There Are Three Basic Components To Piaget's Cognitive Theory:
- (building blocks of knowledge).
- Adaptation processes that enable the transition from one stage to another.
- concrete operational,
- formal operational.
Piaget (1952) defined a schema as 'a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning'.
In more simple terms Piaget called the schema the basic building block of intelligent behavior – a way of organizing knowledge. Indeed, it is useful to think of schemas as “units” of knowledge, each relating to one aspect of the world, including objects, actions and abstract (i.e. theoretical) concepts.
Wadsworth (2004) suggests that schemata (the plural of schema) be thought of as 'index cards' filed in the brain, each one telling an individual how to react to incoming stimuli or information.
When Piaget talked about the development of a person's mental processes, he was referring to increases in the number and complexity of the schemata that a person had learned.
When a child's existing schemas are capable of explaining what it can perceive around it, it is said to be in a state of equilibrium, i.e. a state of cognitive (i.e. mental) balance.
Piaget emphasized the importance of schemas in cognitive development, and described how they were developed or acquired. A schema can be defined as a set of linked mental representations of the world, which we use both to understand and to respond to situations. The assumption is that we store these mental representations and apply them when needed.
For example, a person might have a schema about buying a meal in a restaurant. The schema is a stored form of the pattern of behavior which includes looking at a menu, ordering food, eating it and paying the bill. This is an example of a type of schema called a 'script'. Whenever they are in a restaurant, they retrieve this schema from memory and apply it to the situation.
The schemas Piaget described tend to be simpler than this - especially those used by infants. He described how - as a child gets older - his or her schemas become more numerous and elaborate.
The illustration (above) demonstrates a child developing a schema for a dog by assimilating information about the dog. The child then sees a cat, using accommodation compares existing knowledge of a dog to form a schema of a cat. Animation created by Daurice Grossniklaus and Bob Rodes (03/2002).
Piaget believed that newborn babies have a small number of innate schemas - even before they have had much opportunity to experience the world. These neonatal schemas are the cognitive structures underlying innate reflexes. These reflexes are genetically programmed into us.
For example, babies have a sucking reflex, which is triggered by something touching the baby's lips. A baby will suck a nipple, a comforter (dummy), or a person's finger. Piaget therefore assumed that the baby has a 'sucking schema'.
Similarly the grasping reflex which is elicited when something touches the palm of a baby's hand, or the rooting reflex, in which a baby will turn its head towards something which touches its cheek, were assumed to result operations: for example shaking a rattle would be the combination of two schemas, grasping and shaking.
Assimilation and Accommodation
Jean Piaget (1952; see also Wadsworth, 2004) viewed intellectual growth as a process of adaptation (adjustment) to the world. This happens through:
Assimilation– Which is using an existing schema to deal with a new object or situation.
Accommodation– This happens when the existing schema (knowledge) does not work, and needs to be changed to deal with a new object or situation.
Equilibration– This is the force which moves development along. Piaget believed that cognitive development did not progress at a steady rate, but rather in leaps and bounds.
Equilibrium occurs when a child's schemas can deal with most new information through assimilation. However, an unpleasant state of disequilibrium occurs when new information cannot be fitted into existing schemas (assimilation).
Equilibration is the force which drives the learning process as we do not like to be frustrated and will seek to restore balance by mastering the new challenge (accommodation).
Once the new information is acquired the process of assimilation with the new schema will continue until the next time we need to make an adjustment to it.
Example of Assimilation
A 2 year old child sees a man who is bald on top of his head and has long frizzy hair on the sides. To his father’s horror, the toddler shouts “Clown, clown” (Siegler et al., 2003).