Formal Operational Stage

Formal Operational Stage

What is the Formal Operational Stage?

The formal operational stage is the last of four stages proposed by Jean Piaget to describe the cognitive development of infants, children, and adolescents. Piaget was a developmental biologist who became interested in closely observing and recording the intellectual abilities of children. Piaget proposed that cognitive development progressed in stages and categorized these stages by children’s ages.

Birth to approximately 2 years is the sensorimotor stage. The preoperational stage (ages 2-7) moves from toddlerhood through early childhood. The concrete operational stage is from ages 7-12. The formal operational stage occurs from 12 years into adulthood.1

Piaget recognized that children could pass through the stages at various ages other than what he proposed as normal, but he insisted that cognitive development always follows this sequence and that stages could not be skipped. Each stage marked new intellectual abilities and a more complex understanding of the world.2

By approximately 12 years of age, adolescents enter the formal operational stage that takes them into adulthood. Emerging abstract thought and hypothetical reasoning mark this stage of cognitive development. In earlier stages, children relied on trial and error to solve problems. In the formal operational stage, children have the ability to systematically solve a problem in a logical and methodical way. They are capable of thinking about abstract and hypothetical ideas that lead to multiple solutions or possible outcomes. Piaget referred to this as “hypothetico-deductive reasoning.” The ability to consider many different solutions to a problem before acting increases efficiency, avoiding potentially unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem.

Thinking becomes more sophisticated and advanced with skills of logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning. Deductive reasoning requires the ability to use a general principle to determine a particular outcome and is used in science and mathematics to solve problems. The ability to think about abstract concepts allows children to consider possible outcomes and consequences of actions they have not yet experienced. This type of thinking is valuable for long-term planning. Children at this stage also develop what is known as metacognition, the ability to think about their thoughts as well as the ideas of others.3

Six new conceptual skills appear during adolescence in the formal operational stage:

  1. The capability to mentally control more than two types of variables at the same time.
  2. The capability to think about modifications that may occur with time.
  3. The ability to imagine rational series of events.
  4. The capability of predicting results of actions.
  5. The capacity to sense reasonable steadiness or contradictions in a set of statements.
  6. The capability to think of themselves, others, and the world in a real way.4

Adolescents are able to think about thinking. At this stage they begin to talk about what they believe and value and about faith and motives.5 They can conceptualize alternative organizations of the world and about deep questions concerning meaning, truth, justice, and morality. Having these lofty thoughts liberates them from childhood and elevates them to think they are equal with adults.6

  • 1. “Stages of Intellectual Development In Children and Teenagers” Child Development Institute. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 2. “Piaget Stages of Development.” WebMD. < > 19 June 2017.
  • 3. Cherry, Kendra. “Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development.” VeryWell. < > 12 July 2017.
  • 4. Chinappi, Jacqueline. “Psychology and Development of Early Adolescence: Part Two.” Bright Hub Education. < > 12 July 2017.
  • 5. Elkind, David. The Hurried Child: growing up too fast too soon. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. 2001. P. 133.
  • 6. “Piaget’s Theory of Development.” Psychology of Carnegie Mellon University. < > 12 July 2017.