Jean Piaget's Theory of Learning, main ideas

Jean Piaget's Theory of Learning, main ideas

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  • 1 Bases of Jean Piaget's Theory
  • 2 The construction of knowledge and Piaget Schemes
  • 3 The construction of Cognitive structures
  • 4 The Piaget Development Factors
  • 5 The concepts of Assimilation and Accommodation of Piaget

Bases of Jean Piaget's Theory

Jean Piaget develops a development proposal based on the biological adaptation model. All organisms maintain interactions with the environment, tending to adapt, to maintain a state of equilibrium with it. Intelligence (or knowledge; intelligence = knowledge in Piaget's theory) is a complex form of adaptation of a complex organism to a complex medium. The adaptation consists of a double process of assimilation (integration of information in the cognitive schematism of the organism) and of accommodation (reorganization of the cognitive schematism of the organism). Assimilation and accommodation are simultaneous and complementary processes.

Subscribing the biological model of adaptation does not imply innatism. Piaget denies the existence of innate knowledge. The organism builds knowledge from interaction with the environment. The organism that tries to know the reality does not copy it, but selects information, interprets it, organizes it ... based on its cognitive schematism. The construction of knowledge is not carried out based on the mechanism of the association, but on the assimilation and accommodation mechanisms. The information is integrated into the knowledge schemes that the subject has already built and, at the same time, these schemes are "mobilized", modified, undergo a process of accommodation or readjustment. (The information is assimilated, it is not accommodated. It is the schemes that undergo accommodation, which means readjustments.)

You might be interested: The 4 stages of Piaget's child cognitive development

The construction of knowledge and Piaget Schemes

For the knowledge building the action of the organism is indispensable. But not just any type of action leads to the construction of knowledge. Actions that relate to knowledge are actions that have a regularity and an internal organization. He calls these actions Piaget "schemes."

At the time of birth the baby has the reflex schemes, which are the first assimilating units of reality. They are schemes of reflex or involuntary action. The exercise of reflex schemes (sucking, taking objects that come in contact with the hand ...) leads to action schemes (voluntary or intentional). Examples of action schemes are "pick up objects", "suck objects" ... When the symbolic function appears, the action schemes give rise to representative schemes, which are also action schemes, but mental or internal. If a child thinks about the consequences of dropping an object on the ground, without throwing it, he is applying a representative action scheme. At certain moments of development, representative schemes organize to give rise to operations (eg, classification, seriation ...). The operations are organized in a set structure or operating structure.

The construction of Cognitive structures

Piaget understands development as a process of gradual construction of structures that allow maintaining higher levels of balance with the environment. The structures (organized set of operations and, ultimately, internal action scheme organizations) are general cognitive structures, that is, applicable to any field of knowledge.

For Piaget, what changes throughout development is the cognitive structure, that is to say the general characteristics of the possibilities of internal or mental action of the individual. For example, a sensorimotor child It is not capable of carrying out internal actions, but rather interacts with the environment from physical or direct action. The boy who has built the concrete operating structure is already able to carry out operations related to the reality that have the property of reversibility by investment (eg the child may think that the liquid that has passed from a glass to (taller and narrower) in a glass B (more low and wide) can happen again from B aa) and from reversibility by compensation (eg the child may think that the height of the glass compensates for its smaller width). These "internal action possibilities" are not specific to an area of ​​knowledge, but are applicable to any content.

According to Piaget, structural cognitive changes end in adolescence, when it consolidates its formal operating structure. Subsequently, knowledge will continue to be acquired, but the general properties of cognition will no longer be modified.

Piaget's Development Factors

Piaget proposes four factors to explain the development:

  1. Maturation (organic evolution).
  2. The interaction with the physical environment.
  3. The interaction with the social environment.
  4. Balance (capacity of self-regulation of the organism that tends to maintain a balance with the environment).

Note that they are not organized in order of importance. In principle Piaget considers that the four factors interact and are equally important, but in his work he gives special attention and a predominant place in the interaction with the physical environment and balance.

For Piaget, development (the process of construction of operating structures) is an internal process of the organism, which follows a universal course and is based on the balancing, assimilation and accommodation mechanisms. Learning, on the other hand, understands it as an external process, of acquiring what is outside the organism. Development is an independent learning process and, at the same time, pre-requisite learning. The child's evolutionary level determines what he can learn and what he cannot learn. The learning of specific contents (mathematics, biology, history ...) does not alter the course of development (of cognitive structuring).

As for the relationships between thought and language, Piaget understands that language is subordinate to thought. The general cognitive characteristics of each stage also apply to language and, therefore, determine the type of language specific to each stage. For example, the preoperative child will have a language that will reflect the egocentrism of his thinking; The adolescent who has reached formal thinking can use expressions that have to do with probabilities, combinations, hypotheses, etc.

The concepts of Assimilation and Accommodation of Piaget

Assimilation and accommodation are the two complementary adaptation processes described by Piaget, through which knowledge of the outside world is internalized. Although one of the two may predominate at any given time, they are inseparable and exist in a dialectical relationship.

The asimilation

In this phase what is perceived in the outside world is incorporated into the inner world, without changing the structure of that inner world. This is achieved at the cost of incorporating these external perceptions into children's stereotypes, to somehow achieve that fit their mentality.

The accommodation

In this phase, the inner world has to accommodate external evidence with which it faces and, therefore, adapt to it, which can be a more difficult and painful process.

In reality, both processes go at the same time, and although most of the time we are assimilating what we perceive from the world around us, our minds are also working to adjust and accommodate our schemes.

Piaget focused primarily on the development of the understanding of the world in children, so for him (and for children) accommodation is no more problematic than assimilation. But that doesn't necessarily happen as we get older. We have ways of understanding our world, which work for us more or less successfully during adulthood. Y We have no problem assimilating new information and ideas as long as they fit with this worldview, but we find it increasingly difficult to accommodate new conceptions.

Don't miss our videos about Piaget with everything you need to know about your learning theory in an easy and dynamic way.

Piaget I, comparison with biology:

Piaget II, assimilation and accommodation:

Piaget III, reflections and schemes:

Piaget IV, the notion of object:

Piaget V, adaptation and learning:


Bruner, JS (1966). Towards a theory of instruction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belkapp Press.

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1945). Game, dreams and imitations in childhood. London: Heinemann.

Piaget, J. (1957). Construction of reality in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence.

Vygotsky, LS (1978). The mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wadsworth, BJ (2004). Piaget's cognitive and affective development theory: Fundamentals of constructivism. Longman publication.