Concrete Operational Thinking - an overview (2022)

Concrete operational thinking, common in latency-aged children, has implications for the meaning and understanding of suicide in young children.

From: Comprehensive Clinical Psychology, 1998

Related terms:

  • Cognitive Development
  • Logical Thinking
  • Cognitive Ability
  • Cognitive Functioning
  • Cognitive Performance
  • Developmental Theory
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Transfer of Learning
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Gifted Youth

Douglas Schave, in Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy, 2002

III.A. Cognitive Changes in Early Adolescence

There is a dramatic shift in cognitive functioning from the “here and now” concrete operational thinking of latency to the “future oriented” formal operational thinking of early adolescence. As a result, early adolescents, even more so brilliant ones, are confronted with a developmental milestone in cognitive functioning that is very similar to the toddler. They must grapple with the excitement of being exposed to a rapidly expanding world of information and ideas, while also struggling with the terror of becoming insignificant and lost in the sudden and massive expansion of their universe.

This cognitive shift stimulates a tremendous creative spurt, as well as a massive disequilibrium. This disequilibrium is further intensified by the physical, hormonal, sexual, and social changes that bombard them. Under such an assault, early adolescents are suddenly unable to easily assimilate the massive influx of information that is pouring in around them. This creates a “softening” of their psychic structure, that is, issues having an emotional component, even if a minor one, create massive changes in how they react or accommodate to a situation. As a result, this “softening” of the psychic structure of early adolescents, particularly gifted ones, often disrupts their maintaining a solid sense of self. This “softening” intensifies their reliance on external sources to maintain a sense of well-being. Unfortunately, with early adolescents struggling for increased freedom from their parents, early adolescents often reach outside the family, toward peers, for their primary emotional support.

In addition, the resulting volatility of early adolescents manifests itself in a dialectic of creative expansiveness, moodiness, impulsiveness, self-centeredness, and a terror or intolerance for things that are different. This volatility causes self-esteem problems, which again draws early adolescents even closer to their peers who are also drowning in their own shame. Often, they hide their struggles, rage, and depression through the use of drugs, as well as antiauthority and sexual activities.

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Navigating the teenage years: what do we know about how adolescents find meaning and purpose?

Areana Eivers, Adrian B. Kelly, in Navigating Life Transitions for Meaning, 2020

Piaget’s formal operational thought

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, by the age of approximately 10 years, most children will have consolidated their capacity for concrete operational thinking. By the end of this stage, children demonstrate an ability to think logically and systematically, and to consider multiple aspects of a situation or problem simultaneously (Moshman, 2011). This enables basic scientific method to be applied to problems, whereby different aspects of a task or situation are variously manipulated or held constant to test a hypothesis. Yet one key limitation of this stage of development is the continued reliance on concrete (i.e., that which is experienced through the senses) information to support the reasoning process. Piaget proposed that in many, but not all individuals, a further stage of cognitive development is achieved. This stage, proposed to extend from 12 years through to adulthood, is characterized by what Piaget called formal operational thinking. Movement from concrete operational to formal operational thought sees the young adolescent gaining an ability to think in abstract terms, with a capacity to manipulate ideas mentally rather than depending on concrete stimuli. With this capacity for abstract thought comes the ability to think about (e.g., imagine, plan, evaluate, compare) objects and experiences that have not been personally encountered. Moshman (2011) describes this ability as one that embraces “possibilities”: “For the formal operational thinker, on the other hand, possibilities take on a life of their own. They are purposely and systematically formulated as a routine part of cognition. Reality is understood and evaluated as the realization of a particular possibility” (p. 9). One might argue that the adolescent processes of meaning-making are firmly grounded in this realization of possibilities.

