Testing Stages Of Human Development

(Note: This was a graduate paper I wrote in 2006. The purpose of the study was to use a set of age appropriate questions, the answers of which would help me discover which stage of development my interviewees were in as theorized by Piaget and his predecessors. I got an “A,” and I liked how it turned out. Here it is in its original form. 

The concept of stages within the human life cycle has been the subject of theorists since mankind’s first attempt at philosophical thought. Over the past hundred years several theorists have attempted to explain the evolution of human cognition. Many of these theories, such as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Kohlberg’s six stages of moral reasoning, and James Fowler’s developmental theory of spiritual faith were created using an extensive amount of research gathered through the observation and questioning of people at various stages in their life combined with advances in biological science. Since their conception, these theories have become the foundation for everything from educational programs to mass marketing strategies. 

In my attempt to test a few of the cognitive development theories presented in Kathleen Berger’s The Developing Person Through The Life Span, I created a series of questions I hoped would test my subject’s stage of cognitive functioning, morality, gender awareness, and faith. At first I planed to create a separate set of age appropriate questions for each interviewee. Then I decided I might get better results if I created one set of questions that would allow me to examine if the interviewee gave age appropriate answers according to the theories I used to create the questions. To get a wide range in my answers, each of my subjects were representatives of different ages group and included a three-year-old boy named Aden, a twelve-year-old girl named Lina, an eighteen-year-old boy named Jon, and a twenty-eight year old woman named Misty. Each of them was asked to look at a piece of paper with two pictures printed on it as I asked them a series of questions. The first five questions were given to all four of my subjects to test their ability to create concrete operational thought. These questions were designed for them to use their classification skills to come up with the correct answer.

  1. How many smiles are in these two pictures?
  2. How many pictures do you see?
  3. Are there more smiles or are there more pictures?
  4. How many sunglasses do you see?
  5. Are there more pictures or more sunglasses?

Aden, the three-year-old boy, answered each question with great confidence, but he was unable to understand that one set of objects can include another, or see beyond what his mind was focusing on. He could only see one smile, the one on the picture of a balloon held by the boy. He was unable to acknowledge that there were three pictures as he could only see the picture held by the boy. He didn’t understand the third question and pointed at the picture of the balloon again. He saw one pair of sunglasses on the balloon and didn’t understand the fifth question, but confidently said sunglasses. Then I assisted Aden in locating the other pair of glasses while repeating the fourth question. He was then able to acknowledge that there were two pairs. This is a good example of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” where the child “can perform with assistance but cannot quite perform independently” (Berger, 2005, p. 221).

Lina, Jon, and Misty were able to answer each question correctly. Everyone’s answers in this portion of the survey seemed to coincide with the age range Piaget placed on a person’s ability to form cognitive thought, which is seven years and up. I then asked a series of gender identity questions to determine if my interviewees would base their answer on predefined gender roles.

6. Who would wear pink and who would wear blue?

7. Which one would take care of a baby when they grow up?

8. Which one will make a lot of money?

9. Which one will grow up to be a fireman?

10. Which one will grow up to be a nurse?

11. Which one will shop for groceries?

12. Which one has a toy truck?

13. Which one has a toy doll?

14. Which one is a bully?

15. Which one is strong?

16. Which one would you play with?

Aden answered most of these questions without using gender roles saying that the boy wears pink, takes care of babies and shops for groceries while the girl wears blue, is a bully, and will grow up to make a lot of money. Aden answered some of the questions using gender roles like the girl would grow up to be a nurse and has a toy doll while the boy grows up to be a fireman and owns a toy truck. Lena answered some of the questions using traditional gender roles with the boy wearing blue, growing up to be a fireman, and owning a toy truck while the girl wears pink, grows up to be a nurse, takes care of babies, and owns a doll. Lena also said that neither of them would be a bully and that both kids were strong, would shop for groceries, and would make a lot of money.

Apparently children begin to become aware of objects and roles that are considered gender specific by age four (Berger, 2005). This may explain why several of Aden’s answers seemed to go against gender norms. During the play years children develop the cognitive ability to categorize males and females as opposites based on gender role (Berger, 2005), which could explain why Lena was more confident in her answers than Aden. Both Lena and Aden chose to play with the child of their gender, which is an appropriate choice for their age.

Apparently sometime after children enter into the formal operational stage, they may begin to dismantle the categorizations they created based on the roles and differences imposed by their culture because Jon and Misty both answered the questions with, “how would I know”. Lena showed an example of abstract thinking when her answers went beyond gender classification creating the possibility of equality. Misty and Jon could not answer the gender specific questions because Lena’s alternative did not occur to them, which shows that children do have the ability to see things in a way adults sometimes miss. This may also be due to Jon and Misty being in the fifth stage of cognition called the “postformal stage”, which gives adults more problem solving techniques, but may limit their ability to use those techniques because they are now “less playful and more practical” (Berger, 2005, p. 436).

The next two questions were designed to test for abstract thinking. My hope was that I would be able to test if the interviewee had progressed into what Piaget defined as the “formal operations stage”. This stage is marked to begin at around age eleven, though some say some people fixate on the perceptions created during the concrete operation stage preventing them from moving into the more abstract and open minded stage of formal operations (Wikipedia, 2006).  I asked Lena, Jon, and Misty the following questions, as I did not think they were age appropriate for a three-year-old.

