Opportunities for Concrete and Formal Thinking on Science Tasks

  • Robert Karplus
Part of the Topics in Cognitive Development book series (TOPCOGDEV, volume 2)


Since science as process of inquiry makes demands on the reasoning ability of practitioners, science teaching makes such demands of students. It is interesting to examine science activities at various levels and in various scientific fields with the intention of identifying the type of reasoning that may occur. Consider the example in Figure 1, for instance, used with 8- and 9-year-old children in the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) program (SCIS, 1970, p. 27). The students are to set up experiments that correspond to the pictured systems, thus translating these representations into reality. Because of the simple and direct correspondence of the pictures and the materials, it was concluded that this task requires concrete thought. A formal thinker would, it was thought, be impatient with this activity. Compare, now, another experimental activity (Figure 2), used with 11- to 12-year-olds (SCIS, 1971a, p. 21). In part B on this page, the students are invited to set up experiments, but this time they have to select the procedure and the materials themselves, with only the instruction to “investigate variables.” The lack of specific instructions—the need to consider alternatives and their relationship—led to the conclusion that this task invites formal reasoning patterns. It requires the student to accept lack of immediate closure (Lunzer, this volume) since several experiments must be carried out before a pattern emerges. This task is an optional activity in the SCIS program, a challenge to above-average sixth-graders. The activity outlined in Figure 1 and in part A of Figure 2 provides closure as soon as the student fulfills the explicit requirements of the task, a characteristic of concrete reasoning.


Proportional Reasoning College Entrance Examination Formal Operation Formal Thought Science Task 
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Copyright information

© Jean Piaget Society 1978

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Karplus
    • 1
  1. 1.AESOP, Lawrence Hall of ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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