Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

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  1. 0:10 Introduction
  2. 0:51 Assumptions
  3. 3:08 Assimilation/Accomodation
  4. 5:38 Equilibration
  5. 7:02 Implementing Principles
  6. 8:33 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development focuses on how learners interact with their environment to develop complex reasoning and knowledge. This lesson will focus on the six basic assumptions of that theory, including the key terms: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration.


If you have ever been around a toddler, it's amazing to witness the growth and development of knowledge over the course of weeks and months. As children interact with their environment and new objects, they learn and develop ideas. Take any child to a zoo, and you will witness this process. Perhaps they have seen a typical bird before, maybe a blue jay or robin, and they associate that animal as a bird. But at the zoo they see new exotic animals with wings and feathers that fly and they know, without being told, that those animals are birds, too. Let's discuss how this process occurs according to Piaget's cognitive development theory.

Overview and Assumptions

Psychologist Jean Piaget
Piagets Cognitive Development Theory

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, introduced a developmental epistemology that focused on the growth of intelligence from infancy to adulthood. Piaget's theory is influenced by the following ideas. These ideas helped Piaget to develop his basic assumptions, which form the foundation of his theory.

The first is that intelligence, like a biological system, constructs the structures it needs to function. Second, knowledge is the interaction between the individual and the environment. Third, the growth of intelligence is influenced by four factors:

  1. Physical environment
  2. Social environment
  3. Maturation
  4. Equilibration

Let's talk about these ideas a bit more in terms of assumptions. Piaget's theory of cognitive development has six basic assumptions, which we will focus the majority of our attention on during this lesson.

The first is that children are active and motivated learners. Children will seek out information to help them make sense of their world. For example, a child may encounter a new toy. Instead of passively observing the toy, the child will engage with it - possibly dropping it, touching it or even tasting it to learn more about what it does.

The second assumption is that children construct knowledge from their experiences. Children don't have isolated bits of information. Instead, they build and construct knowledge based on their experiences and observations. For example, a child constructs knowledge about animals by interacting with them, observing them, learning how they walk and learning what sounds they make. They continually add to their knowledge in order to create understanding and beliefs about animals.

The knowledge children acquire is organized into a scheme or groupings of similar actions or thoughts. Over time, these schemes may change, but they provide an important base level of information about particular events, objects and information.

Our third assumption is that children learn through two processes: assimilation and accommodation. These are important terms in understanding the cognitive development theory, and they typically operate hand-in-hand.

Assimilation is defined as dealing with a new event in a way that is consistent with an existing scheme. For example, a toddler may assimilate a new ball into the scheme of 'toys that can be thrown'. Or a second grader may assimilate a new furry animal seen at the zoo into their 'animals that are mammals' scheme. Accommodation is the process of dealing with new information or events by either modifying an existing scheme or forming a new one. For example, the toddler may realize that the new ball is too heavy to be thrown, so he may have to roll it, thereby modifying his existing scheme of all-toy-balls-can-be-thrown. Or the child at the zoo may note that the furry animal is flying and create a new scheme of animals.

The fourth assumption of Piaget's cognitive development theory is interaction with one's physical and social environments is essential for cognitive development. According to Piaget, experimenting and manipulating physical objects is the main way children learn. For example, playing with new objects and toys and experimenting in a lab are ways to develop a child's knowledge. The social environment is also critical for cognitive development. Social interactions allow for multiple perspectives, opinions and introduction of new ways to approach a task or event.

Our fifth assumption deals with equilibrium. The process of equilibration promotes progression towards increasingly complex thought. Equilibrium is the state when leaners can explain new events with existing schemes. The term disequilibrium refers to the discomfort or cognitive conflict experienced by a child or adolescent when s/he realizes that two views they holds about a situation can't possibly be both true. The individual's recognition of the contradiction between the opposing beliefs promotes discomfort. This feeling sets the stage for the reorganization of his or her thinking on a higher level.

Equilibration is the movement back and forth between equilibrium and disequilibrium that promotes development of more complex thought and understanding. For example, a preschooler has a pile of fuzzy, stuffed animals - eight are pink and two white. If we asked the child, 'Are there more pink animals or more fuzzy animals?' And she replies more pink and is perfectly comfortable with that answer - she's in equilibrium. Obviously, she is having trouble thinking of the pink animals as belonging to two categories: pink and fuzzy. However, if we then count out the pink vs. the fuzzy animals and she recognizes the inconsistency in her reasoning, she will experience disequilibrium. At this point, the child may reorganize her thinking to accommodate the idea that stuffed animals can be both pink and fuzzy.

We come to our final assumption: cognitive development is stage-like in nature. According to Piaget, children do not reason like adults do. They have to have developed sufficiently to allow more complex cognitive reasoning. These changes are speculated to occur when children are around two years of age and then, again, around six to seven years of age. These stages are discussed in more detail in another lesson.

Implementing Piaget's principles

Educators can implement Piaget's principles in several ways at all levels. Let's discuss some examples briefly.

In preschool, objects should be available that the child can act on directly, different actions by the child should produce different effects, and the effects of the child's actions are both immediate and observable. The classroom may have an area with wooden blocks, cardboard blocks, soft foam blocks and nesting cubes. It may have an area where children can paint and sculpt. There might be crayons, modeling clay and a water table. The various actions generated by children with these materials help them identify similarities and differences among shapes, colors, sizes, textures and other characteristics of objects. Also, the children's strategies in determining what can be done with various objects contribute to the foundation for subsequent logical thinking.

In elementary and secondary school, when possible, groups of students should be formed on the basis of mutual interests. For example, in one second grade science class, some children were interested in crystals. They made a crystal museum of examples they collected, they grew crystals, examined them under a microscope and read books about them. The key is to preserve students' identification of cause-and-effect situations and social interactions about the accuracy of their proposed solutions.

Lesson Summary

To summarize, Piaget developed a theory of cognitive development based on multiple assumptions of how learners interact with their environment and how they interact with new information and knowledge. He proposed that children are active learners that construct knowledge from their environments. Children learn through assimilation and accommodation, and complex cognitive development occurs through equilibration. Interaction with physical and social environments is key for cognitive development, and development occurs in stages. The awareness of these principles are useful in the understanding of learners' development in their reasoning and knowledge. The principles should be incorporated in the classroom by educators.

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