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8.3: Cognitive Development

Beyond Formal Operational Thought: Post-formal Thought

In our last lesson, we discussed formal operational thought. The hallmark of this type of thinking is the ability to think abstractly or to consider possibilities and ideas about circumstances never directly experienced. Thinking abstractly is only one characteristic of adult thought, however. If you compare a 15 year old with someone in their late 30s, you would probably find that the later considers not only what is possible, but also what is likely. Why the change? The adult has gained experience and understands why possibilities do not always become realities. This difference in adult and adolescent thought can spark arguments between the generations. Here is an example. A student in her late 30s relayed such an argument she was having with her 14 year old son. The son had saved a considerable amount of money and wanted to buy an old car and store it in the garage until he was old enough to drive. He could sit in it; pretend he was driving, clean it up, and show it to his friends. It sounded like a perfect opportunity. The mother, however, had practical objections. The car could just sit for several years without deteriorating. The son would certainly change his mind about the type of car he wanted before he was old enough to drive and they would be stuck with a car that would not run. Having a car nearby would be too much temptation and the son might decide to sneak it out for a quick run around the block, etc.

Postformal thought is practical, realistic and more individualistic. As a person approaches the late 30s, chances are they make decisions out of necessity or because of prior experience and are less influenced by what others think. Of course, this is particularly true in individualistic cultures such as the United States.

Dialectical Thought

In addition to moving toward more practical considerations, thinking in early adulthood may also become more flexible and balanced. Abstract ideas that the adolescent believes in firmly may become standards by which the adult evaluates reality. Adolescents tend to think in dichotomies; ideas are true or false; good or bad; right or wrong and there is no middle ground. However, with experience, the adult comes to recognize that there is some right and some wrong in each position, some good or some bad in a policy or approach, some truth and some falsity in a particular idea. This ability to bring together salient aspects of two opposing viewpoints or positions is referred to as dialectical thought and is considered one of the most advanced aspects of postformal thinking (Basseches, 1984). Such thinking is more realistic because very few positions, ideas, situations, or people are completely right or wrong. So, for example, parents who were considered angels or devils by the adolescent eventually become just people with strengths and weaknesses, endearing qualities and faults to the adult.

Educational Concerns

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In 2005, 37 percent of people in the United States between 18 and 24 had some college or an associate degree; about 30 percent of people between 25 and 34 had completed an education at the bachelor’s level or higher (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 2005). Of current concern is the relationship between higher education and the workplace. Bok (2005), American educator and Harvard University President, calls for a closer alignment between the goals of educators and the demands of the economy. Companies outsource much of their work, not only to save costs, but to find workers with the skills they need. What is required to do well in today’s economy? Colleges and universities, he argues, need to promote global awareness, critical thinking skills, the ability to communicate, moral reasoning, and responsibility in their students (Bok, 2006). Regional accrediting agencies and state organizations provide similar guidelines for educators. Workers need skills in listening, reading, writing, speaking, global awareness, critical thinking, civility, and computer literacy-all skills that enhance success in the workplace. The U. S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings challenges colleges and universities to demonstrate their effectiveness in providing these skills to students and to work toward increasing America’s competitiveness in the global economy (U. S. Department of Education, 2006).

A quality education is more than a credential. Being able to communicate and work well with others is crucial for success. There is some evidence to suggest that most workers who lose their jobs do so because of an inability to work with others, not because they do not know how to do their jobs (Cascio, in Berger 2005). Writing, reading, being able to work with a diverse work team, and having the social skills required to be successful in a career and in society are qualities that go beyond merely earning a credential to compete for a job. Employers must select employees who are not only degreed, but who will be successful in the work environment. Hopefully, students gain these skills as they pursue their degrees. Listen to this story about the lack of rigor in higher education and the problems students face as a result: A Lack Of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ In College.

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