The formal operational period is the fourth stage of Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory. Formal operations incorporate, extend, and complete prior cognitive growth. Individuals begin to demonstrate formal operational characteristics between ages 11 and 15. In each stage, behavior is internalized into cognitive structures or schemes, thereby becoming repeatable and cognitively reversible. Individuals in the preceding concrete operational period use grouping structures, such as class inclusion and serial ordering, whereas formal operational individuals incorporate grouping structures with lattice structures. Lattice structures integrate many problem-related schemes to develop and use inclusional, propositional, and inferential statements about a problem’s variables.
Formal operators think more abstractly, from the actual to the possible. They solve problems without using tangible, intuitive, or believable phenomena as they classify and link elements of a problem. In other words, they do not need to experience the world firsthand to generate, reflect on, and integrate information into the problem-solving scenario. This skill supports Piaget’s conception of ego-centricism, a decentering process that evolves from stage to stage. It also explains why adolescents are more reflective, sensitive to others, and aware of social mechanisms and how they take the emotional perspective of others and understand people’s motives.
Compared with concrete operators who employ inductive reasoning, using one incident to generalize about many others, formal operators use a more rigorous and productive form of logic, hypothetico-deductive reasoning. It allows individuals to comprehend many permutations and contradictions when developing a theory about a problem. To represent factors and factorial relationships in theory development, hypothetico-deductive reasoning employs transformations or 16 propositional statements. Transformations are dependent on the problem type and can be identified by propositional language, such as if-then and either-or.
Formal operators are also more scientific and systematic than concrete operators, who tend to be disorganized. Formal thinkers methodically vary one factor at a time and hold the other factors constant as they keep track of each test result. They use a combinatorial system that fosters perception and organization of all possible factors and incorporates them into transformations. Inefficiency and error in problem solving are thereby reduced. The ability to generate possibilities, to use hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and to be methodical when problem solving explains many of the increased cognitive achievements of adolescents and adults. Consequently, Piaget’s theory has greatly influenced educational practice and perceptions of cognitive development.
However, research exploring formal operations has fostered criticism of Piaget’s theory. Studies reveal that formal operational skills are not utilized by many adolescents and adults, are more often used in Western cultures than other cultures, are related to formal schooling, and can be taught to children younger than 11. Piaget briefly addressed these issues when he asserted that formal thought was not a universal achievement and that environmental as well as genetic processes were influential in cognitive development. Unfortunately, he did not explain which genetic and environmental factors have influence and how they interact to foster formal skills.
Other studies have shown that formal skills (e.g., use of transformations) are not consistently employed across problem types. Although Piaget asserted that problem type influences the transformations used, he did not match problem type with transformation type. Furthermore, Piaget and his colleague, Bärbel Inhelder, used only scientific problems when exploring and illustrating formal operations, making application of formal skills to nonscientific adolescent problems more difficult. Some, such as Lawrence Kohlberg and David Elkind, have successfully applied Piaget’s theory as a foundation for exploring nonscientific problems. Kolhberg built on and revised Piaget’s ideas to develop a theory of moral reasoning, and Elkind used Piaget’s views as a basis for exploring his conception of adolescent egocentricism.
Additionally, Piaget’s assertion that formal thinking completes the prior stages of cognitive development has been questioned. Some suggest that cognitive development continues into adulthood. However, they often use formal thinking as a basis for describing further development and posit a post-formal operational stage, a problem-finding stage, dialectical thinking, or wisdom as examples of adult cognition. A theory can account for certain cognitive phenomena and lay groundwork for further research, but it can not describe all of cognitive development. Regardless of the theory’s deficiencies, the formal operational period explains many aspects of adolescent cognition and has provided a strong foundation for research.
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- Huitt, W., & Hummel, (2004). Cognitive development. Retrieved from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html