Psychological Constructivism

In chapter 3, we briefly reviewed Piaget and his cognitive development theory. Piaget believed that when we are faced with new information that we experience a cognitive disequilibrium. In response, we are continuously trying to regain cognitive homeostasis through adaptation. Piaget also proposed that through maturation we progress through four stages of cognitive development. As Piaget believed that adolescence was the start of the fourth stage, we will focus on the cognitive developments that occur during this stage.

Adaptation

When it comes to maintaining cognitive equilibrium, young people have much more of a challenge because they are constantly being confronted with new situations. All of this new information needs to be organized. The framework for organizing information is referred to as a schema. We develop schemata through the processes of adaptation. Adaptation can occur through assimilation and accommodation.



Video 6.3.1 Semantic Networks and Spreading Activation explains the creation and use of schemas.

Sometimes when we are faced with new information, we can simply fit it into our current schema; this is called assimilation. For example, a student is given a new math problem in class. They use previously learned strategies to try to solve the problem. While the problem is new, the process of solving the problem is something familiar to the student. The new problem fits into their current understanding of the math concept.

Not all new situations fit into our current framework and understanding of the world. In these cases, we may need accommodation, which is expanding the framework of knowledge to accommodate the new situation. If the student solving the math problem could not solve it because they were missing the strategies necessary to find the answer, they would first need to learn these strategies, and then they could solve the problem.

Figure 6.3.1. Model of Piaget's adaptation theory.



Video 6.3.2. Schemas, Assimilation, and Accommodation explains Piaget's theory of constructing schemas through adaptation.

Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

Piaget was a psychological constructivist: in his view, learning proceeded by the interplay of assimilation (adjusting new experiences to fit prior concepts) and accommodation (adjusting concepts to fit new experiences). The to-and-fro of these two processes leads not only to short-term learning but also to long-term developmental change. The long-term developments are really the main focus of Piaget's cognitive theory.

After observing children closely, Piaget proposed that cognition developed through distinct stages from birth through the end of adolescence. By stages he meant a sequence of thinking patterns with four key features:

  1. They always happen in the same order.
  2. No stage is ever skipped.
  3. Each stage is a significant transformation of the stage before it.
  4. Each later stage incorporated the earlier stages into itself.


Piaget proposed four major stages of cognitive development and called them (1) sensorimotor intelligence, (2) preoperational thinking, (3) concrete operational thinking, and (4) formal operational thinking. Each stage is correlated with an age period of childhood, but only approximately.



Video 6.3.3. Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development explains the structure of the four stages and major cognitive developments associated with each stage.

Sensorimotor Stage

A toddler building a tower out of colorful blocksAccording to Piaget, children are in the sensorimotor stage from birth until the age of 2. This first stage is defined as the period when infants "think" by means of their senses and motor actions. As every new parent will attest, infants continually touch, manipulate, look, listen to, and even bite and chew objects. According to Piaget, these actions allow them to learn about the world and are crucial to their early cognitive development.

The infant's actions allow the child to represent (or construct simple concepts of) objects and events. A toy animal may be just a confusing array of sensations at first. However, by looking, feeling, and manipulating it repeatedly, the child gradually organizes her sensations and actions into a stable concept, a toy animal. The representation acquires a permanence lacking in the individual experiences of the object, which are constantly changing. Because the representation is stable, the child "knows," or at least believes, that toy animal exists even if the actual toy animal is temporarily out of sight. Piaget called this sense of stability object permanence, a belief that objects exist whether or not they are actually present. It is a major achievement of sensorimotor development, and marks a qualitative transformation in how older infants (24 months) think about experience compared to younger infants (6 months).

During much of infancy, of course, a child can only barely talk, so sensorimotor development initially happens without the support of language. It might, therefore, seem hard to know what infants are thinking, but Piaget devised several simple, but clever, experiments to get around their lack of language. The results of these experiments suggest that infants do indeed represent objects even without being able to talk (Piaget, 1952). In one, for example, he simply hid an object (like a toy animal) under a blanket. He found that doing so consistently prompts older infants (18–24 months) to search for the object, but fails to prompt younger infants (less than six months) to do so. 'Something' motivates the search by the older infant even without the benefit of language, and the 'something' is presumed to be a permanent concept or representation of the object.

