Activity 4

Piaget – Assimilation and Accommodation

One of the first to explain how children actively construct knowledge and understanding was the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

Think back to the work that you did on theories of intelligence in the previous Unit when you considered Howard Gardner's critique of traditional theories of intelligence.

Piaget was also opposed to the idea of defining intelligence in terms of the number of items answered correctly in IQ tests. To Piaget, "an intelligent act is one that causes an approximation to the conditions optimal for an organism's survival" (Piaget, 1954).

Intelligence for Piaget is an integral part of any organism as it adapts to its environment in order to survive. How an organism interacts with its environment will depend on the kind of ‘cognitive structure' which it has available.

Piaget uses the term assimilation to describe the process of responding to the environment in accordance with one's cognitive structure. The cognitive structure that exists at any given moment defines and controls what can be assimilated by the organism.

For example, if a young child can only suck, reach and grasp, her experience will be assimilated into those actions or ‘schemata'. As the cognitive structure changes and the child begins to understand the causal relationship between objects, different aspects of the physical environment will be assimilated.

Piaget used the term accommodation to describe a second equally important mechanism for cognitive development. This is the process whereby cognitive structure is modified.

According to Piaget, every human experience involves both assimilation and accommodation.

READ: Read the following example of the way in which, in Piaget's understanding, assimilation and accommodation are related as a four-month old infant plays with a rattle.

“Suppose an infant of 4 months is presented with a rattle. He has never before had the opportunity to play with rattles or similar toys. The rattle, then, is a feature of the environment to which he needs to adapt. His subsequent behaviour reveals the tendencies of assimilation and accommodation. The infant tries to grasp the rattle. In order to do this successfully he must accommodate in more ways than are immediately apparent. First, he must accommodate his visual activities to perceive the rattle correctly, for example, by locating it in space. Then he must reach out, adjusting his arm movements to the distance between himself and the rattle. In grasping the rattle he must mold his fingers to its shape: in lifting the rattle he must accommodate his muscular exertion to its weight. In sum, the grasping of the rattle involves a series of acts of accommodation, or modifications of the infant’s behavioural structures to suit the demands of the environment. At the same time, grasping the rattle also involves assimilation. In the past the infant has already grasped things; for him, grasping is a well-formed structure of behavbior. When he sees the rattle for the first time he tries to deal with the novel object by incorporating it into a habitual pattern of behaviour. In a sense he tries to transform the novel object to something that he is familiar with – namely, a thing to be grasped. We can say, therefore, that he assimilates the objects into his framework and thereby assigns the object “a meaning”” (Ginsburg and Opper, 1979:19).

Then study the following diagrammatic explanation of these concepts.

WRITE: Describe your own example of a recent personal experience that involved both accommodation and assimilation. Explain in what sense this experience involved 'constructivist learning', as outlined in Activity 3 above. Are there any aspects of the experience which could be more successfully explained in terms of behaviourism?

(Allow 45 minutes)