Cognitive Development in Adolescence: Piaget's Formal Operations Stage

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  • 0:01 Piaget
  • 1:11 Formal Operations
  • 2:21 Scientific Experimentation
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As children grow into teenagers, they become better at higher level thinking skills. In this lesson, we'll look at the formal operations stage of psychologist Jean Piaget's cognitive development theory to learn how adolescents think.


Kelly is 13, and she loves riddles. Every night before she goes to bed, her dad reads a riddle to her from a big book of them that he has. She puzzles over it and then gives him her answer at breakfast.

Kelly is in adolescence, or the time between childhood and adulthood. During this time, people go through many changes. They grow taller and start to look more and more like adults. They begin to experiment with who they are and find ways to be unique.

They also begin to think differently, a process called cognitive development. For example, not too long ago, Kelly was very limited in the type of riddle she could solve. She had trouble thinking in an abstract way. But recently, Kelly has started getting better and better at abstract thinking, which means that she can solve riddles that she couldn't solve before.

Psychologist Jean Piaget called this time in adolescent development the formal operations period of life. Let's look closer at what formal operations are, how they develop in adolescence and what they have to do with scientific experimentation.

Formal Operations

Remember Kelly? She likes to solve riddles and puzzles. But it wasn't always easy for her. According to Piaget, the formal operations stage of development, which involves being able to manipulate the world in your mind and think abstractly, begins at around age 11 and develops slowly over the teenage years.

What exactly does it mean to be able to manipulate the world in your mind? Well, not too long ago, her father read Kelly this problem: 'Jonah is taller than Mia and shorter than Gene. Who is taller, Mia or Gene?'

A few years ago, Kelly wouldn't have been able to figure out the answer to that problem without drawing Jonah, Mia and Gene on a piece of paper. But now that she's able to perform formal operations, Kelly doesn't have to draw the characters on paper. Now she can picture them in her head to figure out that Gene is taller than Mia.

To solve that problem, Kelly has had to imagine the world and do some mental manipulation. That is the hallmark of the formal operational period of development, according to Piaget.

Scientific Experimentation

Though mental manipulations are the hallmark of formal operations, they aren't the only way that thinking changes in adolescence. Kelly and her friends have become very good at figuring out the world around them.

For example, one day, Kelly went to school like normal. But on this day, something happened: Jordan, the boy she has a crush on, said hi to her in the hallway! He'd never done that before, and Kelly was so excited that he finally noticed her!

But why did he notice her, she wondered. She was wearing a new outfit, so maybe that was it. But she had also changed her hair, so maybe that's why he said hi. Or perhaps it was the fact that she smiled at him as he walked down the hall.

How could Kelly figure out what had caught Jordan's attention? She and her friends devised a plan. She would keep her hair the way it was on the day he said hi, but change her outfit back to one of her old ones. She also wouldn't smile at him. If he said hi with the old outfit and no encouragement, then it was her hair.

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