Abstract Thinking Skills Research Paper Starter

Abstract Thinking Skills

(Research Starters)

Abstract thinking skills develop over the course of a child's early developmental years and throughout adolescence. Development of these cognitive skills is largely dependent on stage of growth and on various biological processes including myelination, which increases the speed at which an individual can process information. Researchers have developed the information processing model to describe the actions of the brain when human beings think. This model helps us explain how human beings achieve higher cognitive abilities. Abstract thinking skills are developed in various ways, in and out of the classroom.

Keywords Abstraction; Adolescence; Developmental Psychology; Information Processing Model; Meta-cognition; Myelination; Strategies; Symbols


The skills an individual needs to excel in today's workplace have changed dramatically since the advent of our modern education system. Our economy has become increasingly global, more technologically advanced, and the competencies individuals display in order to work in the majority of fields today reflects these changes. Today's economy largely requires a college education, and a skill set that includes being able to think abstractly.

Historically, how children learn and what they are able to do has been shaped largely by the work of two noteworthy researchers: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Both theories continue to be applied to educational methods today. Piaget and Vygotsky were concerned with the development of higher cognition and social behavior in human beings. Piaget described intelligence as the process by which an individual could adapt to its environment using two processes - assimilation and accommodation, and identified four stages of cognitive development that occurred from infancy throughout adulthood. In each stage, certain behaviors and capabilities were noted, from object permanence in infancy to the ability to use symbols to represent abstract concepts in and throughout adulthood (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).

Vygotsky believed that interactions with others shape human beings in their behavior and ability to think and learn. He believed that social interaction with others was critical to learning, and that all higher quality learning actually occurs as a result of these relationships. Furthermore, Vygotsky's theory also purported that there are certain cognitions that can only occur in a specific time frame of an individual's life - the zone of proximal development - and what and how much an individual learns depends upon interactions with those around them. His theory argued that the guidance of an adult or peers could teach an individual much more than they could learn on their own (Wertsch, 1985).

The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky were influential to other educational researchers and psychologists, including John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. However, we are still learning about the most successful ways to develop and encourage abstract thinking skills in an educational setting. While these early theories very much shaped how we view the development of thinking and learning today, more recent research has shed light on the development of abstract thinking. While Piaget was focused largely on stages of development, and saw these stages as separate and related to a child's age, current research has focused largely on the information processing theory, which akins the human brain to a computer that manages information by storing knowledge, and getting to that knowledge by utilizing a range of strategies. Thinking occurs as human beings store and retrieve information. The information processing model sees development of thought as a more fluid model, rather than progress occurring in stages of development as Piaget described it.

Abstract thinking is the ability to take concrete experiences and knowledge and apply them to other ideas and problems. It is an essential skill in problem solving, and experts agree that all substantial and noteworthy learning involves abstract thinking (Poole, Miller, & Church, 2005). Developing abstract thinking skills is imperative for children, and development takes place throughout their education, well into adulthood.

Educational psychology is closely linked to developmental and cognitive psychology. Research from all of these fields helps us explain how abstract thinking skills develop in individuals, and how these skills can be encouraged in a school setting. One of the most critical areas in which abstract thinking skills can and should be developed is in the classroom. Teachers and schools can use various strategies and instructional methods to encourage students to think abstractly.

The development of abstract thinking skills has become an important part of instructional techniques in schools largely due to a shift in the requirements necessary to compete in the current and future global economy. As technology advances, it becomes imperative that individuals have the skills to solve problems and that are becoming increasingly complex.

Stages of Human Development

Developing abstract thinking skills goes hand in hand with human development, the conditions in which individuals develop, and by whom they are surrounded. The development of abstract thinking skills starts when children are very young, and the adults who surround children can help them develop these proficiencies as they grow older; especially once a child enters formal schooling (Poole, Miller, & Church, 2005). There are four stages of development that are recognized as critical periods in which cognitive function develops:

• Prenatal

• Infancy

• Middle Childhood

• Adolescence

During prenatal development, the first major stage, growth is impacted by the quality of prenatal care. A mother's actions such as drinking excessive alcohol or smoking, or poor nutrition can have a negative impact on the development of the fetus, and can have adverse effects on cognitive development (Pressley & McCormick, 2007). Additionally, external factors like a mother’s exposure to a stressful environment during pregnancy can negatively impact a child’s development (Henrichs, et al., 2011).

During infancy, the brain grows larger, and a variety of abilities including language and social skills develop. Between two and five years of age, the years where most children enter school, brain growth is continuing; simultaneously, myelination of the cells in the nervous system is occurring. As a result of increased myelination, children are able to process information at faster speeds as they grow older (Pressley & McCormick, 2007). Around the age of two, a significant transformation occurs in that children are able to abstract concepts from their environment to other objects or experiences (Poole, Miller, & Church, 2005). Language, social, and thinking skills continue to increase, and the development during these years can be largely impacted by the adults present in the child's life (Pressley & McCormick, 2007).

Most children in the United States enter elementary school around the age of five or six, and finish elementary school between the ages of twelve and thirteen. These developmental years are often referred to as "middle childhood" years. During this period children continue to develop language skills, and begin to gain knowledge and develop problem solving techniques that will have a large impact in their success in school, and thus on their ability to think abstractly. This is also the stage of development in which children cultivate a sense of whether they are successful or not in various areas of their schooling (Pressley & McCormick, 2007).

Adolescence usually begins at about twelve years of age, and continues into the late teens. The human brain reaches the adult weight and size by the age of sixteen, on average, but the brain continues to change and mature in various ways. Strategies for various cognitive skills, such as memory, continue to progress, as well as social interaction skills (Pressley & McCormick, 2007).

Classroom instructors and professionals in the field of education should be aware of these developmental periods. What students are cognitively capable of depends partly upon their developmental status. For a five-year old, abstract thinking may involve being able to use a certain toy as a symbol for another object in dramatic play, while a senior in high school may apply learned math skills to solve a problem in physics.


Early models of thought and cognition primarily described the development of thinking skills in stages. Piaget's model focused on four stages that were descriptive of various ages throughout early childhood and adolescence. Each stage listed milestones, and the final stage, formal operations, culminated in an ability to use symbols logically and relate these symbols to abstract concepts. Piaget suggested that in each stage, a child should be challenged with tasks that would scaffold them to the next stage - consistently stimulating their minds to make the leap to the next level of complexity (Huitt & Hummel, 2003).

Information Processing Theory

Recent research has brought to light another model of how...

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