The development of adult thinking: starting points for modern research

Piaget, Perry; Kohlberg, Gilligan, and the development of thinking: logic, knowledge, and morals

Piaget’s (1896-1980) theory concerning cognitive development in childhood and adolescence is still an important theory in developmental psychology. This theory has been expanded to the post-Piagetian direction with new openings and influencing several later research trends. Piaget (who was a biologist) defined his research interest as the highest form of biological adaptation, scientific thinking, and he called his project “genetic epistemology”. It includes several different areas, such as the formation of sociological and psychological knowledge, the development of logic and moral thinking, and the emergence of visual thinking plus metacognition (Beilin, 1992; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).

An essential part of Piaget’s theory concerns scientific thinking, more specifically the development of causal thinking. Here, causality refers to the relationship between the cause (x) and effect (y), where x < y, in terms of time. The theory describes the basic features of scientific thinking: how we perceive the phenomena of physical object reality and the causal relationships between them. This also defines the best-known part of Piaget’s theory, the developmental stage theory. Causal thinking can also be described with terms such as logical reasoning, or hypothetico-deductive thinking (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; see also Barrouillet & Gauffroy, 2013).

Piaget’s entire theory is focused on studying how knowing is possible and how it reflects the (assumed) general, universal development of humankind (Piaget, Garcia, Garcia, & Lara, 1989). Thus, it does not only concern individual development but also depicts how it has become possible for the humans to realise scientific knowledge with different developmental stages; from magical thinking towards scientific-rational thinking (cf. also Dux, 2011).

According to Piaget, the development of logical thinking is about a constant change or process — causal knowledge is under continuous construction within an assimilation and accommodation process. His developmental theory includes four main stages. During childhood, interaction with the material environment is a prerequisite for later internalised reasoning. External action enables the creation of sensorimotor schemas as behavioural patterns. Schemas are internalised and later emerged at the stage of concrete thinking, logical operations based on direct observations appear approximately at the age of 7. Formal thinking is the highest form of causal understanding emerging at the beginning of puberty: based on hypothetico-deductive, abstract thinking but still open to experimental testing. It is possible to isolate, combine, and control the variables in well-defined problem-solving situations (see Table 2.1; see also Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Kallio, 1998, pp. 16-20; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).

As regards adult cognitive development, the assumptions of “Piagetian-like” universal fixed stages comply with the following criteria: 1) the unchangeable order of the stages, which means that their development always follows a certain order; 2) each stage consists of a qualitatively unique structure, the internal and mental structure; 3) the integration of lower developmental stages with a higher one, the later stages build on and incorporate the lower stages as part of new development; 4) the stages include different sub-stages, during which the change becomes stabilised; 5) the state of balance where the features of the stage are established (Brainerd, 1978; Marchand, 2001).

Piaget’s theory was interpreted in its heyday in a way that it comprehends the development of thinking in all domains. In this form, causal thinking could be applied in any field, from physical object reality to processes of emotional and social life. Nevertheless, not all researchers, including later Piaget himself, accepted this claim at face value, which led to new developments in theory formation. The assumption that any object or topic could be studied with causal reasoning has been seen as one form of reductionism: any action could be interpreted with formal language (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1993).

Regarding formal thinking, it is possible to formulate various hypotheses. At first, Piaget assumed that it is a general stage of thinking, and in terms of scientific thinking it can develop towards higher and higher levels (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). Later, as the notion of generality was rejected, Piaget assumed in his work that formal thinking only emerges in the specific areas of work, hobbies

TABLE 2.1 Cognitive development stages and the development of logical thinking according to Piaget’s theory. Printed with permission. Copyright The Finnish Educational Research Association

Cognitive development stages and chronological age

Abilities for logical thinking

Sensorimotor stage (0-2 years)

Prcoperational stage (2-7 years)

The sensorimotor stage covers the first phases of cognitive development in early childhood: understanding the connections between movements and consequences, a grasp of elementary causal relationships and object permanence. For cognitive development, also the initial stages of linguistic development are essential. In the pre-operational stage the child starts to understand that words and concepts refer to certain objects (symbolic function). Thinking is egocentric. However, already at this stage the environment is very important for the child's cognitive development. In the sensorimotor and prcoperational stages the child still lacks abilities for internalised logical operations.

