Cognitive Development, Part V: Reasoning and Problem Solving


When the book does error, it errors toward optimism. The authors site Flavell (1999)’s statement that average performance on formal operations tests have improved over the past 25 years. It is likely that these results run with broader measures of intelligence, which have stagnated since the mid seventies and begun reversing in recent years (Sundey, Barlaug, & Torjussen, 2004). This has social implications. The advantages of intelligence compound over time (Bullock & Ziegler, 1999; see also Bloom, 2000), which conversely means that the stagnation and retreat of intelligence will compound, too.

What hope there is comes from the ability of children to operate under the correct environment. While unable to devise correct scientific experiments, for instance, they are able to select a correct one from a list of a few options (Bullock & Ziegler, 1999). And while humans are terrible logical reasoners (Nisbett & Ross, 1980), an environment where they believe they are operating competitively as opposed to logically provides much better results (Ceci, 1996). Changing the child’s environment allows one to subvert how the child thinks, going around whatever is limiting the child’s thinking in order to maximize results.

This relates to expertise. With expertise, people are able to transcend the need to deliberatively solve problem through superior memorization (Anderson, 1980). Flavell, Miller, & Miller summarize this as “the ability to solve many problems in [their area of expertise] without having to think at all” (161). Children can reason analogically by age two (Freeman, McKie, & Bauer, 1994), and analogical reasoning is the basis of expertise (Weisberg, 1993). As mentioned above, schools should focus on building expertise through practice and memorization instead of the declarative understanding and comprehension too much of the school curriculum is based on.

The above paragraphs are critical, and rightly so. Their largest context is the focus on verbal reasoning, over domain expertise, which is the hallmark of America’s disastrous primary and secondary educational system. Verbal reasoning is useful for some fields, such as doctorates of philosophy and law and masters of business administration. However, the vast majority of Americans will not be in a field where verbal debate and verbalized good reasons count for much. They will be in jobs will they will need to analogically reason to perform some action or behavior (be it technical, mathematical, or otherwise).
Whether their purpose is to churn out students with a rational moral identity (Moshman, 2005), rational moral personhood, or just plain competence, it’s clear out public schools are not doing their job.


Cognitive Development, a tdaxp series
1. Introduction
2. Infant Perception
3. Infant Cognition
4. Representation and Concepts
5. Reasoning and Problem Solving
6. Social Cognition
7. Memory
8. Language
9. Questions and Problems
10. Bibliography

One thought on “Cognitive Development, Part V: Reasoning and Problem Solving”

  1. “Their largest context is the focus on verbal reasoning, over domain expertise, which is the hallmark of America's disastrous primary and secondary educational system”

    Well, part of the problem here is a result of garbage in, garbage out. How many students as a percentage are being taught verbal reasoning by instructors who themselves have not mastered that skill to any significant degree – say, being capable of researching and writing a journal article for publication ?

    Kind of like how we have gifted education programs being designed to the standards of what non-gifted instructors and administrators imagine such programs should look like.

  2. I'm simply using it as a benchmark for demonstrating the capacity to engage in verbal reasoning, handle complex ideas and meet multi-variable criteria at a sufficiently high level. We can pick something else as a standard if you like.

    The point remains that if the instructors are themselves not proficient in verbal reasoning, that could hardly improve the likelihood of passing on such skills to the students.

    If the skills are not being passed on in anywhere the degree that the system's ostensible orientation says they should be, then we can't really say if mastery of verbal reasoning will be useless because what is really being observed here are the effects of incompetence.

  3. Points taken.

    My larger point is that if you want to improve performance in some domain (math, science, whatever), the best approach to teach that domain and have students practice in that domain.

    The power of domain-general techniques is much weaker. Worse, they do not automatically transfer. Better to build expertise in one domain and then analogically transfer over than try to build expertise in the general domain and hope it horizontally transfers.

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