3a. Piaget’s Constructivism

Piaget and Cognitive Development

Kakali Bhattacharya, Seungyeon Han
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia

Review of Piaget and Cognitive Development


The research of Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the development of learning in children. Piaget suggested many comprehensive developmental theories. However, this chapter will discuss four of Piaget’s key concepts that are applicable to learning at any age: assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, and schemas.

Two Major Principles

According to Piaget, two major principles guide intellectual growth and biological development: adaptation and organization. For individuals to survive in an environment, they must adapt to physical and mental stimuli. Assimilation and accommodation are both part of the adaptation process. Piaget believed that human beings possess mental structures that assimilate external events, and convert them to fit their mental structures. Moreover, mental structures accommodate themselves to new, unusual, and constantly changing aspects of the external environment.

Piaget’s second principle, organization, refers to the nature of these adaptive mental structures. He suggests that the mind is organized in complex and integrated ways. The simplest level is the schema, a mental representation of some physical or mental action that can be performed on an object, event, or phenomenon. We now turn to a discussion of these concepts.

Click Here to Play Video. Caption: This video depicts Angie’s experience described below. The intent is to give you an alternative way of learning about assimilation, accommodation, equilibration and schemas. The video is a Windows Media Player file. By Kay Sauers, Tiffany Davis, and Meghann Hummel (2006).


Angie sees her own snapshot in a photo album for the first time. Her father asks her, “Who is that, Angie?” She points to the little girl in the picture and replies, “It is a baby, Daddy.” She cannot identify herself. The father points out that the picture is of her. He tells her, “Yes Angie. That is a baby, and that baby is you.” He then explains how pictures are taken to capture moments.

In order for Angie to make sense of what her father just told her about the picture, she would have had to somehow assimilate the information from her father into her existing internal cognitive structures. She might do this by assuming that her dad was teasing her, and that the pictures were of another child; or she could infer that the picture was taken at a different time as explained by her father. In this way, Angie finds a way to fit this external reality with her internal cognitive structures, or schemas. Assimilation occurs when a child perceives new objects or events in terms of existing schemas or operations. Piaget emphasized the functional quality of assimilation, where children and adults tend to apply any mental structure that is available to assimilate a new event, and actively seek to use this newly acquired mental structure.


Accommodation refers to the process of changing internal mental structures to provide consistency with external reality. It occurs when existing schemas or operations must be modified or new schemas are created to account for a new experience. Obviously, accommodation influences assimilation, and vice versa. As reality is assimilated, structures are accommodated.

Consider again the case of Angie. Angie understands that she cannot simultaneously exist in two places. Thus, if her father points out to her that she is the child in the picture, Angie would naturally have to alter her internal mental structures to adjust to the newly discovered external reality. This might mean that Angie would have to believe that photographs represent moments from the past. Therefore, Angie can see herself in the picture and still exist in present time; in this way, Angie can accommodate her internal mental structures to her external reality.


Returning again to the example of Angie: hearing that she is indeed the baby in the picture causes her some internal conflict, or a state of disequilibration. Angie’s natural biological drive would immediately guide her to achieve a state of equilibrium between her external world and her internal mental structures. She would first try to assimilate the information received from the external world into her existing internal cognitive structures. Angie would somehow adjust the stimulus of her photo to account for the fact that she can exist in still form in a picture, and at the same time be in motion in real life. To do this, Angie must reinterpret, alter the nature of reality, or change her belief system. This might mean that Angie interprets that her father is teasing her and it is not Angie in the picture, or that it is Angie but that the photo was taken at a different time as her father explained. Either way, Angie must interpret and alter external reality to fit into her internal mental structures until a state of equilibrium is achieved. This internal attempt to make sense of external events according to one’s internal events by achieving balance between assimilation and accommodation enables Angie to form new internal mental structures through which she will further evaluate her external world in the future.

