Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Adolescence (12–18)

How do the cognitive changes affect the academic abilities of adolescents?

The capacity for abstract thought, for logical analysis, and for metacognition prepares the way for an explosion of academic pursuits. Of course, these cognitive capacities are still in their earliest stages of development in early adolescence, and do not reach full flower until late adolescence. In fact, the capacity for abstract thought continues to grow well into adulthood. Likewise, full development of these cognitive abilities is heavily dependent on environment, on the adolescent’s exposure to relevant education and experience. What differentiates adolescents from school-age children is the capacity for abstract thought, not always the performance of it.

Nonetheless, adolescents are capable of learning about theory in ways younger children simply cannot grasp. They can learn about religion, philosophy, mathematics, politics, and sociology. For the first time, adolescents can develop their own ideas about these topics, and not simply parrot the opinions of their parents. Although adolescents are capable of understanding these abstract concepts, their viewpoints still differ from those of adults. They tend toward grand generalizations, particularly in social and political ideas, with little appreciation for complexity and nuance. In fact, there is a saying about adolescents’ understanding of politics that has been attributed to various people, including Winston Churchill and Victor Hugo. “Whoever is not a socialist in their youth has no heart. Whoever remains one in old age has no head.” This is not to promote one political theory over another, but to illustrate how adolescents’ understanding of abstract concepts is more simplistic than that of older adults.


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