Kakali Bhattacharya, Seungyeon Han
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia
The research of Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the development of learning in children. Piaget suggested many comprehensive developmental theories. However, this chapter will discuss four of Piaget's key concepts that are applicable to learning at any age: assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, and schemas.
Two Major Principles
According to Piaget, two major principles guide intellectual growth and biological development: adaptation and organization. For individuals to survive in an environment, they must adapt to physical and mental stimuli. Assimilation and accommodation are both part of the adaptation process. Piaget believed that human beings possess mental structures that assimilate external events, and convert them to fit their mental structures. Moreover, mental structures accommodate themselves to new, unusual, and constantly changing aspects of the external environment.
Piaget's second principle, organization, refers to the nature of these adaptive mental structures. He suggests that the mind is organized in complex and integrated ways. The simplest level is the schema, a mental representation of some physical or mental action that can be performed on an object, event, or phenomenon. We now turn to a discussion of these concepts.
Click Here to Play Video. Caption: This video depicts Angie's experience described below. The intent is to give you an alternative way of learning about assimilation, accommodation, equilibration and schemas. The video is a Windows Media Player file. By Kay Sauers, Tiffany Davis, and Meghann Hummel (2006).
Angie sees her own snapshot in a photo album for the first time. Her father asks her, "Who is that, Angie?" She points to the little girl in the picture and replies, "It is a baby, Daddy". She cannot identify herself. The father points out that the picture is of her. He tells her, "Yes Angie. That is a baby, and that baby is you ". He then explains how pictures are taken to capture moments.
In order for Angie to make sense of what her father just told her about the picture, she would have had to somehow assimilate the information from her father into her existing internal cognitive structures. She might do this by assuming that her dad was teasing her, and that the pictures were of another child; or she could infer that the picture was taken at a different time as explained by her father. In this way, Angie finds a way to fit this external reality with her internal cognitive structures, or schemas. Assimilation occurs when a child perceives new objects or events in terms of existing schemas or operations. Piaget emphasized the functional quality of assimilation, where children and adults tend to apply any mental structure that is available to assimilate a new event, and actively seek to use this newly acquired mental structure.
Accommodation refers to the process of changing internal mental structures to provide consistency with external reality. It occurs when existing schemas or operations must be modified or new schemas are created to account for a new experience. Obviously, accommodation influences assimilation, and vice versa. As reality is assimilated, structures are accommodated.
Consider again the case of Angie. Angie understands that she cannot simultaneously exist in two places. Thus, if her father points out to her that she is the child in the picture, Angie would naturally have to alter her internal mental structures to adjust to the newly discovered external reality. This might mean that Angie would have to believe that photographs represent moments from the past. Therefore, Angie can see herself in the picture and still exist in present time; in this way, Angie can accommodate her internal mental structures to her external reality.
Returning again to the example of Angie: hearing that she is indeed the baby in the picture causes her some internal conflict, or a state of disequilibration. Angie's natural biological drive would immediately guide her to achieve a state of equilibrium between her external world and her internal mental structures. She would first try to assimilate the information received from the external world into her existing internal cognitive structures. Angie would somehow adjust the stimulus of her photo to account for the fact that she can exist in still form in a picture, and at the same time be in motion in real life. To do this, Angie must reinterpret, alter the nature of reality, or change her belief system. This might mean that Angie interprets that her father is teasing her and it is not Angie in the picture, or that it is Angie but that the photo was taken at a different time as her father explained. Either way, Angie must interpret and alter external reality to fit into her internal mental structures until a state of equilibrium is achieved. This internal attempt to make sense of external events according to one's internal events by achieving balance between assimilation and accommodation enables Angie to form new internal mental structures through which she will further evaluate her external world in the future.
Piaget believed that cognitive development in children is contingent on four factors: biological maturation, experience with the physical environment, experience with the social environment, and equilibration. Equilibration refers to the biological drive to produce an optimal state of equilibrium between people's cognitive structures and their environment (Duncan, 1995). Equilibration is an attempt to bring about a state of equilibrium between the first three factors and the reality associated with one's external environment. This state must be present for cognitive development to take place. Equilibration involves both assimilation and accommodation. During each stage of development, people conduct themselves with certain logical internal mental structures that allow them to adequately make sense of the world. When external reality does not match with the logical internal mental structures (disequilibria), equilibration occurs as an effort to bring balance between assimilation and accommodation as the person adapts more sophisticated internal mental structures. Human beings continually attempt to make sense of the world around them by assimilating new information into pre-existing mental schemes and accommodating thought processes as necessary. This effort to maintain a balance, denoted by equilibration, allows for cognitive development and effective thought processes.
