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According to Piaget, people are born with two cognitive functions that
they use to develop and refine their schemes. These functions are organization
and adaptation, and they account for and regulate cognitive growth (Nurrenbern,
Organization is the general tendency of biological organisms to combine
structures into more complicated structures or systems (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988;
Nichols, 2000). For example, the heart and lungs combine with other biological
structures to form the circulatory system. These more complicated biological
structures coordinate the functions of several different structures, which results in
our increased capabilities to adjust to the changing demands of a complicated
environment. Similarly, cognitive structures or schemes also tend to combine to
form more complicated and sophisticated schemes. For example, children may
combine their scheme for birds and their scheme for bats into a larger scheme for
all animals that fly. Organization provides learners with new and more
sophisticated ways to understand their environments. 4 Adaptation is the second major cognitive function, and it involves the
processes we use to develop and refine our schemes in order to adjust to our
environments (Cohen & Younghee, 1999; Piaget, 1962). Adaptation occurs
through the two complementary sub-processes of assimilation and accommodation.
Assimilation is the act of interpreting environmental events in terms of
existing schemes (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969; Jonckheere, Mandelbrot, & Piaget,
1958). For example, a mother is pushing her fifteen-month-old infant in a stroller.
As the child passes various unknown men, the infant smiles, points, and exclaims
loudly, “Daddy!” The child is interpreting these new men in terms of the child’s
existing knowledge that tall, two-legged males are called daddy. Piaget’s infant
daughter, Lucienne, and her first experience with a pack of cigarettes provide
another example of assimilation (Piaget, 1962). Because Lucienne did not have a
scheme for cigarettes, she responded to them in terms of her existing schemes for
exploration. She stuck the cigarette pack in her mouth, and/or she banged it on a
table. These are actions she had previously internalized as ways of exploring new
objects. In both cases, the child’s actions would be seen as examples of assimilation, because an experience was related to and/or interpreted in terms of
the child’s existing schemes.
It should be noted that assimilation is an active process during which an
environmental stimulus is interpreted in terms of existing knowledge in a person’s 5 schemes (Thomas, 2000). Assimilation can be likened to the biological act of
digestion (Ginsburg & Opper, 1988; Wadsworth, 1996). Food is taken into the
digestive structures, and the digestive processes modify the food into a form that
is more usable to the biological organism. In the case of cognitive assimilation,
experiences may also be modified so they fit better with the schemes that are used
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This document was uploaded on 03/29/2014 for the course EPS 324 at N. Arizona.
- Spring '08