Pick the change that is NOT unique to entering formal operations.

(A) being able to logically argue both sides of an issue

(B) being able to approach problems scientifically

(C) being able to reason about things that are not real

(D) being able to understand the meanings of many new words

Expert Answers

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The formal-operational stage of cognitive development is the final stage of Jean Piaget’s Cognitive-Developmental Theory. Piaget’s four stages of development are as follows:

  1. Sensorimotor (birth–2 years)
  2. Pre-operational (2–7 years)
  3. Concrete operational (7–12 years)
  4. Formal operational (12+ years)

This developmental sequence is primarily intended to characterize cognitive abilities in children and to show what the normal development of child cognition should look like from birth to age 12 and above. Each stage represents the emergence of successive cognitive abilities, with the most sophisticated operations developing at higher stages of development.

The formal operational stage entails cognitive maturity. It represents the point at which children can think abstractly and apply principles of understanding to questions in the absence of direct content. For example, at the formal operational stage, children are able to answer questions about shapes such as circles and squares without necessarily having to associate them with any circular or square objects in the external world. Children are able to conceive of principles independently of experience and thus to formulate judgement on them a priori of real exposure.

Therefore, the answer to this question is certainly D. The ability to learn and understand the meanings of new words is a skill that is developed during the pre-operational stage of cognitive development. Children between 2 and 7 (generally) are able to utilize language to express new ideas, but these ideas must always be attached to an external object of which the child both has had direct experience with and which directly relates to the child him or herself in some way. Psychologists generally term this phenomenon egocentrism because children at this stage are not able to disassociate the material world from their own point of view, desires, and needs.

Thus, while children in this age group may use the same words as children who have entered the formal operational stage, these words have not yet attached themselves to independently-existing concepts, and their use of language therefore does not necessarily assume formal thinking. Furthermore, because children in the pre-operational stage demonstrate egocentrism, they are unable to cognitively represent a world outside of themselves, preventing them from engaging in the multi-dimensional thinking that formal operations assume.

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The formal operations stage of human cognitive development is the latest stage in Piaget's theory, and generally begins around the age of 11 or 12, shortly before the onset of puberty. During this stage, children acquire the capacity to engage in abstract reasoning, separating the concrete content of ideas from the abstract logical relations between them.

Before the formal stage, kids learned to interact with the environment (sensorimotor stage), experience self-awareness and learn to speak language (preoperational stage), and finally to reason about the world in concrete terms (concrete operational stage). But it is not until the formal operational stage that children figure out how to separate the form of ideas from their contents.

A great example of a problem that kids get wrong in the concrete operational stage but get right in the formal operational stage is something like this:

Is this a valid argument? All whales are green and all green things are fish, therefore all whales are fish.

The answer is "yes"; this argument is formally valid. But in order to do that you've got to think of it in abstract terms like "all W are G, all G are F, therefore all W are F". If you were focused on the concrete stuff about whales and fish, you'd say it was invalid because whales aren't fish.

With all of this in mind, the best answer is clearly (D); while logical argument, scientific reasoning, and thinking about unreal ideas are all part of using formal reasoning and thus the formal operational stage, learning new words was something kids acquired a long time ago in the preoperational stage.

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