Piaget defined a schema as the mental representation of an associated set of perceptions, ideas, and/or actions. Piaget considered schemata to be the basic building blocks of thinking (Woolfolk, 1987). A schema can be discrete and specific, or sequential and elaborate. For example, a schema may be as specific as recognizing a dog, or as elaborate as categorizing different types of dogs. As cognitive development proceeds, new schemata are developed, and existing schemata are more efficiently organized to better adapt to the environment. Cognitive development becomes evident through changes in behavior as this adaptation takes place. The process of assimilation involves attempts to organize existing schemata for better understanding events in .the external world, whereas accommodation involves changing pre-existing schemata to adapt to a new situation.
Cognitive development is a complex process comprising three principal concepts affecting the development process: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. All three are associated with the formation of schemata and their modification in order to attain a balanced sense of understanding of the external world.
Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (2nd Ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon
Duncan, R. M. (1995). Piaget and Vygotsky revisited: Dialogue or assimilation? Developmental Review, 15, 458-472
Schunk, D. H. (2000). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (3rd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Woolfolk, A.E. (1987). Educational Psychology (3rd Ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
From his observation of children, Piaget understood that children were creating ideas. They were not limited to receiving knowledge from parents or teachers; they actively constructed their own knowledge. Piaget's work provides the foundation on which constructionist theories are based.
Constructionists believe that knowledge is constructed and learning occurs when children create products or artifacts. They assert that learners are more likely to be engaged in learning when these artifacts are personally relevant and meaningful.
In studying the cognitive development of children and adolescents, Piaget identified four major stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. Piaget believed all children pass through these phases to advance to the next level of cognitive development. In each stage, children demonstrate new intellectual abilities and increasingly complex understanding of the world. Stages cannot be "skipped"; intellectual development always follows this sequence. The ages at which children progress through the stages are averages--they vary with the environment and background of individual children. At any given time a child may exhibit behaviors characteristic of more than one stage.
Stages of Cognitive Development
Caption: The Inspiration web above illustrates Piaget's four cognitive development stages; sensorimotor (birth-2 years), preoperational (2 - 7 years), concrete operational (7 - 11 years), and formal operational (adolescence - adulthood). By Tiffany Davis, Meghann Hummel, and Kay Sauers (2006)
The first stage, sensorimotor, begins at birth and lasts until 18 months-2 years of age. This stage involves the use of motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge is limited in this stage, because it is based on physical interactions and experiences. Infants cannot predict reaction, and therefore must constantly experiment and learn through trial and error. Such exploration might include shaking a rattle or putting objects in the mouth. As they become more mobile, infants' ability to develop cognitively increases. Early language development begins during this stage. Object permanence occurs at 7-9 months, demonstrating that memory is developing. Infants realize that an object exists after it can no longer be seen.
The preoperational stage usually occurs during the period between toddlerhood (18-24months) and early childhood (7 years). During this stage children begin to use language; memory and imagination also develop. In the preoperational stage, children engage in make believe and can understand and express relationships between the past and the future. More complex concepts, such as cause and effect relationships, have not been learned. Intelligence is egocentric and intuitive, not logical.
Caption: This animation demonstrates one of Piaget's classic experiments known as the "Three Mountain Problem." He designed this experiment to support his theory that children possess egocentrism characteristics of thought during the preoperational period of cognitive development. Piaget wanted to show that children have a self-centered perception of the world at this age. This flash animation demonstrates Piaget's theory. The girl is sitting in front of a mountain that has a cross visible only from her side. In addition, there is a doll on the other side of the mountain. According to Piaget's work, if preoperational children are asked to say what the doll can see, their response would reflect what can be seen from their perspective only. Clicking on the green button rotates the mountain to reveal the doll's true perspective. It does not show the cross. Critics of this experiment contend that the Three Mountain Problem is too complex. The same experiment was done using a simplified scene and the child was able to explain the view from the other side, thus displaying non-egocentric behavior Kuanchung Chen, Kris Irwin, Jamie Parker, Saied Roushanzamir (2004).
The concrete operational stage typically develops between the ages of 7-11 years. Intellectual development in this stage is demonstrated through the use of logical and systematic manipulation of symbols, which are related to concrete objects. Thinking becomes less egocentric with increased awareness of external events, and involves concrete references.
The period from adolescence through adulthood is the formal operational stage. Adolescents and adults use symbols related to abstract concepts. Adolescents can think about multiple variables in systematic ways, can formulate hypotheses, and think about abstract relationships and concepts.
