Jean Piaget’s Theory of Learning

Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was a renowned psychologist, biologist and epistemologist of Swiss origin.

He developed his theses around the study of the psychological development of childhood and the constructivist theory of the development of intelligence. From there was born what we know as the Piaget’s learning theory.

Piaget’s learning theory

Jean Piaget is one of the best-known psychologists of the constructivist approach, a current that draws directly from the learning theories of authors such as Lev Vygotsky or David Ausubel.

What is the constructivist approach?

The constructivist approach, in its current pedagogical aspect, is a determined way of understanding and explaining the ways in which we learn. Psychologists who take this approach they emphasize the figure of the learner as an agent who is ultimately the engine of his own learning.

Parents, teachers and community members are, according to these authors, the facilitators of the change that occurs in the mind of the learner, but not the main element. Indeed, for constructivists, people do not literally interpret what comes to them from the environment, either through nature itself or through the explanations of teachers and tutors. The constructivist theory of knowledge gives us a perception of its own experiences which is always subject to the interpretative frameworks of the “learner”.

In other words, we are unable to objectively analyze the experiences we are having at each moment, because we will always interpret them in the light of our previous knowledge. Learning is not the simple assimilation of packets of information that come to us from the outside, but is explained by a dynamic in which there is an adjustment between new information and our old structures of ideas. This way, what we know is constantly being built.

Learning as a reorganization

Why is Piaget said to be a constructivist? In general terms, because this author understands learning as a reorganization of cognitive structures existing at any time. That is to say: for him, the evolutions of our knowledge, these qualitative leaps which lead us to internalize new knowledge resulting from our experience, can be explained by a recombination which acts on the mental schemas that we have at hand as shown by Piaget’s learning theory.

Just as a building is not constructed by turning a brick into a larger body, but is erected on a structure (or, what is the same, a certain placement of some parts with others), learning, including as a process of change that has been constructed takes us through different stages not because our mind changes in nature spontaneously over time, but because certain mental patterns vary in their relationships, they are organized differently as we grow and interact with the environment. It is the relationships established between our ideas, and not their content, that transform our minds; in turn, the relationships established between our ideas modify their content.

Let’s take an example. For an 11-year-old, the idea of ​​family may be equivalent to his mental representation of his father and mother. However, there comes a time when her parents divorce and after a while she finds herself living with her mother and another person she does not know. The fact that the components (father and mother of the child) have altered their relations calls into question the more abstract idea to which they are attached (family).

Over time, this reorganization may affect the content of the idea of ​​”family” and make it an even more abstract concept than before in which the mother’s new partner may have a place. Thus, through an experience (the separation of parents and the incorporation into the daily life of a new person) seen in the light of available ideas and cognitive structures of other thought patterns) “the learner” has seen how his level of knowledge concerning personal relationships and the idea of ​​family gave a qualitative leap.

The concept of “ schema ”

The concept of schema is the term used by Piaget to refer to the type of cognitive organization that exists between categories at any given time. It’s something like how some ideas are sorted and related to others.

Jean Piaget maintains that a scheme it is a concrete mental structure which can be transported and systematized. A diagram can be generated in many degrees of abstraction. In the early stages of childhood, one of the earliest projects is that of the ‘permanent object ‘This allows the child to refer to objects that are not in their range of perception at the moment. Time later, the child arrives the diagram of ‘types of objects’, Thanks to which he is able to group different objects according to different “classes”, as well as to understand the relationship that these classes have with others.

Piaget’s idea of ​​”schema” is quite similar to the traditional idea of ​​”concept”, except that Swiss refers to cognitive structures and mental operations, and not to perceptual classifications.

In addition to understanding learning as a process of constant organization of patterns, Piaget believes that it is the result of adaptation. According to Piaget’s learning theory, learning is a process that only makes sense in situations of change. Part of learning, therefore, is knowing how to adapt to these innovations. This psychologist explains the dynamics of adaptation through two processes that we will see below: the assimilation and the accommodation.

Learning as an adaptation

One of the fundamental ideas of Piaget’s learning theory is the concept of human intelligence as a process of nature biological. Switzerland maintains that man is a living organism that presents itself to a physical environment and endowed with a biological and genetic inheritance which influences the processing of information from the outside. Biological structures determine what we are able to perceive or understand, but at the same time they are what make our learning possible.

With a marked influence of ideas associated with Darwinism, Jean Piaget constructs, with his theory of learning, a model that would be very controversial. Thus, he describes the minds of human organisms as the result of two “stable functions”: the organization, The principles that we have already seen, and the adaptation, Which is the adjustment process by which the knowledge of the individual and the information which comes to him from the environment are adapted to each other. In turn, in the dynamics of adaptation two processes operate: assimilation and accommodation.

1. Assimilation

the assimilation it refers to how an organism copes with an external stimulus based on its current laws of organization. According to this principle of adaptation in learning, external stimuli, ideas or objects are always assimilated by a pre-existing mental pattern in the individual.

In other words, assimilation allows one to perceive an experience in the light of a previously organized “mental structure”. For example, a person with low self-esteem may attribute praise for their work to a way of expressing pity for them.

2. Accommodation

the accommodationOn the contrary, it is a modification of the current organization in response to the requests of the medium. Where there are new stimuli that unduly compromise the internal coherence of the system, there is accommodation. It is a process opposed to assimilation.

3. Balancing

This is how, through assimilation and accommodation, we can restructure cognitively our learning at each stage of development. These two invariant mechanisms interact with each other in what is called the process of balancing. balance can be understood as a regulatory process governing the relationship between assimilation and accommodation.

The balancing process

Although assimilation and accommodation are stable functions as they occur throughout the human evolutionary process, the relationship between them varies. In this way the cognitive evolution and the intellectual maintains a close link with the evolution of the assimilation-accommodation relationship.

Piaget describes the process of equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation as the result of three levels of increasing complexity:

  1. Balance is established based on the subject’s patterns and environmental stimuli.
  2. The balance is established between the person’s own projects.
  3. Balance becomes a hierarchical integration of different patterns.

However, with the concept of balancing, a new question is incorporated into Piagetian theory of learning: what happens when the time balance of any of these three levels is altered? In other words, when there is a contradiction between the proper and external schemas, or between the proper schemas with each other.

As Piaget points out in his theory of learning, in this case cognitive conflict, And this is when the previous cognitive balance is upset. The human being, who constantly seeks to achieve a balance, tries to find answers, raising more and more questions and doing research on his own until he reaches the point of knowledge that restores him.

Author’s Note:

  • An article on the development stages proposed by Jean Piaget is now available to complete this article on the Piaget’s learning theory.

Bibliographical references:

  • Bringuier, JC (1977). Conversations with Piaget. Barcelona: Gedisa
  • Vidal, F. (1994). Piaget before Piaget. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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