Integrating epistemic knowledge and logical reasoning skills in adult cognitive development


The aim of this chapter is to present theories of the development of logical reasoning skills and epistemological beliefs. Both logical reasoning skills and epistemological beliefs are needed in understanding and evaluating knowledge in the different situations of problem solving and decision-making in the everyday life of highly complex societies and also in advanced expertise work. In this chapter the historical basis and the main lines of research traditions of logical reasoning and epistemic knowledge will be presented.

The traditions of developmental psychological models, including logical reasoning and epistemological beliefs, provide a framework for understanding adult cognitive development. Beside the general research tradition of adult cognition these two traditions represent the main lines of research in the area of adult thinking (see Kallio, 2011). Inhelder’s and Piaget’s (1958) theory on the development of logical thinking is one of the oldest frameworks for studying the development of logical reasoning. The position of Inhelder’s and Piaget’s theory has been very significant in the history of developmental psychology (e.g., Muller, Ten Eycke, & Baker, 2015; see also Chapter 2) and has also had a strong impact on neo-Piagetian theories (Hoare, 2011). In this article the focus is on causal reasoning at the stage of formal operations, but the aim is to also present later development of the research and give an overview of the research focused on reasoning skills from the 1970s until the present time. This focus is natural, as Piaget and Inhelder originally claimed that formal reasoning is the stage which is available from teenagers to adulthood, and there is no further development in it. During the last decades the most prominent research area has been the research of epistemic knowledge. The most important foundation of this tradition is Perry’s (1970) theory of the forms of students’ intellectual and ethical development.

Development of reasoning skills

The research tradition of reasoning skills includes three different research approaches that have been developed since the 1950s up till today (see Table 3.1). Reasoning skills have been studied within developmental psychology, educational psychology, and science education (see e.g., Lawson, 2004; Lawson, Banks, & Logvin, 2007). Inhelder’s and Piaget’s (1958) theory on the development of logical thinking and their attempt to define the key elements in the reasoning process have strongly influenced later research. Inhelder’s and Piaget’s work formed the first research approach and some scholars, for example Shayer and colleagues (Adey & Shayer, 1994), followed this original theory without formulating or adding new elements to it. The formal operations and hypothetico-deductive causal reasoning processes are the main features of this approach. Later, some scholars extended Inhelder’s and Piaget’s model and stage of formal operations with additional skills and a broader variation of thinking skills at the stage of formal operations that are not included in the original Piagetian model (see Chapter 2). One example of this approach is the research of metacognitive awareness concerning the thinking processes (e.g., Demetriou & Etklides, 1985).

Also the third approach, which has been developed during the 1980s, 1990s and in the beginning of this millennium, builds more or less on Piaget’s theory premises (e.g., Commons & Richards, 1984; Fischer, 1980; King & Kitchener, 2002; Lawson, 2004; Lawson et al., 2007). However, this approach provides logical development models constructed by extending the Piagetian model along the vertical dimension by adding

TABLE 3.1 The research tradition of reasoning skills and the central features of approaches within this tradition (see Seppälä, 2013). Printed with permission. Copyright The Finnish Educational Research Association

Research tradition of reasoning skills


Central features of the approach

Causal reasoning at the stage of formal operations (Piaget’s theory).

Hypothetico-deductive causal reasoning process. Ability to test hypothesis experimentally.

Models extending the Piagetian model with additional skills.

Models include a broader variation of thinking skills, including metacognitive awareness of thinking. The level of skills corresponds the stage of formal operations.

Models of postformal thinking.

Cognitive operations which are logically more complex and challenging than formal operations. Models emphasise contextuality of thinking and acceptance and integration of various truth-claims.

higher cognitive stages. These models are called “postformai operations,” or more vaguely just post-Piagetian models. A lot of discussion and also metatheoretical analyses have been conducted in order to show if these cognitive operations described in the new models (e.g., Commons, Gane-McCalla, Barker, & Li, 2014; Commons & Richards, 1984; Fischer, Yan, & Stewart, 2003; Lawson, 2004; Lawson et al., 2(X)7) represent well-developed operations of formal operational thinking. Or is it really possible to speak about a new stage of cognitive development?

Metatheoretical analyses (e.g., Hoare, 2006; Kallio, 2011; Kramer, 1983; Marchand, 2001) have revealed that the use of the concepts and labels describing the higher stages of adult development are not systematic and more conceptual analysis on the characteristics of these postformai models would be needed. In addition, metatheoretical synthesis has indicated that most of the so-called post-formal models share a similar three-phase assumption of development following Perry’s model (absolutism, relativism, and dialectical thinking) (Kallio, 2015; Kramer, 1983; Marchand, 2001). Furthermore, Kallio (2015) has suggested that the common feature across the models claimed to be postformai could also be interpreted and replaced with the term of integrative thinking — and the models of postformai thinking can be seen as a combination of the two main research traditions drawing on the ideas of Piaget and Perry.

The Piagetian theory has faced a lot of criticism concerning the possibilities of the theory taking into account various intermediate variables of the social components and context (see Kallio, 2015). The acceptance and integration of various, and at times incompatible truths, which are highly dependent upon the context, are distinctive characteristics of adult thought according to the theorists of postformai dialectical thought (Kramer, 1983; Marchand, 2001). They claim that the development consists of continuous and constant changes in which contradictions are the motor of advances. Thus, the central feature of adult thinking in the models of postformai thinking is the relativistic thought and ability to understand complex relationships with fuzzy logic and ill-defined wicked problems, with no clear-cut objective solution (Kitchener, King, & DeLuca, 2006; Kramer, 1983). Knowledge formation in adulthood emphasizes the integration of subjectivity and objectivity.

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