Preoperational Stage

A young girl writing with her father at a tableIn the preoperational stage, children ages 2 to 7 use their new ability to represent objects in a wide variety of activities, but they do not yet do it in ways that are organized or fully logical. One of the most obvious examples of this kind of cognition is dramatic play, the improvised make-believe of preschool children. If you have ever had responsibility for children of this age, you have likely witnessed such play. Ashley holds a plastic banana to her ear and says: "Hello, Mom? Can you be sure to bring me my baby doll? OK!" Then she hangs up the banana and pours tea for Jeremy into an invisible cup. Jeremy giggles at the sight of all of this and exclaims: "Rinnng! Oh Ashley, the phone is ringing again! You better answer it." And on it goes.

In a way, children immersed in make-believe seem "mentally insane," in that they do not think realistically. But they are not truly insane because they have not really taken leave of their senses. At some level, Ashley and Jeremy always know that the banana is still a banana and not really a telephone; they are merely representing it as a telephone. They are thinking on two levels at once—one imaginative and the other realistic. This dual processing of experience makes dramatic play an early example of metacognition, or reflecting on and monitoring of thinking itself. Metacognition is a highly desirable skill for success in school, one that teachers often encourage (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Paley, 2005). Partly for this reason, teachers of young children (preschool, kindergarten, and even first or second grade) often make time and space in their classrooms for dramatic play, and sometimes even participate in it themselves to help develop the play further.

Concrete Operational Stage

A boy shown deep in thoughtAs children continue into elementary school, they become able to represent ideas and events more flexibly and logically. Their rules of thinking still seem very basic by adult standards and usually operate unconsciously, but they allow children to solve problems more systematically than before, and therefore to be successful with many academic tasks. In the concrete operational stage, for example, a child may unconsciously follow the rule: "If nothing is added or taken away, then the amount of something stays the same." This simple principle helps children to understand certain arithmetic tasks, such as in adding or subtracting zero from a number, as well as to do certain classroom science experiments, such as ones involving judgments of the amounts of liquids when mixed. Piaget called this period the concrete operational stage because children mentally "operate" on concrete objects and events. They are not yet able, however, to operate (or think) systematically about representations of objects or events. Manipulating representations is a more abstract skill that develops later, during adolescence.

Concrete operational thinking differs from preoperational thinking in two ways, each of which renders children more skilled as students. One difference is reversibility, or the ability to think about the steps of a process in any order. Imagine a simple science experiment, for example, such as one that explores why objects sink or float by having a child place an assortment of objects in a basin of water. Both the preoperational and concrete operational child can recall and describe the steps in this experiment, but only the concrete operational child can recall them in any order. This skill is beneficial for any task involving multiple steps—a common feature of tasks in the classroom. In teaching new vocabulary from a story, for another example, a teacher might tell students: "First make a list of words in the story that you do not know, then find and write down their definitions, and finally get a friend to test you on your list." These directions involve repeatedly remembering to move back and forth between a second step and a first—a task that concrete operational students—and most adults—find easy, but that preoperational children often forget to do or find confusing. If the younger children are to do this task reliably, they may need external prompts, such as having the teacher remind them periodically to go back to the story to look for more unknown words

The other new feature of thinking during the concrete operational stage is the child's ability to decenter or focus on more than one feature of a problem at a time. There are hints of decentration in preschool children's dramatic play, which requires being aware on two levels at once—knowing that a banana can be both a banana and a "telephone." The decentration of the concrete operational stage is more deliberate and conscious than preschoolers' make-believe. Now the child can attend to two things at once quite purposely. Suppose you give students a sheet with an assortment of subtraction problems on it and ask them to do this: "Find all of the problems that involve two-digit subtraction and that involve borrowing from the next column. Circle and solve only those problems." Following these instructions is quite possible for a concrete operational student (as long as they have been listening!) because the student can attend to the two subtasks simultaneously—finding the two-digit problems and identifying which involve borrowing.

