The Learning Process From when we are born, what we learn, the order and way we learn it, is not as random and chaotic as it might seem but organised and follows, more or less, a clearly defined pattern. If you have watched young children develop you will know that most crawl or shuffle before they can walk and almost no one’s first utterances are in complete sentences. While we are all proud when our child first points and utters the word “cat” to a four legged feline nearby; we are even more pleased when he or she can distinguish between a cat and a dog, both of which have four legs, prominent ears, whiskers and a long tail. That is a sign of increasing discrimination on the child’s part.
We expect, in most cases, children or babies of the same age to be able to do roughly the same things as each other. People who monitor progress such as health visitors, paediatricians and psychologists are well aware of these stages of physical and intellectual development. They use them to assess a child and where necessary, use the information to provide support for an infant or child whose development veers from the predicted path. A two year old who can distinguish some farm animals is doing well; a ten year old who can only do the same thing is not.
Jean Piaget is the psychologist credited with developing the staged theory of cognitive development (meaning how reasoning and thinking develops) of children. Piaget was lucky enough to have a very long life and also to be academically gifted from an early age. When he was a young man he went to work at a school in France which was run by Alfred Binet who had developed the first recognised tests for intelligence. Piaget helped to mark these tests and quickly noticed that children of similar ages consistently made the same mistakes. He studied many children including his own and as a result of his studies he proposed that intellectual development of children was a staged process which almost all children grew through at roughly the same age. While his theory has been questioned and modified many times over the last ninety years, the basic principles are still accepted today.
Piaget suggested that the process of learning happened through the development of schema, which he defined as:
‘A cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning‘
A schema is a block of knowledge and a kind of shorthand way of interpreting the world for example:
A young child may have a schema for four wheeled vehicles which he labels as “cars”. He knows from experience that cars are things which have four wheels and run on roads. This schema may hold up as true, until a child sees a tractor or a train, both of which still have four wheels but neither of which run on roads; or an ambulance which has four wheels, runs on roads but has a very different shape and function to a car.
The schema “cars” has to change to take into account the new information and according to Piaget, this takes one of two forms: assimilation of accommodation.
What is Assimilation?
Assimilation is where the new ideas which are acquired can fit in with an existing schema without changing the original schema too much. In terms of child development it could include the ability to increasingly discriminate new forms of the schema for “animal”. The child may develop the schema for “animal” when they discover that dogs and cats are not the same. Dogs and cats are different, but they both have:
- Fur all over their bodies
- Four roughly equal sized legs
- Prominent ears
- Long tails
- Pointed teeth
- Are smaller than adult humans
- Warm to touch
Each time they encounter a new animal it has to be checked against the existing schema. Imagine then, a child encountering a cow for the first time. On examination, points 5 and 6 would prove to be false and the schema would have to be modified to take into account of the new information. Statement 5 might become – have teeth and statement 6 of variable size. Thus the schema becomes by increments more developed and have increasing points of discrimination.
This type of learning isn’t solely confined to children either. When we learn a new skill we assimilate it into our schema. So, learning to use a new computer programme usually builds on existing skills as does learning a new technique in cooking, a new dance move for a dancer. In one manner of speaking that is why adults are often better learners than young people, provided their learning experience is building on an existing knowledge base or schema. Simply put, they have many more and well-developed schemas. But, if they try to learn something for which they have no pre-existing scheme, research suggests that he older you are the harder it is. So for example learning a foreign language for the first time or beginning piano lessons as an adult is a much harder task, than when you are young.
Now, returning to the development of the concept of “animal”. It is possible to assimilate a whole range of changes into the concept of animal but when a child asks the question “is a fish an animal” and receives the answer “yes” they will have no choice but to rebuild the schema of animal into two new sub divisions – mammal and fish and then later into vertebrate and invertebrate. These major revisions of schema are known as accommodation.
What is Accommodation?
Accommodation was defined by Piaget as an acquisition of knowledge or learning which challenged an existing schema to the extent that the old schema could no longer exist in its previously existing form. So if the schema of animal was dependent on the understanding of mammals then fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles would all challenge it. The redefined schema of animal would therefore rest on the idea that all animals have an internal skeleton. That schema would hold until one realised that crabs, insects, jellyfish and also worms were animals. Each time there was a major challenge to an existing schema, a revolution in the concept has to happen and this is defined accommodation.
Carl Rogers the humanist psychologist, suggested that accommodation is more difficult than assimilation because it involved a change of the way of thinking and a challenge to our “model of the world”. As can be imagined, this is more difficult the older we get and also for certain types of ideas, particularly those ideas related to convictions such as faith, politics and people.
Leon Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the mental pain we experience where we try to balance two incompatible ideas and particularly when a schema we hold dear is under threat. He did a study of a cults where the people in them thought the end of the world was nigh because a great flood was coming. When the promised flood did not happen, those with “weaker” beliefs thought they had been foolish and drifted away. Those with stronger beliefs however, refused to let go of their existing schema and assimilated the idea that the flood had not happened because they had been sufficiently pious.
Carl Rogers on Becoming a Person Constable London (Originally published in 1961 but reprinted many times)
P. Mussen (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 1. Chapter on Piaget’s Theory (4th ed., New York: Wiley, 1983).
Festinger, L.: A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press(1957)