Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was a Swiss psychologist, biologist and epistemologist. He developed his theses around the study of psychological development in childhood and the constructivist theory of intelligence development. This gave rise to what we know as the Piaget’s Theory of Learning .

Piaget’s Theory of Learning

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

What is the constructivist approach?

The constructivist approach, in its aspect of pedagogical current, is a certain way of understanding and explaining the ways in which we learn. Psychologists who use this approach emphasize the figure of the learner as the agent who is ultimately the motor of his or her own learning .

Parents, teachers, and community members are, according to these authors, facilitators of the change that is taking place in the mind of the learner, but not the centerpiece. This is because, for the 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 speaks of a perception of one’s own experiences that is always subject to the interpretation frameworks of the “learner”.

That is to say: we are unable to objectively analyze the experiences we live in each moment, because we will always interpret them in the light of our previous knowledge. Learning is not simply the assimilation of packages of information that come to us from outside, but is explained by a dynamic in which there is a fit between new information and our old structures of ideas. In this way, what we know is permanently being constructed .

Learning as Reorganization

Why is Piaget said to be constructivist? In general terms, because this author understands learning as a reorganization of the cognitive structures existing at any given time. That is to say: for him, the changes in our knowledge, those qualitative leaps that lead us to interiorize new knowledge based on our experience, are explained by a recombination that acts on the mental schemes that we have at hand as shown by Piaget’s Theory of Learning.

Just as a building is not built by transforming a brick into a larger body, but is erected on a structure (or, what is the same, a determined placement of some pieces with others), learning, understood as a process of change that is built, makes us go through different stages not because our mind changes spontaneously in nature over time, but because certain mental schemes change in their relationships, 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 change their content.

Let’s take an example. For an 11-year-old child, the idea of family may be equivalent to his mental representation of his father and mother. However, there comes a point when his parents divorce and after a while he finds himself living with his mother and someone else he doesn’t know. The fact that the components (the child’s father and mother) have altered their relationships calls into question the more abstract idea to which they attach themselves (family).

Over time, this reorganization may affect the content of the idea “family” and make it an even more abstract concept than before in which the mother’s new partner can have a place. Thus, thanks to an experience (the separation of the parents and the incorporation into the daily life of a new person) seen in the light of the ideas and cognitive structures available (the idea that the family is the biological parents in interaction with many other schemes of thought) the “learner” has seen how his level of knowledge regarding personal relationships and the idea of family has taken a qualitative leap .

The concept of ‘scheme’

The concept of schema is the term used by Piaget when referring to the type of cognitive organization existing between categories at a given time. It is something like the way in which some ideas are ordered and put in relation to others.

Jean Piaget maintains that a scheme is a concrete mental structure that can be transported and systematized. A schema can be generated in many different degrees of abstraction. In the early stages of childhood, one of the first schemas is that of the ‘ permanent object’ , which allows the child to refer to objects that are not within his or her perceptive range at that moment. Later, the child reaches the scheme of ‘ types of objects’ , through which he is able to group the different objects on the basis of different ‘classes’, as well as to understand the relationship that these classes have with others.

The idea of “schema” in Piaget is quite similar to the traditional idea of ‘concept’, except that the Swiss refer to cognitive structures and mental operations, and not to classifications of a perceptual order.

Besides understanding learning as a process of constant organization of the schemes, Piaget believes that it is the result of adaptation . According to Piaget’s Theory of Learning, learning is a process that only makes sense in situations of change. Therefore, learning is partly about knowing how to adapt to these new developments. This psychologist explains the dynamics of adaptation through two processes that we will see below: assimilation and accommodation .

Learning as adaptation

One of the fundamental ideas for Piaget’s Theory of Learning is the concept of human intelligence as a process of nature biological . The Swiss maintain that man is a living organism that presents itself to a physical environment already endowed with a biological and genetic inheritance that influences the processing of information coming from outside. The 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 the ideas associated with Darwinism, Jean Piaget constructs, with his Theory of Learning, a model that would be strongly controversial. Thus, he describes the mind of human organisms as the result of two “stable functions”: the organization , whose principles we have already seen, and the adaptation , which is the process of adjustment by which the knowledge of the individual and the information that comes to him from the environment are adapted to each other. In turn, two processes operate within the dynamics of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation.

1. Assimilation

The assimilation refers to the way in which an organism faces an external stimulus based on its present laws of organization. According to this principle of adaptation in learning, external stimuli, ideas or objects are always assimilated by some pre-existing mental scheme in the individual.

In other words, assimilation causes an experience to be perceived in the light of a previously organized “mental structure”. For example, a person with low self-esteem may attribute congratulations for his work to a form of expressing pity for him.

2. Accommodation

Accommodation , on the contrary, involves a modification in the present organization in response to the demands of the environment. Where there are new stimuli that compromise too much the internal coherence of the scheme, there is accommodation. It is a process opposed to that of assimilation.

3. Balancing

It is in this way that, through assimilation and accommodation, we are able to cognitively restructure our learning during each stage of development. These two invariant mechanisms interact with each other in what is known as the process of balancing . Equilibrium can be understood as a regulatory process that governs the relationship between assimilation and accommodation.


The process of balancing

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

Piaget describes the process of balancing assimilation and accommodation as resulting from three levels of increasing complexity:

  1. The balance is established on the basis of the subject’s schemes and the stimuli of the environment.
  2. The balance is established between the person’s own schemes.
  3. Equilibrium becomes a hierarchical integration of different schemes.

However, with the concept of equilibrium a new question is incorporated into the Piagetian Learning Theory: what happens when the temporal equilibrium of any of these three levels is altered? That is, when there is a contradiction between proper and external schemes, or between proper schemes among themselves.

As Piaget points out within his Theory of Learning, in this case a cognitive conflict is produced, and this is when the previous cognitive equilibrium is broken. The human being, who constantly pursues the achievement of an equilibrium, tries to find answers, raising more and more questions and investigating on his own, until he reaches the point of knowledge that restores it .

Author’s note:

  • An article on the stages of development proposed by Jean Piaget is now available to complement this article on Piaget’s Theory of Learning .

Bibliographic references:

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