In the last of the Piagetian stages, the child becomes able to reason not only about tangible objects and events, but also about hypothetical or abstract ones. Hence it has the name formal operational stage—the period when the individual can “operate” on “forms” or representations.
With students at this level, the teacher can pose hypothetical (or contrary-to-fact) problems: “What if the world had never discovered oil?” or “What if the first European explorers had settled first in California instead of on the East Coast of the United States?”
To answer such questions, students must use hypothetical reasoning, meaning that they must manipulate ideas that vary in several ways at once, and do so entirely in their minds.
The hypothetical reasoning that concerned Piaget primarily involved scientific problems. His studies of formal operational thinking therefore often look like problems that teachers pose in science classes with older students.
In a problem a young person is presented with a simple pendulum, to which different amounts of weight can be hung (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). The experimenter asks: “What determines how fast the pendulum swings: the length of the string holding it, the weight attached to it, or the distance that it is pulled to the side?” The young person is not allowed to solve this problem by trial-and-error with the materials themselves, but must reason a way to the solution mentally. To do so systematically, she must imagine varying each factor separately, while also imagining the other factors that are held constant.
This kind of thinking requires facility at manipulating mental representations of the relevant objects and actions—precisely the skill that defines formal operations. As one might suspect, students with an ability to think hypothetically have an advantage in many kinds of school work: by definition, they require relatively few “props” to solve problems. In this sense they can in principle be more self-directed than students who rely only on concrete operations—certainly a desirable quality in the opinion of most teachers.
It must be noted that formal operational thinking is desirable but not sufficient for school success, and that it is far from being the only way that students achieve educational success.
Formal thinking skills do not insure that a student is motivated or well-behaved, or does it guarantee other desirable skills, such as ability at sports, music, or art.
The fourth stage in Piaget’s theory is really about a particular kind of formal thinking, the kind needed to solve scientific problems and devise scientific experiments. Since many people do not normally deal with such problems in the normal course of their lives, it should be no surprise that research finds that many people never achieve or use formal thinking fully or consistently, or that they use it only in selected areas with which they are very familiar (Case & Okomato, 1996). For teachers, the limitations of Piaget's ideas suggest a need for additional theories about development—ones that focus more directly on the social and interpersonal issues of childhood and adolescence.