Cognitive Development in Adolescence
As we have seen, infants and children make astonishing intellectual strides between birth and preadolescence, so that 10- and 11-year-olds are quite sophisticated in their cognitive capacities. Even so, preadolescents’ cognitive abilities are limited in an impor-tant way. They have gained skill in a variety of mental operations, but they seem to apply these operations only to relations between concrete events; this is why Piaget referred to this stage of thinking as relying on concrete operations.
What did Piaget mean by “concrete” thinking? Typical 8- and 9-year-olds can easily see that 4 is an even number and 4 + 1 is odd. Similarly, they understand that 6 is even, while 6 + 1 is odd, and likewise for 8 and 8 + 1. But the same children fail to see the inevitability of this pattern; they fail to see that the addition of 1 to any even number must always produce a number that is odd. According to Piaget, children are not able to comprehend this abstract and formal relationship until about age 11 or 12, when they enter the formal operational period.
Piaget argued that when children enter this final stage, their ability to reason and solve problems takes a large step forward. They are now able to think about the pos-sible as well as the real. This change is evident in an early study by Ward and Overton (1990), who asked children of various ages to perform tasks that required simple steps of logical reasoning. Roughly 15% of the 4th graders they tested were able to master the tasks, in contrast to 25% of the 6th graders and roughly 50% of the 8th graders. By the 12th grade, approximately 80% of the children showed evidence of logical reasoning.
Children apply these new capacities in their schoolwork by thinking about scientific hypothesis testing or mathematical proofs in a way they could not before. They also apply these capacities to their own lives. They imagine new possibilities in their social relations, in politics, or in religion and may start to challenge beliefs and conventions that had seemed beyond question just a few years earlier.
There is room for debate, however, about whether we should think of these changes in the terms Piaget described. Some theorists believe that adolescent cognition is not funda-mentally different from the thinking of middle childhood (e.g., Siegler, 1998). What, then, produces the advances in reasoning just described? The answer may lie in the fact that older children have acquired a set of more efficient strategies, and also have markedly greater memory capacity, compared to younger children. This memory capacity (among its other benefits) allows adolescents to relate different aspects of a task to one another in ways they could not at an earlier age, and this is why their intellectual performance takes a large step forward.
No matter how we conceptualize these changes, though, one other point is crucial. Adolescents’ thinking is highly variable, using sophisticated logic in some cases, but relying on much more concrete strategies in other settings. This is evident in the laboratory, and also in adolescents’ day-to-day thinking (when, for example, they are exquisitely thoughtful in their challenges to political institutions but then remarkably short-sighted when thinking about the consequences of drinking and driving).
Similar variability is crucial when we compare adolescents (or adults) in different cultures. Adults in many parts of the world fail Piaget’s tests of formal operations, invit-ing the notion that only a minority of the world’s people achieve formal thinking. Other studies, however, paint a different portrait—and suggest that cultural differences tell us more about when and where people use logical thinking than about whether people can use logical thinking.
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