Applied Linguistics

Application of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) was a renowned Swiss-born psychologist, biologist, and epistemologist. He developed his theses around the study of psychological development in childhood and the constructivist theory of the development of intelligence. From there arose what we know as Piaget’s Theory of Learning. Here we will elaborate the Application of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Piaget’s Theory of Learning

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.

constructivist approach

The constructivist approach, in its pedagogical aspect, is a determined way of understanding and explaining the ways in which we learn. Psychologists who start from this approach emphasize the figure of the apprentice as the agent who is ultimately the engine of their 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 main piece. This is so because, 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 tells us about a perception of one’s own experiences that is always subject to the frames of interpretation of the “apprentice”.

That is to say: we are incapable of objectively analyzing the experiences that we live in each moment because we will always interpret them in the light of our previous knowledge. Learning is not the simple assimilation of information packages 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 being built permanently.

Learning as reorganization

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

Just as a building is not built by transforming a brick into a larger body, but rather is erected on a structure (or, what is the same, specific placement of some pieces with others), learning, understood as a process of The change that is being built makes us go through different stages not because our mind changes its nature spontaneously over time, but because certain mental schemes vary in their relationships, they are organized differently as we grow and we are interacting 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 make their content change.

Let’s take an example. Perhaps, for an 11-year-old boy, the idea of ​​family equates to his mental representation of his father and mother. However, there comes a point where her parents’ divorce, and after a while she finds herself living with her mother and another person she doesn’t know. The fact that the components (father and mother of the child) have altered their relationships casts doubt on the more abstract idea to which they ascribe ( 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 may have a place. Thus, thanks to an experience (the separation of parents and the incorporation into the daily life of a new person) seen in the light of the available ideas and cognitive structures (the idea that the family is the biological parents in interaction with many other thought patterns) the “apprentice” have 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 moment. It is something like the way in which some ideas are ordered and put in relation to others.

Jean Piaget argues that a schema 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 earliest schemes is that of the ‘ permanent object’, which allows the child to refer to objects that are not within his perceptual range at the time. Sometime later, the child reaches the scheme of ‘ types of objects’, through which he is able to group the different objects based on different ‘classes, as well as understand the relationship that these classes have with others.

Piaget’s idea of ​​”schema” is quite similar to the traditional idea of ​​”concept“, with the exception that the Swiss refer to cognitive structures and mental operations, and not to classifications of perceptual order.

In addition to understanding learning as a process of constant organization of schemes, 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. For this reason, learning is partly knowing how to adapt to these 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 biological nature. 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 from outside. Biological structures determine what we are capable of perceiving or understanding, but at the same time, they are what make our learning possible.

With a marked influence of the ideas associated with Darwinism, Jean Piaget builds, with his Learning Theory, 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 adaptation, which is the adjustment process by which the knowledge of the individual and the information that comes from the environment they adapt to each other. In turn, two processes operate within the adaptation dynamics: assimilation and accommodation.

1. Assimilation

Assimilation refers to the way in which an organism faces an external stimulus based on their present organization laws. 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 way of expressing pity for him.

2. Accommodation

The accommodation, however, involves a change in this organization in response to the demands of the environment. Wherever there are new stimuli that compromise too much the internal coherence of the scheme, there is accommodation. It is a process opposed to assimilation.

3. Balance

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 equilibration process. Balance can be understood as a regulatory process that governs the relationship between assimilation and accommodation.

The balancing process

Although assimilation and accommodation are stable functions insofar as they occur throughout the evolutionary process of the human being, the relationship between them does vary. In this way, cognitive and intellectual evolution is closely linked to the evolution of the assimilation-accommodation relationship.

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

  1. The balance is established based on the subject‘s schemes and the stimuli of the environment.
  2. The balance is established between the person’s own schemes.
  3. The 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 own and external schemes, or between own schemes with each other.

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

Application of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development

One of the main points of Piaget’s theory in education is discovery learning . Children learn best by exploring and practicing. Within the classroom, learning is student-centered through active discovery learning . Active learning and discovery, therefore, are key in early childhood education.

Another pillar of Piaget’s theory is the concept of biological maturation and development by stages (which we have discussed in the previous point). So there is an appropriate time to teach certain information or concepts to each child. If the child has not reached the appropriate stage of cognitive development, he should not learn certain concepts.

The teacher must not teach but must facilitate learning and within the classroom must:

  • Evaluate what level of development each child has to design tasks appropriate to each one.
  • Use methods that allow discovering or reconstructing situations, focusing on learning rather than the end result.
  • Encourage collaborative and individual activities, where children learn from each other .
  • Promote situations where problems arise that help the child to rethink the schemes.

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