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Encyclopedia of Psychology Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, Editor-in-Chief

Adolescent Thought Processes

In this respect, Piaget’s developmental claims appear to have been too strong. Still, there is a deep sense in which Piaget understood cognitive development. The ability to think about one’s own thought has sweeping implications that extend far beyond the context of scientific inquiry about physical phenomena on which Inhelder and Piaget’s (1958) investigations focused. Indeed, “thinking about thinking” may be a key to understanding much about what it is important that adolescents achieve in cognitive growth. Before pursuing this theme, it is necessary to examine four further respects in which research conducted subsequent to Inhelder and Piaget’s work complicates a simple stage model.

Complications include task variability, strategy variability, interactions between knowledge and thinking, and cognition as socially situated.

Better strategies typically win out over time, but the implications are. first, that abandoning less adequate strategies is at least as formidable a developmental challenge as mastering new ones, and second, that the increases and decreases in frequency of usage of multiple strategies over time are what the researcher must track (rather than a simple stage transition from A to B).

The question to be asked, then, becomes this: How do adolescents select the strategies they will apply to a problem and do they exhibit different or better control over this process than they did as children? It is an important question, since strategy selection determines what someone actually does, of all the things they might do.

Finally, a fourth complication in understanding adolescent thought is the fact that psychologists no longer regard thinking as a private affair that takes place exclusively inside people’s heads-the dominant conception in Piaget’s day. Instead, thinking, and hence its development over time, have increasingly come to be regarded as “distributed” among multiple minds in social settings. A study by Moshman and Geil (in press), involving the same four card problem discussed earlier, nicely illustrates the need for this revised conception. Of the college students they asked to solve the original version of the problem, only three of 32 gave the correct answer. Another group of students, however, were asked to discuss the problem in small groups and come up with a solution. In 15 of 20 such groups, the solution the group ultimately agreed on was correct. In many of these groups, moreover, this solution had not been the initial choice of any of the individual members.

Understanding cognition as socially distributed also helps to explain the significant individual and group variation that has been observed in the use of various higher-order thinking skills. Many adolescents show reasoning at the same level as third-grade children, while others outperform average adults (Kuhn, Amsel, & O’Loughlin, 1988). Specific practices in adolescents’ schools, homes, and social communities to a large degree shape the kinds of experiences they participate in, and this experience, rather than chronological age, is the most important determinant of the intellectual skills they have available and are likely to use.

Metacognitive awareness of these beliefs facilitates the process since one can then think about them and hence how evidence bears on them (rather than only with them, as an unconscious sieve through which new information is filtered). Metastrategic awareness of one’s strategies of investigation and inference is beneficial, since more effective strategies can be selected and applied consistently. Increasing metacognitive and metastrategic control of the processes of belief revision and knowledge acquisition that are basic to human thought may thus be an important dimension in terms of which we can see change in thought processes during the adolescent years.

In other words, these are features we would like all good thinking to reflect. If so, a high degree of awareness and control of one’s own thinking can be regarded as a general feature of skilled thinking that is observable in a number of more traditional categories of higher-order thinking, including scientific thinking, argumentative thinking (Kuhn. 1991; Perkins. 1985), and what has traditionally been called critical thinking (Olson & Astington, 1993). Put in the broadest terms, then, adolescents develop the potential to become effective managers of their own thinking. We return later to factors that affect whether they are likely to realize this potential.

Tags: encyclopedia of psychology
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