Piaget believed that cognitive development in children is contingent on four factors: biological maturation, experience with the physical environment, experience with the social environment, and equilibration. Equilibration refers to the biological drive to produce an optimal state of equilibrium between people’s cognitive structures and their environment (Duncan, 1995). Equilibration is an attempt to bring about a state of equilibrium between the first three factors and the reality associated with one’s external environment. This state must be present for cognitive development to take place. Equilibration involves both assimilation and accommodation. During each stage of development, people conduct themselves with certain logical internal mental structures that allow them to adequately make sense of the world. When external reality does not match with the logical internal mental structures (disequilibria), equilibration occurs as an effort to bring balance between assimilation and accommodation as the person adapts more sophisticated internal mental structures. Human beings continually attempt to make sense of the world around them by assimilating new information into pre-existing mental schemes and accommodating thought processes as necessary. This effort to maintain a balance, denoted by equilibration, allows for cognitive development and effective thought processes.


Piaget defined a schema as the mental representation of an associated set of perceptions, ideas, and/or actions. Piaget considered schemata to be the basic building blocks of thinking (Woolfolk, 1987). A schema can be discrete and specific, or sequential and elaborate. For example, a schema may be as specific as recognizing a dog, or as elaborate as categorizing different types of dogs. As cognitive development proceeds, new schemata are developed, and existing schemata are more efficiently organized to better adapt to the environment. Cognitive development becomes evident through changes in behavior as this adaptation takes place. The process of assimilation involves attempts to organize existing schemata for better understanding events in the external world, whereas accommodation involves changing pre-existing schemata to adapt to a new situation.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Review the four major stages of cognitive development: Piaget’s Stages


Cognitive development is a complex process comprising three principal concepts affecting the development process: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. All three are associated with the formation of schemata and their modification in order to attain a balanced sense of understanding of the external world.


Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (2nd Ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon

Duncan, R. M. (1995). Piaget and Vygotsky revisited: Dialogue or assimilation? Developmental Review, 15, 458-472

Schunk, D. H. (2000). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (3rd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Woolfolk, A.E. (1987). Educational Psychology (3rd Ed). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall


Suggested Readings for an Introduction to Piaget:

Piaget, J. (1964). Six Psychological Studies. New York: Vintage. [the first 70 pages]

Piaget, J. (1973). The child and reality.

Piaget, J. (1983). “Piaget’s Theory”. In P. Mussen (Ed.) Handbook of child psychology. Wiley.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York: Basic Books. (original work published 1966)

Piaget, J. (1985). Equilibration of cognitive structures. University of Chicago Press.

Piaget, J. (1995). Sociological studies. Routledge.
Main works (in chronological order):

1918, Recherche. Lausanne: La Concorde.

1924, Judgment and reasoning in the child, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1928.

1936, Origins of intelligence in the child, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.

1957, Construction of reality in the child, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954.

1941, Child’s conception of number (with Alina Szeminska), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952.

1945, Play, dreams and imitation in childhood, London: Heinemann, 1951.

1949, Traité de logique. Paris: Colin.

1950, Introduction à l’épistémologie génétique 3 Vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

1954, Intelligence and affectivity, Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, 1981.

1955, Growth of logical thinking (with Bärbel Inhelder), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958.

1962, Commentary on Vygotsky’s criticisms. New Ideas in Psychology, 13, 325-40, 1995

1967, Logique et connaissance scientifique. Paris: Gallimard.

1967, Biology and knowledge, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

1970, Piaget’s theory. In P. Mussen (ed) Handbook of child psychology, Vol.1. New York: Wiley, 1983.

1970, Main trends in psychology, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973.

1975, Equilibration of cognitive structures, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

1977, Sociological studies, London: Routledge, 1995

1977, Studies in reflecting abstraction. Hove: Psychology Press, 2000

1977, Essay on necessity. Human Development, 29, 301-14, 1986.

1981, Possibility and necessity, 2 Vols, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

1983, Psychogenesis and the history of science (with Rolando Garcia), New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

1987, Towards a logic of meanings (with Rolando Garcia), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

1990, Morphisms and categories (with Gil Henriques, Edgar Ascher), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 1992.