Concrete operational stage (c. 7—11/12 years)

During the concrete operational stage, logicality in thinking increases and thus enables operations of logical thinking. However, thinking is still bound to concrete situations and abstract concepts arc difficult, which for its part limits the child’s thinking. For example, the sense of time and understanding of distances becomes easier. Thinking develops so that the child can at least partly see things also from the viewpoint of others instead of highlighting solely the perspective of one’s

Formal operational stage (from c. 11/12 years onwards)

Abstract thinking is enabled so that thinking is no longer restricted to concrete things. Abilities for the mastery of logical mental operations (isolation and control of variables, creation and use of formal models and logical reasoning) arc developing. The formal operational stage also includes abilities for comparing different hypotheses and for deductive reasoning. Theories can be used as cognitive tools.

etc., that the individual is specialised in and motivated for (Piaget, 1972). Still, in the light of empirical results it is obvious that formal operational thinking is not a universal developmental stage, not even in highly developed economies and cultures (see Chapter 3 for recent results regarding Finnish students; see also Kallio, 1998 for similar results; Barrouillet & Gauffroy, 2013). A third hypothesis, proposed by Lourenco (2016) presumes that it is possible to integrate formal thinking into a larger cognitive system. Furthermore, he also argues that formal thinking as such is not an obstacle for, neither incompatible with the development of some other areas of the psyche (for example, in association with emotional and socio-cognitive development). Lourenfo’s notions come surprisingly close to those of postformal thinking, though without assuming a new stage after formal thinking.

The critique on Piaget’s views can be considered a turning point in the study of adult thinking. The observations that formal thinking is not a universal developmental stage (Barrouillet & Gauffroy, 2013), as well as Perry’s (1913-1998) research on the development of university students’ thinking and ethical reasoning were significant in this respect (Perry, 1999). Perry was the first one to study the development of adult cognition from different perspectives instead of that of logical reasoning only. In the Piagetian tradition, reasoning is always mechanical-logical and closed, based on dichotomic truth values: an answer is always either right or wrong. According to Wu and Chiou (2008), closed systems are based on a limited number of variables, while other contextual aspects of the problem are irrelevant to the solution. There is a single right answer and it can be applied to all similar circumstances.

In his research on the development of thinking Perry focused on epistemic assumptions regarding knowledge and how these are justified. He discovered that university students’ perceptions of knowledge changed qualitatively as their studies progressed; from unquestioned thinking at the beginning of the studies towards relativity in the middle of the studies, and finally towards independent evaluation and formation of opinions. The research trend starting from Perry has been very strong throughout the past decades (see Chapters 3, 4, and 11 in this edition).

Perry’s major innovation was the triangle of three thinking modes: dualism, relativism, and evaluative thinking. It includes the following notions: firstly, in epistemological dualism knowledge is perceived as consisted of either-or, absolute-like truths, without doubting the premises and argumentation. Secondly, epistemological relativism takes into account different viewpoints enabling differing but equally valid assumptions. And thirdly, evaluative thinking is characterised by independent and critical evaluation of different viewpoints, and forming a subjective conclusion or synthesis of them.

Development stage theories for moral thinking mainly stem from Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1927-1987) and Carol Gilligan’s (1936-) work. Kohlberg’s theory was inspired by Piaget’s studies. Hence, it includes a progression of universal and hierarchical moral-ethical reasoning stages. Gilligan’s theory, in turn, can be seen as a counter-reaction to Kohlberg’s notions. In addition to rational reasoning, her theory takes into account the expansion of social points of view in the development of moral thinking.

Kohlberg emphasises the rationality of moral reasoning and its relational independence from feelings. Altogether six stages pertaining to moral reasoning have been suggested based on socio-moral viewpoints and also what an individual considers right and correct as opposed to wrong and incorrect action. A higher development stage is guided by a comprehensive desire towards commonly and coherently abiding ethical principles. Kohlberg’s theory has been challenged most significantly by Gilligan (1993). She points out that the ethics of justice based on rationality describes the way of handling moral dilemmas mainly from a male perspective. In moral thinking, her focus is on human relationships, care, and responsibility. At the lowest stage the moral of caring is self-centred, whereas at the highest stage it reflects the idea of individuals’ mutual dependency, i.e., caring for oneself and others (see Chapter 5).

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