What we know now that we did not fully know at the time that Piaget was forming his theory, is that the stages of adolescent cognitive development he proposed closely map on to underlying changes to neurological structure and activity occurring in the postpubertal brain (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006; Jetha & Segalowitz, 2012). Not until the 1970s and 1980s did we begin to accumulate evidence that showed the frontal and prefrontal cortex regions of the brain, in particular, continue to develop past childhood and into early adulthood. Two main changes in the brain have been observed as occurring during adolescence: one is an increase in myelination, leading to greater insulation of neural cells and, hence, faster transmission of information between cells; the second is synaptic pruning, whereby redundant or relatively inactive neural connections are removed, making the brain more effective and efficient. Furthermore, changes in the brain during adolescence are associated with dramatic developments in executive functioning, capacity for logic and abstract reasoning, social information processing, and metacognition (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006; Jetha & Segalowitz, 2012), all of which make possible both an expansion and deepening in meaning-making.

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Eleven to Fourteen Years: Early Adolescence—Age of Rapid Changes

Jennifer Maehr, Marianne E. Felice, in Encounters with Children (Fourth Edition), 2006


Because of a young adolescent's assumption of pseudo-adult mannerisms or the emulation of older models, it is easy for both parents and clinicians to overestimate their cognitive abilities. When evaluating a child in early adolescence, one must realize that 11-year-olds think concretely; that is, they do not yet have the cognitive abilities to think abstractly, to develop contingency plans or to conceptualize. Piaget classified this stage of cognitive development as concrete operational thinking; teens in this stage may experience difficulty organizing large bodies of data or inferential tasks. They may not relate present actions with future consequences. This inability has important implications for health counseling and the management and treatment of illnesses. Explicit linkages and short-term consequences must be spelled out clearly for a young adolescent.

Physicians who care for young adolescents frequently proclaim that they are difficult to interview. Teens may answer questions with only monosyllabic answers. In these instances, the physician is probably not being specific enough for a concrete-thinking youngster. For example, instead of saying, “Tell me about yourself,” the clinician may be more successful in saying, “Tell me, what do you do after school?” Because of limitations in conceptualization, young adolescents may be unable to sustain lengthy verbal interviews. Other youngsters may view a physician's questions as a test and interpret the medical interview like an examination at school, with right or wrong answers. In those instances, the physician may glean more information by interacting with the young patient through talking about current events or by asking the teen to draw a picture of himself. This approach may be more successful in getting to the core issues than more “standardized” interviews. Some children of age 11 or 12 may talk more freely in a relaxed, nonformal environment. In addition, a young adolescent may be more able to describe specific behaviors, beliefs and attitudes in her peer group than in herself. The clinician will do well to respect these distancing maneuvers and may even use these approaches in data gathering. For instance, “Some young people your age try cigarettes. Tell me, are any of your friends smoking cigarettes?”

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Dynamic Assessment of Learning Potential

DAVID TZURIEL, in Handbook of Psychoeducational Assessment, 2001


Dynamic assessment has been found to be an efficient approach to identify learning processes, learning potential, specific cognitive functions, and mediation strategies required for the enhancement of learning potential (e.g., Campione & Brown, 1987; Feuerstein, Rand, & Hoffman, 1979; Guthke & Wingenfeld, 1992; Haywood, 1997; Haywood & Tzuriel, 1992a; Lidz, 1987, Lidz & Elliott, 2000; Resing, 1997; Swanson, 1995; Tzuriel, 1992a, 1997a, 1998, 2000b, 2000c; Vygotsky, 1978).

Dynamic assessment (DA) and static testing have been used in the literature to refer to different modes of evaluating individuals’ cognitive capacities. DA refers to an assessment of thinking, perception, learning, and problem solving by an active teaching process aimed at modifying cognitive functioning. The major idea in DA is to observe and measure change criteria as predictors of future learning. Static testing, on the other hand, refers to measurement of a child's response without any attempt to intervene in order to change, guide, or improve the child's performance. The conceptualization behind using change criteria is that measures of modifiability are more closely related to the teaching processes by which the child is taught how to process information than are static measures of intelligence. In other words, the teaching strategies used in DA are more closely related to learning processes in school and to other life contexts than are standardized static methods.

