Thursday, January 26, 2012

Piaget’s Theory of Adolescent Cognition: Relevant and Timeless

An Overview

Jean Piaget presented five areas of adolescent cognitive development.  These include (1) formal operations, which is the fourth stage of his well-known stages of cognitive development, (2) hypothetic-deductive reasoning, (3) propositional thought, (4) the imaginary audience, and (5) the personal fable (Oswalt, 2012). 

Formal operations is the ability to think abstractly.  For an adolescent, it is the ability to think about intangible concepts such as “truth” or “sustainability”.  An adolescent with the ability to think abstractly can describe events they have never seen or experienced.  Piaget thought that youths normally entered the stage of formal operations around 11 years of age (Oswalt, 2012). 

Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is the ability to think abstractly in a more scientific and logical manner.  This ability helps a person solve problems by working on one aspect of the problem (Oswalt, 2012).  For example, a person comes into a dark room and tries the light switch, which doesn’t work.  The person assumes that the light has burned out and goes and gets a light bulb.  He inserts the new light bulb, but it still doesn’t work, so he checks to see if the light is plugged in.  He finds that the light is indeed unplugged and plugs it in and voila!

Propositional thought is the ability to make a logical conclusion based on the wording of a statement rather than the observation of it (Oswalt, 2012).  A good example of this kind of thinking occurs in yoga audio podcasts vs. a yoga video podcast.  In an audio podcast, the person doing the yoga practice must rely on the logic of the words to perform the practice, whereas someone who does not have this ability must rely on a video.

The imaginary audience is a heightened awareness of others and the ability to make judgments, interpret and observe.  In adolescence, this newly acquired awareness develops at a time when their bodies are changing; the adolescent feels feel the scrutiny of others and develops the ability to do the same to others (Oswalt, 2012). 

The personal fable is also a characteristic in adolescence.  This is where teens develop the ability to compare themselves to others and they begin to notice their personal strengths and weaknesses (Oswalt, 2012). 

Contemporary Relevance

Piaget’s theories are relevant today.  Burman (2008) argues that the age of a person during each stage of cognitive development, as framed by Piaget’s stages, are not what are important, rather the sequence of the development is.  This is how Piaget thought cognition evolves.  Piaget’s stages are the labels and general mechanism of how intelligence and cognitive thinking develops. 

Gruber (1996) conducted several interviews with Piaget before he died.  One of the most striking themes that emerged from these interviews was the use of metaphor throughout the lifespan.  Gruber expounds on Piaget’s ideas on the use of metaphors as a means to help construct thought.  He explains how Piaget used metaphor throughout his own life and related it to cognitive development throughout all the cognitive development stages.  The metaphor is the “gadget” (p.258) that allows the person to “draw something from it” (p. 258) no matter where the person is within the lifespan.  For example, a child would use a toy as a metaphor to understand or construct knowledge.  Abstract thoughts and ideas in formal operations are the metaphors and adolescent might use such as the ability to dream about the future, or associate a life circumstance to a pop song. 

Ayman-Nolley (1999) supports the relevance of Piaget’s theories as he explores the abstract ability to create artistically.  Using Piagetian theory, he drew parallels between cognition and behavior.  In Piagetian terms, cognition is equated with the creative process that initiates creative output.  In other words, when a thought cannot be assimilated into the existing cognitive structures, the mind accommodates.  The accommodation results in the creative product. 
One of the ways Ayman-Nolley (1999) presented Piaget’s theory in context was his example of Michelangelo’s expression of God. Michelangelo depicted the concept of a higher power or God as an old man.  He took his abstract thought of God and assimilated this thought into an abstract metaphor that inspired him to paint the image.  This accommodated his thought. 

Adolescents are called on every day to express thought through the curriculum if given the chance to create.  This occurs in language arts classes when they are required to write and essay, in an art class, or when they work together collaboratively to put on a school musical. 
In conclusion, whether or not a person supports or chooses to draw insights from Piagetian theory, Piaget’s ideas will always have a place in any discussion of cognition.  Piaget wrote extensively about it and conducted numerous experiments testing his ideas.  When these facts are coupled with the fact that cognitive development occurs, Piaget’s theories will always be relevant. 
Ayman-Nolley, S. (1999). A Piagetian perspective on the dialectic process of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 12(4), 267. Retrieved from
Burman, J. T. (2008). Experimenting in relation to piaget: Education is a chaperoned process of adaptation. Perspectives on Science, 16(2), 160-195. Retrieved from
Gruber, H. E. (1996). The life space of a scientist: The visionary function and other aspects of jean piaget's thinking.Creativity Research Journal, 9(2), 251. Retrieved from
Oswalt, A.  (2012).  Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development – child development theory: Adolescence.  Retrieved January 20, 2012 from

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