17. What do you like most about yourself?

18. What do you dislike about yourself?

Lina liked the fact that she is smart, but dislikes the fact that she is short. Jon likes his personality, but dislikes his voice. Misty likes that her positive energy acts as a magnet, drawing others toward her, and dislikes her inability to stick with something. All were able to answer most of the questions abstractly, since they were able to evaluate concepts of themselves like personality, intelligence, and magnetism. I found it interesting that the concrete answers were based on negative concepts like Jon’s voice and Lina’s height. Though, given the ages they are in, their dislikes could coincide with “egocentrism” and the concept of “imaginary audience” where their features are judged as they believe other would evaluate them (Berger, 2005). I created two additional questions to test for these characteristics of adolescent cognitive development, and to see if these characteristics could follow someone into adulthood.

19. What do you believe others think about you?

20. How do you think people react to the way you look?

Lina believes that others think she is kind and do not care how she looks. Jon believes that others think he is funny and extremely social while always remarking that he is cute. Misty has been told that she is a very positive person and people react to the way she looks as if she must know something special, something that causes her to radiate a positive energy that affects those around her. None of these answers seem to show any resemblance to adolescent egocentrism, which either means they have yet to go through that stage, have already gone through that stage, or I am asking the wrong types of questions. Though some may point out that Misty’s second answer appears to be a “personal fable” where people “imagine their own lives as unique, heroic, or even legendary” (Berger, 2005, p. 368). But, having been in the presence of Misty, I would have to say it is not a fable, there is just something special about her that seems to radiate positive energy.

The next two questions were used to see if I could determine where my interviewees were in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development since they were created using Paiget’s stages of cognition.

21. Would you do something against the law if it would save someone’s life?22. Is it moral to disobey a law if it is unjust?

Lina, Jon, and Misty said they would do something against the law if it would save someone’s life, though Lina and Jon said it is not moral to disobey a law if it is unjust. This would place both Lina and Jon in stage four of Kohlberg’s conventional moral reasoning where “proper behavior means being a dutiful citizen and obeying the laws set down by society ” (Berger, 2005, p. 368). Yes they would break the law, but they would see it as improper behavior. This proved interesting in that even though Lina and Jon appeared to be in Piaget’s post operational stage, they are still in Kohlberg’s equivalent of Piaget’s concrete operations stage. This shows that people of any age can confine themselves to concrete operational thinking.

Misty thought about this question a great deal. She does not seem to believe in the legal system of our community, but in a more universal concept of right and wrong. By her definition of what is moral and what is just, she agreed that that it is moral to disobey a law if it is unjust. Though people seem to rarely reach stage six of post conventional moral reasoning (Wikipedia, 2006), Misty seems to have met the criteria for that stage.

My final question was created to determine their stage in James Fowler’s developmental theory of spiritual faith of which he created using the stages of Piaget and Kohlberg.

23. Where does god live? (If heaven, where is heaven?)

Lina said that her god lives in heaven. When I asked her where heaven was, she believed it was up in the clouds. Jon believes that his god lives everywhere and is all around us. Misty believes that her god is also everywhere, it is part of her, which makes her, and everyone else, god. I asked both of them where they thought god lived when they were a child and they both believed their god lived in heaven and that heaven was in the clouds.

According to Fowler’s theory, Lina is in stage two where children “take the myths and stories of religion literally” (Berger, 2005, p. 448). This stage is appropriate for her age, and is more concrete than post operational. Jon and Misty, once in stage two, have moved onto a more abstract stage, but I will need to ask more questions to discover exactly which stage they are in. Judging by their previous answers, I would guess that Jon is in stage three because of his position in Kohlberg’s stage of morality. This stage is also appropriate for Jon’s age and is based more on what feels right, though there is still an attachment to the rules of society (Berger, 2005).

I would guess that Misty would be in stage five, which combines unconscious ideas with rational conscious values (Berger, 2005). Judging by Misty’s position on Kohlberg’s stage of morality, it would appear that she has achieved this. This is not the appropriate stage for Misty’s age since “this cosmic perspective is seldom achieved before middle age (Berger, 2005, p. 448), but, given the rest of her answers, she does appear to be well beyond her age in thought.

As I set out to create these age appropriate questions, I believed the answers I received would help me classify my interviewees into the various stages of development theorized by Piaget and his predecessors. In trying to do this I have learned to appreciate all the hard work and effort that went into creating and testing the theories I was trying to place them into. I have shown through my limited amount of testing that we can migrate from one stage to another depending on the question being asked. We can describe ourselves with abstract thinking while confining ourselves to concrete perceptions of religion or law.  So it appears that the concepts we use to define our reality can evolve separately while advancing or constraining each other depending on their connectedness. For example, an inability to evolve through James Fowler’s developmental theory of spiritual faith may also affect someone’s position in Kohlberg’s six stages of moral reasoning. It is my hope that further study into these theories will give me a greater perspective into the interrelatedness of conceptual ideas and their affect on the evolution of cognitive thought. 


Berger, Kathleen (2005). The developing person through the life span. New York, NY: Worth Publishers

Theory of cognitive development. (2006, November 1). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:41, November 9, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theory_of_cognitive_development&oldid=85103021

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