Piaget believed that intellectual development was a lifelong process, but that when formal operational thought was attained, no new structures were needed. Intellectual development in adults involves developing more complex schema through the addition of knowledge.
An important implication of Piaget's theory is adaptation of instruction to the learner's developmental level. The content of instruction needs to be consistent with the developmental level of the learner.
The teacher's role is to facilitate learning by providing a variety of experiences. "Discovery learning" provides opportunities for learners to explore and experiment, thereby encouraging new understandings. Opportunities that allow students of differing cognitive levels to work together often encourage less mature students to advance to a more mature understanding. One further implication for instruction is the use of concrete "hands on" experiences to help children learn. Additional suggestions include:
- Provide concrete props and visual aids, such as models and/or time line
- Use familiar examples to facilitate learning more complex ideas, such as story problems in math.
- Allow opportunities to classify and group information with increasing complexity; use outlines and hierarchies to facilitate assimilating new information with previous knowledge.
- Present problems that require logical analytic thinking; the use of tools such as "brain teasers" is encouraged.
Huitt and Hummel (1998) assert that "only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood". This is significant in terms of developing instruction and performance support tools for students who are chronologically adults, but may be limited in their understanding of abstract concepts. For both adolescent and adult learners, it is important to use these instructional strategies
- Use visual aids and models.
- Provide opportunities to discuss social, political, and cultural issues.
- Teach broad concepts rather than facts, and to situate these in a context meaningful and relevant to the learner.
Criticisms of Piaget's Theory
Researchers during the 1960's and 1970's identified shortcomings in Piaget's theory. First, critics argue that by describing tasks with confusing abstract terms and using overly difficult tasks, Piaget over estimated children's abilities. Researchers have found that young children can succeed on simpler forms of tasks requiring the same skills. Second, Piaget's theory predicts that thinking within a particular stage would be similar across tasks. In other words, preschool children should perform at the preoperational level in all cognitive tasks. Research has shown diversity in children's thinking across cognitive tasks. Third, according to Piaget, efforts to teach children developmentally advanced concepts would be unsuccessful. Researchers have found that in some instances, children often learn more advanced concepts with relatively brief instruction. Researchers now believe that children may be more competent that Piaget originally thought, especially in their practical knowledge.
This illustration demonstrates a child developing a schema for a dog by assimilating information about the dog. The child then sees a cat, using accommodation compares existing knowledge of a dog to form a schema of a cat. Animation created by Daurice Grossniklaus and Bob Rodes (03/2002).
When the parent reads to the child about dogs, the child constructs a schema about dogs. Later, the child sees a dog in the park; through the process of assimilation the child expands his/her understanding of what a dog is. When the dog barks, the child experiences disequilibria because the child's schema did not include barking. Then the child discovers the dog is furry, and it licks the child's hand. Again, the child experiences disequilibria. By adding the newly discovered information to the existing schema the child is actively constructing meaning. At this point the child seeks reinforcement from the parent. The parent affirms and reinforces the new information. Through assimilation of the new information the child returns to a state of equilibrium.
The process of accommodation occurs when the child sees a cat in the park. A new schema must be formed, because the cat has many traits of the dog, but because the cat meows and then climbs a tree the child begins to actively construct new meaning. Again the parent reinforces that this is a cat to resolve the child's disequilibria. A new schema about cats is then formed and the child returns to a state of equilibrium.
Constructionism / Constructivism http://members.shaw.ca/ncpg/links_constructivism.html
Developmental Psychology http://www.u.arizona.edu/ic/indv101/greenberg/devlect.htm
Huitt, W. & Hummel, J. (1998). Cognitive development. Retrieved February 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html Kafia, Y.B. & Resnick, M. (1996). Introduction. In Y. Kafai & M. Resnick. (Eds.) Construction in practice designing, thinking and learning in a digital world. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated, Publishers.
Liebert, R.M., Wicks-Nelson, R., & Kail, R.V. (1986). Developmental Psychology. (4th ed). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
PBS Online. (1998). A Science odyssey: People and discoveries. Retrieved February 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.pbs.org/plweb-cgi/fastweb?getdoc+asodata+asodata+58+0+wAAA+piaget
Selected Jean Piaget Resources http://www.questia.com/Index.jsp?CRID=jean_piaget&OFFID=se1
Slavin, R.E. (1988). Educational psychology theory into practice. (2nd ed). Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall.
Summary of Presentation by Prof. Murray on Piaget and Cognitive Development http://www.udel.edu/billf/armen2.html
Bhattacharya, K. & Han, S. (2001). Piaget and cognitive development. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Available Website: http://www.coe.uga.edu/epltt/piaget.htm