DA differs from conventional static tests in its goals, processes, instruments, test situation, and interpretation of results (Feuerstein et al., 1979; Grigorenko & Sternberg, 1998; Haywood & Tzuriel, 1992a; Tzuriel, 1998, 2000b, in press; Tzuriel & Haywood, 1992). Several arguments have been raised against standardized static tests; the most frequent one is that they are inadequate to reveal the cognitive capacities of children who come from culturally different populations and children with learning difficulties (e.g., Hessels & Hamers, 1993; Tzuriel, 1998, 2000b, in press; Vygotsky, 1978). In Haywood's (1997) words: “The most frequent complaint is that they are not uniformly valid across ability levels, ages, and ethnic groups” (p. 103).

Criticism of Standardized Static Tests

Tzuriel (1998, 2000b, in press) has summarized four major criticisms that have been raised with respect to the use of static tests:


While standardized psychometric tests provide information on children's intellectual performance, they typically do not provide important information about learning processes, specific cognitive functions, and teaching strategies that would facilitate learning. Psychologists and educational practitioners need to know not only about the actual level of performance, but also what a child might achieve with an adult's guidance, metacognitive processes that could facilitate learning, and the nature of learning processes.


Low level of performance, as revealed in standardized static tests and in academic achievements, very frequently falls short of revealing the learning potential of children. This problem is sharpened among children coming from disadvantaged social backgrounds or children with learning difficulties. Many children perform poorly on standardized tests, not due to low intellectual ability but due to various reasons such as lack of opportunities for learning experiences, cultural differences, specific learning difficulties, and traumatic life experiences. Recent studies on the effects of schooling on performance of Piagetian-type tasks demonstrated that a high variability in performance has been attributed to familiarity with materials and concepts, rather than to ability (Rogoff & Chavajay, 1995). Some writers (e.g., Cole, 1990) argue that concrete operational thinking is not influenced by schooling but by the ability to understand the language of testing and the presuppositions of the testing situation itself. Very frequently standardized tests contribute to confusion between ability and efficiency. Children with a high level of intelligence or abstract ability might perform poorly on a test because they are inefficient in dealing with certain types of tasks presented, especially when performance within a time limit and awareness to amount of invested efforts are required.


Another criticism is that standardized tests do not provide clear descriptions of the cognitive processes involved in learning or specific recommendations for prescriptive teaching and remedial learning strategies. The idea of assessment of processes rather than the end products of learning has been suggested since the beginning of the twentieth century (e.g., Binet, 1909; Thorndike, 1926). Only in the 1970s, with the introduction of Vygotsky's (1978) theory and Feuerstein's (1979) ideas to modern psychology, was there a growth of interest, elaboration, and the spread of the idea of DA.

The lack of specific description of learning processes often creates a communication gap between psychologists and teachers who have incongruent expectations about testing goals. For example, in psychological reports there frequently is a statement describing the gap between the verbal and performance subscale scores of the WISC-III, but no specific recommendation about what exactly to do about it. What kind of training does the child need and how exactly should it be done? How can we ensure transfer of learning from that cognitive domain to classroom performance? The description of the psychometric properties of the individual's functioning does not provide the necessary information on learning processes that are required to bring about improvement of intellectual functioning.

Utley, Haywood, and Masters (1992) have remarked in regard to this point that the principal use of psychometric IQ test is classification, with the aim of giving differential treatment for individuals differing in level and/or pattern of intelligence. Such a classification not only has limited value, but also may have negative effects. First, the manifest cognitive performance shown by the IQ test does not necessarily reflect individual differences in latent intelligence. Second, even if it does, it is highly questionable whether individuals with the same IQ have similar characteristics and needs that would necessitate similar treatment. On the contrary, practical experience shows that even children who are virtually identical in terms of age, gender, and IQ show markedly different behavior, cognitive or affective, and therefore require different teaching approaches.


Another major criticism is that psychometric tests do not relate to nonintellective factors, which can influence individuals’ cognitive performance. Many researchers showed that non-intellective factors (e.g., intrinsic motivation, need for mastery, locus of control, anxiety, frustration tolerance, self-confidence, accessibility to mediation) are no less important in determining children's intellectual achievements than are “pure” cognitive factors (Tzuriel, Samuels, & Feuerstein, 1988). Cognitive functioning and motivational-affective factors were conceived as inseparable, representing two sides of the same coin (Haywood, 1992). As will be shown later, DA is conceived as a holistic assessment approach that permits observation of individuals on cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels as well as the interrelation among these levels of functioning.

