Theoretical and practical significance of formal reasoning



Piaget's theory has profoundly influenced science education research. Following Piaget, researchers have focused on content-free strategies, developmentally based mechanisms, and structural models of each stage of reasoning. In practice, factors besides those considered in Piaget's theory influence whether or not a theoretically available strategy is used. Piaget's focus has minimized the research attention placed on what could be called “practical” factors in reasoning. Practical factors are factors that influence application of a theoretically available strategy, for example, previous experience with the task content, familiarity with task instructions, or personality style of the student. Piagetian theory has minimized the importance of practical factors and discouraged investigation of (1) the role of factual knowledge in reasoning, (2) the diagnosis of specific, task-based errors in reasoning, (3) the influence of individual aptitudes on reasoning (e.g., field dependence-independence), and (4) the effect of educational interventions designed to change reasoning. This article calls for new emphasis on practical factors in reasoning and suggests why research on practical factors in reasoning will enhance our understanding of how scientific reasoning is acquired and of how science education programs can foster it.