The shape of minds to come

This is number 17 in my series on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists and theorists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my most recent post I featured Hull's Drive Reduction theory and its applications to education. In this post, we will explore the work of Bärbel Inhelder on deductive reasoning. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

Swiss psychologist Bärbel Inhelder is perhaps the best known of Piaget's collaborators. She made some important contributions to his stages of cognitive development theory (which will be featured in greater depth in some upcoming articles on this blog). Inhelder was particularly interested in how children's minds develop to the point where they can reason for themselves. Her work with Jean Piaget led to the proposal that there is a 'formal operations' stage marking the transition from childhood to adolescence. They argued that when children reach the age of about 11 years old, they are capable of using deductive reasoning to make sense of the world around them.

How it can be applied in education

Inhelder's work with Piaget was instrumental in shaping the way schools are organised today and is a key influence on the design of curricula. The transition between primary (elementary) school and secondary (high) school is marked when children reach the age of 11 (or 12 in some countries such as Scotland).

It could be argued that these decisions were made because of Inhelder and Piaget's cognitive stages theory. The Formal Operations stage is where children are capable of higher order thinking such as abstract reasoning - imagining the outcome of their actions, and it is also the stage of development where they can develop their inferential reasoning skills. A good example of inferential reasoning in education is where the teacher presents students with puzzles or challenges as a part of their learning: 'If George is older than David, and David is older than Michael, who is the oldest?' Inferential reasoning skills can be developed over time as children learn about new concepts, how they compare, and how to make decisions. The ability to deduce from the general to the specific is the basis of all good science, and runs consistently through a number of disciplines such as mathematics and statistical analysis.

Deductive reasoning methods can therefore also be applied to good effect in just about any lesson on any subject. Students could be encouraged to ask 'what if?' hypothetical questions during physics or chemistry experiments, and then test out their predictions; or to predict the trajectory of a cricket ball in sport; or be asked to judge whether a statement is true or false, on the basis of evidence; or to detect grammatical errors according to 'the rules' of a language. Indeed, the entire secondary curriculum in schools is based on the premise that children between 11-16 years old have developed their higher level cognitive capabilities sufficiently enough to be able to think creatively, use abstract reasoning and perform numerical calculations.

It should be noted that many of the theories proposed by Inhelder and Piaget are contentious and have been challenged not only on the basis of their small sample size (he mainly used his own children as subjects in his experiments) and methods, but also due to alternative findings and interpretations carried out by a number of psychologists. Are there actually stages of cognitive development, and are they as Inhelder and Piaget claimed? And of course, the most difficult problem of them all - do all children develop through these stages at the same time and in the same way? For more details on these counter arguments see the work of Margaret Donaldson.


Donaldson, M. (1987) Children's Minds. London: Fontana Press.
Inhelder, B. and Piaget, J. (1959) The Growth of Logical Thinking From Childhood to Adolescence. Basic Books.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory
Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
Festinger Social Comparison Theory
Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
Gibson Affordances Theory
Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
Hull Drive Reduction Theory

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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The shape of minds to come by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Chris Billings said…
The problem is in the following statement: "Indeed, the entire secondary curriculum in schools is based on the premise that children between 11-16 years." Some children reach the formal operations stage at age 11 and others reach that stage much later. Yet, we often move forward with the assumption that everyone has reached this stage. Instead, all we can assume is that everyone is in the process of reaching this stage.
Steve Wheeler said…
Yes Chris, exactly. This is one of the criticisms of the school system and how it is structured. Inhelder and Piaget's stages theory is just that - a theory, and there has been much criticism over whether and when the stages play out. Because we have as a society chosen to design school around the theory, we now have to manage a number of issues such as streaming and sets, children who fail consistently, and even problems around what time of the year they were born.
Stan said…
I always enjoy these learning theory posts Steve, I'm waiting for you to tackle Wittrock's generative Learning Theory and how it applies to education today

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