The problems of standardized tests are magnified when used with mentally retarded (MR) or learning disabled individuals. These individuals very frequently have difficulties understanding the nature and requirements of the standard tasks; therefore, their performance on those tasks does not necessarily reflect inability. In some cases, removal of some obstacles to conceptualize the nature of the tasks (Haywood, 1997), inhibition of impulsivity, and/or provision of extra time to process the information (Tzuriel, in press) improves their performance significantly. Haywood (1997) has already clearly shown that the validity of standardized tests for MR persons does not lie in what these persons can do but in identifying what they presumably cannot do. Empirical support has been found in studies showing lower prediction of school achievement by standardized tests in cases of persons with MR than in persons without MR. Furthermore, DA procedures, although not designed primarily for prediction, have been found to be better predictors of school achievement among persons with MR than in persons without MR (Haywood, 1997; Tzuriel, 2000c). The role of nonintellective factors, which are integrated within the DA approach, is especially important with MR individuals whose personality or motivational problems interfere with their cognitive performance on standardized tests (e.g., Haywood & Switzky, 1986; Paour, 1992).

The main purpose of this chapter is to present the effectiveness of DA with various educational and clinical groups and describe its use in evaluation of cognitive intervention programs aimed at improvement of “learning how to learn” skills. DA has been used extensively in my developmental research of the effects of parent-child mediated learning strategies on children's cognitive modifiability. These studies are not reported here and the reader is referred to reviews of these studies reported elsewhere (Tzuriel, 1999, 2000b, in press).

The DA approach was influenced by two theories: Vygotsky's (1978) sociocultural theory, especially the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and Feuerstein et al.'s (1979) mediated learning experience (MLE) theory. Both theories emerged as a response to needs to include sociocultural factors in understanding of cognitive development and learning potential. In the following section, these two theories, which serve as the basis of the DA approach, are presented. The theoretical section is followed by two sections concerning the empirical foundation of DA; one is focused on educational perspectives and the second on evaluation of cognitive education programs. The educational perspective section includes a case study of a child with slight learning difficulties who was administered static assessment and DA. Finally, a conclusion section discusses integrative perspectives and gives suggestions for future development.

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Religion and the construction of identity

Roman Palitsky, ... Harrison J. Schmitt, in The Science of Religion, Spirituality, and Existentialism, 2020

Integrative approaches to the z-axis

Developmental models of identity are well poised to integrate multiple dimensions of religiosity because they consider development to be a process that unfolds over time, through interactions between the person and their environment. A particularly important arc within developmental theories of religion and identity derives from the work of Erikson (1994). Erikson (1993) was a psychoanalytic psychologist who developed a life-stage model of individual development based on identified developmental goals for eight different life stages, which he also applied to religion. Influenced by Erikson’s endeavor to situate individuals’ worldviews by understanding their developmental goals and challenges, several efforts have been made to chart naturalistic religious development. Fowler (1995) inaugurated Faith Development Theory, which resulted in a decades-long study of spiritual development across the lifespan. Fowler identified a progressive sophistication in religious attitudes and beliefs as individuals matured, marking six developmental stages. The early stages are constrained by cognitive capacities posited by the corresponding stage in Piaget’s model of development. For example, Fowler’s “Mythic-Literal” stage (7–12 years old) is subject to concrete-operational thinking, and accordingly features literal interpretations of religious metaphors (Roehlkepartain, Benson, & Wagener, 2006).