In real classroom tasks, reversibility and decentration often happen together. A well-known example of joint presence is Piaget's experiments with conservation, the belief that an amount or quantity stays the same even if it changes apparent size or shape (Piaget, 2001; Matthews, 1998). Imagine two identical balls made of clay. Any child, whether preoperational or concrete operational, will agree that the two indeed have the same amount of clay in them simply because they look the same. However, if you now squish one ball into a long, thin "hot dog," the preoperational child is likely to say that the amount of that ball has changed—either because it is longer or because it is thinner, but at any rate, because it now looks different. The concrete operational child will not make this mistake, thanks to new cognitive skills of reversibility and decentration. For this child, the amount is the same because "you could squish it back into a ball again" (reversibility) and because "it may be longer, but it is also thinner" (decentration). Piaget would say the concrete operational child "has conservation of quantity."

The classroom examples described above also involve reversibility and decentration. As already mentioned, the vocabulary activity described earlier requires reversibility (going back and forth between identifying words and looking up their meanings). However, it can also be construed as an example of decentration. Furthermore, as mentioned, the arithmetic activity requires decentration (looking for problems that meet two criteria and also solving them). However, it can also be construed as an example of reversibility (going back and forth between subtasks, as with the vocabulary activity). Either way, the development of concrete operational skills support students in doing many basic academic tasks; in a sense, they make ordinary schoolwork possible.

Formal Operational Stage

Group of teens looking at and reading off of scenario cards as part of a training programIn the fourth (and last) of the Piagetian stages, an adolescent becomes able to reason not only about tangible objects and events, as younger children do, but also about hypothetical or abstract ones. Hence this stage is named the formal operational stage—the period when the individual can "operate" on "forms" or representations.

During the formal operational stage, adolescents can understand abstract principles that have no physical reference. They can now contemplate such abstract constructs as beauty, love, freedom, and morality. The adolescent is no longer limited by what can be directly seen or heard. Additionally, while younger children solve problems through trial and error, adolescents demonstrate hypothetical-deductive reasoning, which is developing hypotheses based on what might logically occur. They can think about all the possibilities in a situation beforehand, and then test them systematically (Crain, 2005). Now they can engage in real scientific thinking. Formal operational thinking also involves accepting hypothetical situations. Adolescents understand the concept of transitivity, which means that a relationship between two elements is carried over to other elements logically related to the first two, such as if A


Video 6.3.4. Formal Operational Stage explains some of the cognitive development consistent with formal operational thought.

Abstract and Hypothetical Thinking

One of the major premises of formal operational thought is the capacity to think of possibility, not just reality. Adolescents' thinking is less bound to concrete events than that of children; they can contemplate possibilities outside the realm of what currently exists. One manifestation of the adolescent's increased facility with thinking about possibilities is the improvement of skill in deductive reasoning (also called top-down reasoning), which leads to the development of hypothetical thinking. This development provides the ability to plan ahead, see the future consequences of an action, and provide alternative explanations of events. It also makes adolescents more skilled debaters, as they can reason against a friend's or parent's assumptions. Adolescents also develop a more sophisticated understanding of probability.

This appearance of more systematic, abstract thinking allows adolescents to comprehend the sorts of higher-order abstract logic inherent in puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies. Their increased facility permits them to appreciate how language can be used to convey multiple messages, such as satire, metaphor, and sarcasm (children younger than age nine often cannot comprehend sarcasm). This development also permits the application of advanced reasoning and logical processes to social and ideological matters such as interpersonal relationships, politics, philosophy, religion, morality, friendship, faith, fairness, and honesty.

Deductive Reasoning



Video 6.3.5. Deductive Reasoning demonstrates a Piagetian task that presents the child with a hypothetical situation and asks that they deduce what happens given this scenario. The first child is an elementary school-aged child. The second is an adolescent. You can see how these two are able to use hypothetical information differently to make predictions about what will happen next.

Intuitive and Analytic Thinking

Piaget emphasized the sequence of thought throughout four stages. Others suggest that thinking does not develop in sequence, but instead, that advanced logic in adolescence may be influenced by intuition. Cognitive psychologists often refer to intuitive and analytic thought as the dual-process model, the notion that humans have two distinct networks for processing information (Kuhn, 2013.) Intuitive thought is automatic, unconscious, and fast, and it is more experiential and emotional.

