Early Adolescence: Jean Piaget’s Formal Operational Thought

Formal Operational Thought

Jean Piaget believed that thinking occurred in stages and during early adolescence thinking shifted from concrete operational thought to formal operational thought. In concrete operational thought children use mental processes to clarify alterations in concrete events and objects. With formal operational thought though adolescents use operations to control and alter thoughts.

Six new conceptual skills appear when formal operational thought occurs. The first skill is the capability to mentally control more than two types of variables at the same time. An example of this is being able to think about the links between speed, distance and time when planning a trip. The second skill is the capability to think about modifications that may occur with time. For instance they may grasp the concept that they will in time have to move from their parent’s house into a new life of their own at one point in their life. The next skill is the ability to imagine rational series of events. For example they are capable of understanding how far they may go in college or afterwards depending on how well they do in high school.

The fourth skill is the capability of predicting results of actions. An example of this is realizing that if they drink and drive they may kill themselves or somebody else. The next skill is the capacity to sense reasonable steadiness or contradictions in a set of statements. For instance they may question “equal education” amongst different social classes. The last skill is the capability to think of themselves, others and the world in a real way. Depending on the social norms children know they must act a certain way and know that others may act differently from them.

There are several environmental factors which help to foster formal operational thought. The first condition is that children begin to process in various relationships that can conflict with each other. These roles may include, son, daughter, student, friend, citizen, and dating partner. There may be expectations from different roles and the pressures and stress form these expectations may put a toll on the child.

Another environmental condition is the child’s membership in a more heterogeneous group of peers such as a junior high or high school. Within these groups there may be various social groups, ethnicities, religions, etc. Values and expectations are seen and realized as different from their peers.

The last environmental experience that may promote formal operational thought is high school curriculum. “The more complex, differentiated academic environment of the high school can bring substantial gains in conceptual skills for those students who become actively engaged in its academic programs.” (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 314.) The various school subjects such as math, science, language, fine arts and the humanities help to teach the child to think of relationships logically, establish a theoretical deductive way of thinking and promote notions of ways the world has been or may be.

In the concluding article we will wrap up the psychological & physical developments during early adolescence and the impacts they can have in the classroom.

This post is part of the series: The Psychology of Adolescent Development

Learn more about how children are developing cognitively during puberty. This is a time in life where a lot is happening developmentally.
  1. Development in Early Adolescence: Puberty and Low Self Esteem
  2. Psychology and Development of Early Adolescence: Part Two
  3. Adolescent Development: Tips for Teachers on Dealing with Early or Late Maturation