Additional Resources


De Lisi, R. (2002, Winter2002). From Marbles to Instant Messenger™: Implications of Piaget’s Ideas About Peer Learning. Theory Into Practice, 41(1), 5.

Abstract by Nicole Goddard, April 2009

Piaget’s Theory is linked to children’s involvement in education. In many classrooms, students learn through working with their peers. This article attempts to examine and evaluate peer learning using Piaget’s Theory. Teachers may find this article particularly interesting because it describes real life applications. Current educational practice including why peer learning is used begins this article. Then, two main objectives of peer learning—sharpening academic skills and managing interactions with classmates—are explicitly addressed. Teachers must be mindful of the interactions students have with their peers as this contributes to positive or negative feelings concerning school. Finally, peer learning and technology are discussed at the end of this article.
Flavell, J. (1996, July). Piaget’s legacy. Psychological Science, 7(4), 200-203.

Abstract by Victor Colon, April 2009

The author’s main objective is to summarize what he believed to be Piaget’s contributions to what it is known about cognitive development and how people think about it. Flavell accomplishes this by enumerating Piaget’s “greatest” contributions throughout the article and explaining the reasoning behind his decision. He divided Piaget’s contribution as:

  1. The founding of the field of cognitive development
  2. The assimilation-accommodation model of cognitive growth
  3. How Piaget helped people accept the idea that children’s cognitive behavior is intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated
  4. How to characterize human cognitive development adequately
  5. Piaget’s equilibrium model
  6. Piaget’s concept of scheme (or schema)
  7. Piaget’s contribution to the research methods for studying children’s intellectual growth
  8. Piaget’s empirical discoveries
  9. Piaget’s descriptions of how children think
  10. Piaget’s influence on fields other than cognitive-developmental psychology
  11. Piaget’s questions and the issues arise by them

Siegler, R., & Ellis, S. (1996, July). Piaget on childhood. Psychological Science, 7(4), 211-215.

Abstract by Sean Boyle, April 2009

The authors’ main focus is to summarize the influence of Piaget’s ideas regarding children’s cognitive development and the ways in which Piaget influenced future directions of research and theory in the field of cognitive development. Siegler and Ellis focus on three aspects of Piaget’s legacy: constructivism, essentialism and dynamism. The authors begin with the classic Piagetian illustration of constructivism in the numerical domain. Siegler and Ellis state that recent research has built upon Piaget’s basic tenets of constructivism and shown that most children continue to construct new problem solving strategies even with existing, successful strategies in place. Second, Siegler and Ellis analyze Piaget’s stages of cognitive development with regard to essentialism. The authors argue that recent research suggests that children of different ages employ either unidimensional and/or multidimensional reasoning therefore identifying the essential components of a child’s reasoning at a particular age may not be possible. Finally, the authors examine dynamism and Piaget’s proposals of assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. Siegler and Ellis state that Piaget’s attempt to recognize essences in children may have prevented the recognition of the role of variability in children’s thinking. Recent research has discovered connections between cognitive variability and cognitive change and despite Piaget’s proclivity for developmental stage theory he understood the importance of cognitive conflict in change.

Piaget’s Developmental Theory: An Overview – Davidson Films Summary: This video highlights some of the things that influenced the work of Piaget. Additionally, a discussion of sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operations, and formal operations follows a brief history of his childhood.

Jean Piaget Archives – Web site for the University of Geneva’s collection of Piaget’s writings as well as secondary literature “inspired by the School of Geneva in the field of developmental psychology.” Online materials are bibliographic records (citations) and only available in French.

Jean Piaget Society – Web site for the Jean Piaget Society (JPS); contains information regarding the life, work and impact of Jean Piaget. Also provides information regarding JPS’s journal, book and newsletter publications.


APA Citation: Bhattacharya, K.& Han, S. (2001). Piaget and cognitive development. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/