Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
« on: June 02, 2021, 03:27:56 PM »

The theory is built around three core components: schemas, equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation, and the different stages of development.


A schema is a description of both the mental and physical actions required in understanding and knowing. It’s a category of knowledge used in interpreting and understanding the world – the building blocks of knowledge. Without them, you would find the world incomprehensible. The world with its things wouldn’t mean anything.

But schemas provide you a way to organize your knowledge, creating units of objects, actions and abstract concepts. According to Piaget’s own definition of schema, from his 1952 book The origins of intelligence in children, they are,

“a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”.

You have many schemas about a variety of things. An example could be your schema about potatoes – what do you know about them? Your knowledge might be based on your experiences; they taste good when baked, they have an outer layer and they are grown underground. Your schema is essentially the knowledge you have (they grow under the ground) and your experiences of the object/idea (they taste good when baked). Therefore, a schema will change over time.

A schema is a cognitive structure that represents knowledge about everything that we know about the world, including oneself, others, events, etc.
A schema is important because it allows us to quickly make sense of a person, situation, event, or a place on the basis of limited information.
So, when a schema is activated, it “fills in” missing details
Source: SlidePlayer presentation by Kazuyo Nakabayashi

Piaget thought schemas to have this ability to change as people process more experiences. According to his theory, a child would modify, add or change the existing schemas as new information or experiences occur. So, if the child would one day eat a disgusting potato, he or she would add to the existing schema. Potatoes wouldn’t be just tasty, but could have the occasional foul taste to them.

Piaget’s ideas of schemas were driven by his background in biology. He saw the schemas as mental organizations controlling behavior or adaptation to the environment. Furthermore, as you gain maturity, the schemas become more complex. For instance, your schema about potatoes becomes much wider; perhaps you gain more information about the different varieties, you understand how different potatoes taste different and so on.

Piaget suggested that the schemas eventually become organized in a hierarchical order, from a general schema to a specific schema. An infant has a schema, such as the sucking reflex. When something touches the baby’s lips, they start sucking. On the other hand, as you grow older these schemas become less genetic and more about our surroundings. You don’t go to a restaurant, pay the bill, eat the food, and then order. You do it all in reverse order and this is an example of a complex schema.

Equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation
The second fundamental concept is the compilation of three concepts: equilibrium, assimilation and accommodation. Out of these three, assimilation and accommodation are the two core processes people use in order to adapt to the environment – the attempt to make sense of new information and to use it for future.

On the other hand, equilibrium is the attempt to strike a balance between the schemas in your head and then what the environment is telling.


When you take in new information regarding your existing schema, you are assimilating. When you encounter French fries and identify it as potato, you are assimilating the French fries into your pre-existing schema. You are essentially using a pre-existing schema to deal with a new experience, situation, object or idea. You take the French fries and assimilate them inside a schema, instead of creating a new one. The process of assimilation is a subjective occurrence, since we are always modifying experiences and information in a way that fits our pre-existing beliefs.

Children’s assimilation can, therefore, seem silly on the onset. R.S Siegler et al. gave an example of a child with a pre-existing schema of clowns in their 2003 book How Children Develop. A young child might have an image of a clown and according to his or her schema, clowns have shaved heads and lots of frizzy hair on the sides. When the child encounters a man with the haircut (even without clown costumes and the like), the child might point to him and say “clown”.

Assimilation is the first attempt of understanding new information and experiences, with accommodation adding another solution if the above is insufficient. In accommodation, you try to modify your existing schemas and ideas, with the process giving you a new experience or knowledge and often resulting in the birth of new schemas. For example, you might see French fries, but after biting into them realise they are made from sweet potato. You therefore, accommodate your existing schema (not everything that looks like French fries is potato) and add or create a new schema (you can use sweet potato to make French fries). You are changing the existing structures or the knowledge you have to fit the environment around you.

Generally, accommodation is a result of a failure of the schema. The existing knowledge you have simply doesn’t work in the situation you are in – the French fries just don’t taste like potato, no matter how hard you try. Therefore, to overcome this obstacle, you change, add and modify your strategy or schema. If you think about the example of the child and the clown, the child’s parent might explain how the man is not a clown, but that the hairstyle was just something he has and it isn’t there for laughs. Now the child would need to change the schema of clown to include other things (making people laugh, red nose, funny costume) in order for it to work.


Finally, you have the idea of equilibrium, which Piaget believed to be the child’s attempt to strike a balance between the two mechanisms: assimilation and accommodation. Piaget believed it to be the mechanism children use in order to move from one stage of thought to the other.

The process involves the child applying previous knowledge (assimilation) and changing the behaviour if the knowledge is not aligned with the new knowledge (accommodation). The process is beautifully illustrated in the below image:

Anta Afsana
Department of English
Daffodil International University
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