory has been evaluated and elaborated on, yet neo-Piagetian theorists maintain the notion that abstract reasoning requires new construction. It is not believed, however, that abstract reasoning peaks at the formal operational level. Research suggests that the development of abstract skills may continue into late adulthood and is contingent on the amount of experience with abstract reasoning.
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