Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up

Formal-operational thinking is absolute, and involves making decisions based on personal experience and logic. Post-formal thinking is more complex, and involves making decisions based on situational constraints and circumstances, and integrating emotion with logic to form context-dependent principles. The distinction is a useful thing to understand when dealing with emerging adults.

For example, adolescents have a harder time with emotionally charged situations than adults do. I’ve noticed that class discussions involving emotional issues bring out two distinct camps: those who believe that there is an absolute right and absolute wrong way to respond to a situation, and those who are more open to nuance.

In my child studies class we usually read an article about the adult daughter of lesbian parents, and I ask the class to discuss whether the couple were good mothers to their daughter. Some students say that the question is complicated, and point out many ways in which the mothers have been supportive and nurturing, and others in which they seem to have been lacking. Some say that we really can’t answer that question based on a magazine article. These responses would suggest a level of post-formal thinking that is lacking in some others, who either choose one thing the mothers have done and label them good or bad parents based on that, or declare that lesbians should not be allowed to raise children and ignore all the evidence of positive parenting given in the article.

I could encourage more post-formal thinking in my classroom by not balking when, after I ask what I think is a straightforward question, I get responses like “How can we know?” or “That’s debatable.” I sometimes feel that students who give this response are unable to identify evidence from the text to support a position. Instead, maybe these students are acknowledging the complexity of the evidence and its inadequacy for providing a simple, categorical answer.

I could also encourage students to challenge me more, especially when I’m trying to provide the formal-operations thinkers with something concrete to hold on to and the post-formal thinkers are asking about exceptions and complicating matters. This often happens in grammar lessons, where students who are a little more in tune with the subtleties of the language are able to question certain grammatical principles. This is usually resolved, however, by further explanation; more challenging are the instances where I present them with my observations about a character, a theme, or a conundrum, in the hopes of providing absolute knowers with some stability, and the transitional knowers start throwing a lot of other possibilities into the pot when I really just want to move on. I think it’s important to stop and allow that debate to happen, even if it’s not on the schedule and some students are not yet equipped to participate.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)


4 thoughts on “Formal-Operational vs. Post-Formal Thinking: Brains Grow Up

  1. i had been a teacher since 1968 starting with the kindergarten to the graduate level where more complex lessons and issues are discussed.yet the presence of items and issues whose conclusions were drawn by students from personal or vicarious experiences gathered through the years leave such issues that are relational and fundamentally relevant to evryday life wanting of a more thorough and profound discussion.,than the absolute formality of logic and formal a peace and development worker,here in mindanao ,phil.till my retirement,governments and other funding institution put the stakehoders in a box and design programs discounting the complexity of their culture and ethnicity and other sensibilities which should be the foremost concern of why such an unrest is there. however being just a small voice i hope we can share notes. the differences of country ,norms,preferences,religion and family ties should be put first because each struggle is always refective of one small issue that have gone bloated..Dr. Navarro


  2. I’m a couple of years behind on my Siobhan reading! Just wanted to say that with my weak 101s this term i’ve found targeted 3-2-1 responses very effective in bridging just this kind of gap. This type of response is informal, quick, and adaptable, so that students more awake to nuance are encouraged to look for the factors that give rise to their questions and doubts, and the students who have a more absolutist view can pin it to specifics–and hopefully find some complicating factors at the same time.


  3. It’s nice to hear from someone who understands emotional competency’s relevance to education. We ought to hone intuition so that we might act appropriately to each situation rather than the our most similar experience. What we are then left wrestling with is when a would a well trained mind, that chooses the most skilful approach, opt for formal-operational thinking over post-formal thinking.


  4. It’s worse from the other side. I am able, imho, to utilize post-formal thought and sometimes it’s just agonizing to have to see the cogs turn in some folks’ brains as they try to move past simple, formal thought. It causes the class to become boring and sometimes I could just tear my hair out.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s