In contrast, analytic thought is deliberate, conscious, and rational (logical). While these systems interact, they are distinct (Kuhn, 2013). Intuitive thought is easier, quicker, and more commonly used in everyday life. As discussed in the adolescent brain development section, the discrepancy between the maturation of the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex may make teens more prone to emotional, intuitive thinking than adults. As adolescents develop, they gain in logic/analytic thinking ability and sometimes regress, with social context, education, and experiences becoming significant influences. Simply put, being "smarter," as measured by an intelligence test, does not advance cognition as much as having more experience, in school and life (Klaczynski & Felmban, 2014).

Relativistic Thinking

Adolescents are more likely to engage in relativistic thinking—in other words, they are more likely to question others' assertions and less likely to accept information as absolute truth. Through experience outside the family circle, they learn that rules they were taught as absolute are relativistic. They begin to differentiate between rules crafted from common sense (do not touch a hot stove) and those that are based on culturally relative standards (codes of etiquette). This can lead to a period of questioning authority in all domains.

Formal Operational Thinking In the Classroom

School is a main contributor in guiding students towards formal operational thought. With students at this level, the teacher can pose hypothetical (or contrary-to-fact) problems: “What if the world had never discovered oil?” or “What if the first European explorers had settled first in California instead of on the East Coast of the United States?” To answer such questions, students must use hypothetical reasoning, meaning that they must manipulate ideas that vary in several ways at once and do so entirely in their minds.

The hypothetical reasoning that concerned Piaget primarily involved scientific problems. His studies of formal operational thinking therefore often look like problems that middle or high school teachers pose in science classes. In one problem, for example, a young person is presented with a simple pendulum, to which different amounts of weight can be hung (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). The experimenter asks: “What determines how fast the pendulum swings: the length of the string holding it, the weight attached to it, or the distance that it is pulled to the side?” The young person is not allowed to solve this problem by trial-and-error with the materials themselves but must reason a way to the solution mentally. To do so systematically, he or she must imagine varying each factor separately, while also imagining the other factors that are held constant. This kind of thinking requires facility at manipulating mental representations of the relevant objects and actions—precisely the skill that defines formal operations.

As you might suspect, students with an ability to think hypothetically have an advantage in many kinds of schoolwork: by definition, they require relatively few “props” to solve problems. In this sense, they can in principle be more self-directed than students who rely only on concrete operations—certainly a desirable quality in the opinion of most teachers. Note, though, that formal operational thinking is desirable but not sufficient for school success, and that it is far from being the only way that students achieve educational success. Formal thinking skills do not ensure that a student is motivated or well-behaved, for example, nor does it guarantee other desirable skills. The fourth stage in Piaget’s theory is really about a particular kind of formal thinking, the kind needed to solve scientific problems and devise scientific experiments. Since many people do not normally deal with such problems in the normal course of their lives, it should be no surprise that research finds that many people never achieve or use formal thinking fully or consistently, or that they use it only in selected areas with which they are very familiar (Case & Okomato, 1996). For teachers, the limitations of Piaget’s ideas suggest a need for additional theories about development—ones that focus more directly on the social and interpersonal issues of childhood and adolescence.

Adolescent Egocentrism

Once adolescents can understand abstract thoughts, they enter a world of hypothetical possibilities and demonstrate egocentrism or a heightened self-focus. The egocentricity comes from attributing unlimited power to their own thoughts (Crain, 2005). Piaget believed it was not until adolescents took on adult roles that they would be able to learn the limits to their own thoughts.

David Elkind (1967) expanded on the concept of Piaget's adolescent egocentricity. Elkind theorized that the physiological changes that occur during adolescence result in adolescents being primarily concerned with themselves. Additionally, since adolescents fail to differentiate between what others are thinking and their own thoughts, they believe that others are just as fascinated with their behavior and appearance. This belief results in the adolescent anticipating the reactions of others, and consequently constructing an imaginary audience. "The imaginary audience is the adolescent's belief that those around them are as concerned and focused on their appearance as they themselves are" (Schwartz, Maynard, & Uzelac, 2008, p. 441). Elkind thought that the imaginary audience contributed to the self-consciousness that occurs during early adolescence. The desire for privacy and reluctance to share personal information may be a further reaction to feeling under constant observation by others.