Several problems interfered with broad acceptance of Fowler’s theory. First, the cross-cultural and interreligious generalizability of these stages exhibits limitations (Jardine & Viljoen, 1992). Second, evidence does not support rigid stage theories in psychology, suggesting instead that development occurs along overlapping and nonlinear spectrums (Streib, 2005). Third, Fowler’s stages of faith development are evaluated by means of an interview that has received a mixed reception (Parker, 2006). These difficulties led to several expansions on Fowler’s model. Notably, Streib (2010) has nuanced and extended Fowler’s theory, positing that the stages of faith development constitute overlapping, interacting, and recurring dimensions of religiosity. In this sense, Streib’s model of religious development resembles inside-out, y-axis perspectives on religious development by identifying individual differences along dimensions of religiosity which, though the result of developmental processes, can be assessed cross-sectionally. Notably, in recent work Streib et al. have turned their analyses toward the temporal dimension (the z-axis of the triaxial model) by examining biographical narratives in faith development (Keller & Streib, 2013), and arguing for the need for longitudinal research. Indeed, recent longitudinal studies have applied latent class analyses to demonstrate that developmental trajectories differ between individuals (Lee, Pearce, & Schorpp, 2017). Recently, Milstein and Manierre (2012) have also implemented an Eriksonian approach to faith development, expanding somewhat differently on Fowler’s work. They argue for a cultural, ontogenetic model of religious development. This view approximates a triaxial model theoretically, regarding developmental acculturation into religious worldviews as an interaction between individual differences in development and sociocultural contexts over a developmental trajectory across time. Unfortunately, this work has not been followed by empirical investigations.

Developmental approaches reveal the diachronic nature of religious identity formation. How, then, do developmental trajectories along the z-axis resolve within an individual’s self-concept in the y-axis? Narrative psychological research investigates the stories that people tell about themselves, and how these stories are capable of transforming experiences into identities. For example, McAdams considers narrative to be a constructive process, whereby people draw on cultural resources to shape life experiences into coherent stories. These stories are distinctive, yet share common language and themes that make them broadly legible and nested within the social sphere (McAdams, Josselson, & Lieblich, 2006). According to McAdams, cultural resources such as religion inform these narratives, guiding the possibilities and meanings attributed to the stories people tell about themselves. Notably, Jackson’s existential phenomenological anthropology also identifies narrative as a powerful catalyst, which simultaneously reflects existential dilemmas and allows people to transform them, across time and between people (Jackson, 2002). Jackson’s analyses suggest that religion allows people to navigate the boundaries of individual and communal life by informing collective and personal narratives in a way that is responsive to existential challenges.

Recent work by several of the authors (Palitsky, Sullivan & Milstein, in preparation) has attempted to integrate narrative and developmental perspectives on religious identity. This research evaluated individuals’ perceptions of their own religious development over time by means of a measure examining the degree of (1) conflict people experienced with current and past religious communities and beliefs, and (2) the degree of transitions that people experienced over their lifetime. In a sample of undergraduate college students, conflict emerged as a predictor of depressed mood; however, this association was fully mediated by existential quest, suggesting that quest motivation may have a distinct function among individuals who are more religiously conflicted. On the other hand, reduced transition was associated with lower conflict, which in turn predicted reduced spiritual struggle. Transition is a contextual factor that is largely beyond a person’s control, especially in childhood. This x-axis variable, however, contributes to distress on the y-axis (struggle) through a variable linking the x and y: perceived conflict with one’s religious community and beliefs. In order to fully explore the ramifications of this developmental historical approach, it must be paired with longitudinal studies linking perceived biographical transitions with actual diachronic measurement. When integrated with culturally informed perspectives, such endeavors stand to advance a triaxial understanding of religion and identity.

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Cognitive Development

D.P. Keating, in Encyclopedia of Adolescence, 2011


Systematic research on cognitive development during the adolescent years began in earnest in the 1960s, sparked by the seminal 1958 work of Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder on The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence. Embedded in Piaget's encompassing structuralist framework, this groundbreaking work focused on the development of propositional logic, which was regarded as the adult, mature form of logical reasoning. In Piagetian theory, the development of formal operations was identified as the fourth and final stage of logical development, following the earlier developmental periods of sensorimotor, preoperational, and concrete operational thinking.

