Cognitive development across the lifespan throws up an interesting problem. There is fairly widespread agreement that Piaget got his developmental stages pretty close to the mark as he described how people develop from infancy through to adulthood. Higher education plays an important role in developing higher order thinking skills because although the ability emerges during adolescence and young adulthood, the skills themselves must be taught, hence, the higher, in higher education is the higher in higher order thinking skills.The quandary faced by higher education lies in the final stage of cognitive development proposed by Piaget. The formal operational thinking stage that emerges at adolescence. As a person develops through their childhood, a normally developing child will reach a cognitive developmental milestone, acquire whatever skills that are attached to that stage of thinking, and move on.

As an example, as a young child, one of the stages is called egocentrism. Simply put, in this stage (finishes at about age four), a child thinks that everyone sees and experiences the world the same way that they do. If a child in this stage is viewing a scene and they were to ask you about something they were seeing, they wouldn’t be able to conceive the concept that you were not able to see exactly what they were, regardless of where you are. However, once a child passes through the stage, that doesn’t happen again in their lifetime. I doubt very much that you have experienced this recently because once the stage is passed it is simply the way you think.

This type of fairly linear developmental pattern holds true for virtually every cognitive developmental stage that we go through. However, this is not true of the final, formal operational thinking stage. Although the ability to think in a formal operational stage emerges during adolescence, thinking in this way requires teaching and practice. This is the only stage of cognitive development that is this way. All of the rest of the stages we simply acquire, but the formal operational thinking stage only bestows on us the ability to think that way, not the thinking itself.

Where does higher education come in? The higher part of higher education refers to the thinking that has to be developed for the expression of formal operational thinking. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be taught and practiced. We tend to call this thinking critical thinking, but critical thinking is just one aspect of the higher order thinking skills, and teachers in higher education expect that students arrive with these skills in place and ready to be fully expressed during their higher education. When it doesn’t happen, we are filled with disappointment and blame the secondary school system or the students themselves for not being prepared.

The research demonstrates to us that only a few (about 10%) of the adult population are ever fully equipped with formal operational thinking skills – whether or not they have received any higher education. Between 30% and 40% of the population lack the ability to engage in this type of thought completely. The remaining 50 to 60 percent have some formal operational thinking skills ranging from barely demonstrating that they have any to usually, but not always using them.

Given that higher education is now educating about 40% (or more) of the general population, how can it be that only about 10% able to consistently use higher order thinking skills to solve problems and analyze information? Because the model used in higher education of “sit down, shut up, face the front, memorize, and regurgitate” is used in 90% (or more) of the higher education classrooms, students are not taught, nor are they required to use of formal operational thinking skills.

The skills I’m talking about would include the following:

  • Metacognition
  • critical thinking
  • hypothetico-deductive reasoning
  • complex inductive reasoning
  • reason (logic)
  • rational thinking
  • creativity

I have written extensively about the state of higher education today, but the failure to deliver on the historical core purpose beggars belief.