Another important consequence of adolescent egocentrism is the personal fable or belief that one is unique, special, and invulnerable to harm. Elkind (1967) explains that because adolescents feel so important to others (imaginary audience), they regard themselves and their feelings as being special and unique. Adolescents believe that only they have experienced strong and diverse emotions, and therefore others could never understand how they feel. This uniqueness in one's emotional experiences reinforces the adolescent's belief of invulnerability, especially to death. Adolescents will engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving or unprotected sex, and feel they will not suffer any negative consequences. Elkind believed that adolescent egocentricity emerges in early adolescence and declines in middle adolescence. However, recent research has also identified egocentricity in late adolescence (Schwartz et al., 2008).

Consequences of Formal Operational Thought

As adolescents are now able to think abstractly and hypothetically, they exhibit many new ways of reflecting on information (Dolgin, 2011). For example, they demonstrate greater introspection or thinking about one's thoughts and feelings. They begin to imagine how the world could be, which leads them to become idealistic or to insist upon high standards of behavior. Because of their idealism, they may become critical of others, especially adults in their life. Additionally, adolescents can demonstrate hypocrisy, or pretend to be what they are not. Since they can recognize what others expect of them, they will conform to those expectations for their emotions and behavior seemingly hypocritical to themselves. Lastly, adolescents can exhibit pseudostupidity. This is when they approach problems at a level that is too complex and they fail because the tasks are too simple. Their new ability to consider alternatives is not completely under control and they appear "stupid" when they are, in fact, bright, just not experienced.

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Beyond Formal Operational Thought: Postformal Thought

According to Piaget's theory, adolescents acquire formal operational thought and this is the last stage of cognitive development. The hallmark of this type of thinking is the ability to think abstractly or to consider possibilities and ideas about circumstances never directly experienced. Thinking abstractly is only one characteristic of adult thought, however. If you compare a 15-year-old with someone in their late 30s, you would probably find that the latter considers not only what is possible but also what is likely. Why the change? The adult has gained experience and understands why possibilities do not always become realities. They learn to base decisions on what is realistic and practical, not idealistic, and can make adaptive choices. Adults are also not as influenced by what others think. This advanced type of thinking is referred to as postformal thought (Sinnott, 1998).

In addition to moving toward more practical considerations, thinking in early adulthood may also become more flexible and balanced. Abstract ideas that the adolescent believes in firmly may become standards by which the adult evaluates reality. Adolescents tend to think in dichotomies; ideas are true or false; good or bad; there is no middle ground. However, with experience, the adult comes to recognize that there are some right and some wrong in each position, some good or some bad in a policy or approach, some truth and some falsity in a particular idea. This ability to bring together salient aspects of two opposing viewpoints or positions is referred to as dialectical thought and is considered one of the most advanced aspects of postformal thinking (Basseches, 1984). Such thinking is more realistic because very few positions, ideas, situations, or people are completely right or wrong. So, for example, parents who were considered angels or devils by the adolescent eventually become just people with strengths and weaknesses, endearing qualities, and faults to the adult.



Video 6.3.6. Perry's Stages of Intellectual Development explains post-formal stages of cognitive development in adulthood.

Does Everyone Reach Formal Operational or Postformal Thought?

Formal operational thought is influenced by experience and education. Most people attain some degree of formal operational thinking but use formal operations primarily in the areas of their strongest interest (Crain, 2005).  Even those that can use formal or postformal thought, they do not regularly demonstrate it. In some small villages and tribal communities, it is barely used at all. A possible explanation is that an individual's thinking has not been sufficiently challenged to demonstrate formal operational thought in all areas.

Some adults lead lives in which they are not challenged to think abstractly about their world. Many adults do not receive any formal education and are not taught to think abstractly about situations they have never experienced. Further, they are also not exposed to conceptual tools used to formally analyze hypothetical situations. Those who do think abstractly, in fact, may be able to do so more easily in some subjects than others. For example, psychology majors may be able to think abstractly about psychology, but be unable to use abstract reasoning in physics or chemistry. Abstract reasoning in a particular field requires a knowledge base that we might not have in all areas. Consequently, our ability to think abstractly depends to a large extent on our experiences.

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