Given the breadth and depth of the Piagetian theory of formal operations, it is unsurprising that an extensive array of research was conducted in the ensuing years, generating a great deal of descriptive information on how the thinking of adolescents differed from both children and adults. Much of the focus of this research was on testing explicit or implicit empirical claims embedded in the broad theory of formal operations. Several distinct but overlapping phases emerged as this work progressed, representing a series of theoretical contrasts.

The first phase can be characterized as a focus on testing the claims of the theory of formal operations, asking questions such as: How different are adolescents and children, or adolescents and adults, on performance of logical tasks? At what ages do shifts in logic task performance emerge, and in what sequence do the observed changes emerge? What additional factors have an impact on logic task performance, including content knowledge or the context of assessment?

This intensive exploration of the theory of formal operations led to four broad outcomes that are noted here and described in more detail later in this article. First, over time, a general consensus emerged that the theory of formal operations, construed as a set of testable empirical claims about the course of logical development, or cognitive development more broadly, during adolescence, was not supported in a number of key ways. Second, in pursuing this research agenda, important findings about key characteristics of adolescent thinking were sufficiently replicated to afford substantial confidence in them. Third, competing theoretical formulations arose, challenging the centrality of shifts in logical structure as the driving force of cognitive development, both in general and during adolescence in particular. In response, arguments were advanced in defense of the general theory of formal operations, including the assertions (a) that the theory was broader than the narrow set of specific empirical claims that had been tested and found wanting and (b) the view that although the claims may be wrong on some specifics, the overall systems theory remains valuable. Finally, the topic of scientific reasoning, closest to the empirical tasks developed by Inhelder and Piaget, continued to develop in ever more complex ways, even as it became less attached to the specifics of formal operations theory.

Research arising from approaches that competed with formal operations theory can be viewed as comprising the second major phase of systematic research on adolescent cognitive development. Three major areas of research in this second phase of theoretical competition can be identified and are also described in more detail later in this article: cognitive science models, in particular, human information processing models; expertise and knowledge-focused models; and approaches emphasizing the limits of rationality, arising from a range of dual process models, including the interactive role of socioemotional context with cognitive processing (‘hot vs. cold’ cognition), the distinction between heuristic and analytic cognitive processing, and increasingly brain-based analyses, especially focused on the relations between the neural substrates for prefrontal cortex activity and activity in the limbic system, both functionally and in the pace of development. Although arising from different research traditions, these varied dual process models have much in common, and this overlap is described in the section on integrative approaches later in the article.

A parallel line of research, standing outside much of the theoretical back-and-forth about formal operations and competing theoretical models of cognitive development, has focused on the development of cognitive abilities and achievement during adolescence. Cross-over between cognitive and psychometric (mental measurement) approaches to adolescent functioning has been relatively rare, but the central practical importance of psychometric assessment for influencing future developmental pathways, especially with respect to higher education, is hard to overstate. A separate treatment of adolescence research on this topic appears later in this article.

The third, contemporary phase of research on adolescent cognitive development is characterized by two broad research themes, also noted here and elaborated later in this article. The first impetus can be viewed as a drive toward integration of different models of adolescent cognitive development, based on research findings that have not supported theories focusing on particular cognitive functions as the central, encompassing explanation. Increasingly, one key test of the value of integrative approaches is the degree to which they are compatible with a growing understanding of the specifics of brain development during adolescence. It is important, though, to distinguish this from reductionist models that view cognitive development as fully explainable by neural developments. The second impetus in contemporary research is a deepening concern about the implications for policy and practice arising from our understanding of adolescent cognitive development. Three especially noteworthy topic areas in which cognitive development has had notable influence include public health, where injury or death arise in the second decade of life most frequently due to excessive risk taking or behavioral misadventure; driving safety, in which the role of expertise and its interaction with the socioemotional context are deeply implicated; and juvenile justice, where mitigation based in part on cognitive immaturity has become a central concern in recent court findings, in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Although space constraints do not allow an extended review of these or other examples, it is clear that an understanding of adolescent cognitive development is increasingly important for a wide range of issues in policy and practice.

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