How do we learn or make sense of the complex world around us?
Jean Piaget suggested that this happens through a process in psychology called accommodation.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a Swiss psychologist famed for many theories about cognitive development—mostly in children.
His research and studies concentrated on how children acquire new information and skills at different stages of their lives.
His findings are widely used by child development specialists to teach children or explain their learning processes.
From his studies of child cognitive development, Piaget concluded that in accommodation, we make use of mental shortcuts called schemas.
Schemas are cognitive frameworks, concepts, or organized patterns of knowledge that allow us to understand the world around us.
You can also think of schemas as mental pictures that simplify how we view the world. They can be objects, persons, roles, or events.
Schemas are like shortcuts in our minds to information that we need hence very critical to our learning processes.
A good example of a schema is the schema of a bus, which may include a big vehicle with several rows of seats, carrying passengers by road, and traveling over long distances.
Schemas can be specific/discrete or elaborate. A schema that recognizes a cat, for instance, can be said to be specific but if it goes ahead to categorize the different types of cats, then it is considered elaborate.
To organize schemas, we use two processes: assimilation and accommodation.
How Assimilation and Accommodation work
Assimilation is a learning process where we add new information to an existing schema without much change to them.
In other words, it occurs when you add new information to what you already know about a concept or a topic.
It is like adding an extra note to your index card without changing much of the information that you originally wrote on the index card.
So, if we say that we are assimilating information, we simply mean that we are keeping our previous knowledge (or schemas) about a topic or concept and simply finding a place to store or add this new information.
Here is a perfect example: if a schema stands for a bear, we could add newly learned information such as its size, the fact that it hibernates, or its favorite habitat.
On the other hand, accommodation is a much more complex process. Instead of simply adding new information as assimilation does, it modifies what is already there.
The process of learning through accommodation, therefore, involves altering original or existing ideas (or schemas) in order to take new information or experiences. In the process, new schemas may also be developed.
So, instead of making new information fit into existing schemas (like in the case of assimilation), we change the schema to contain (or accommodate) the new information.
This means that if we come across new information that challenges or conflicts with the schemas that we already built in our mind, we have to dismantle the original schema and develop a new one to ensure that our new knowledge (schema) conforms to what’s in the real world.
For example, a child may picture feathers or birds when he thinks about flying things. However, when he sees a plane that also flies, he has to accommodate his thinking to fit a new schema for planes.
Put simply, accommodation occurs when what we previously thought we knew is contradicted by reality. This forces us to adjust our previous knowledge to reflect the new information.
Accommodation helps our schema to become more refined and detailed as a result of experience or new information.
Even though Piaget made these observations about children, it applies to everyone including adults.
Whenever we acquire new information, it must either be incorporated into an existing schema (assimilated) or accommodated in some way if it challenges our existing schemas.
Assimilation and Accommodation Are Complimentary
From our descriptions above, it is easy to see that assimilation cannot exist without accommodation. If assimilation alone was involved in our learning process, there would be no variations in our mental framework.
This means that we would not be able to acquire new concepts and we wouldn’t develop further.
So, assimilation ensures that our knowledge structures are continuous and that new elements can be added to these structures.
Accommodation, on the other hand, allows new structures to adapt to individual circumstances
To develop intelligence, we have to strike a balance between these two learning processes. This will help us create a sense of stability between us and the world around us.
Examples of Accommodation in Psychology
Here are some of the best examples of accommodation in psychology:
1. Racial Relations
People can have stereotyped schema about other social groups such as races. For example, a child may have been raised to think that colored people are inferior.
However, after interacting with them, he discovers that they are equals with other races.
This forces the boy to change his mind.
An accommodation occurs because the boy has to modify his thoughts to fit his new discoveries
2. When Children Encounter Death
The first-time children see death it can be deeply confusing. It challenges a lot of preconceived notions they had about life.
Previously they may have taken for granted that life is a continuous journey with no end.
To come to terms with this new information, they have to accommodate their thinking and readjust the schema in their minds.
3. Concept Of Infinity
Most of us have a hard time conceiving of infinity even as adults. However, we have come to conceptually accept it as a possibility after reflection or training.
Before this, we may have been adamant that no such thing exists. This is an example of accommodation from our previous knowledge.
Faced with realities such as decimal numbers with an infinite number of decimal places or the possibility of endless space, we have adjusted our thoughts to accommodate this information.
4. Peer Pressure
When you find yourself in a new social circle or group, you will soon start to interact with their thoughts, experiences, interests, etc.
After a while, you will realize that some of your existing knowledge is wrong.
This may lead to a dramatic change in your belief system, behaviors, and values.
5. Earth Being Round
For a long period in history, the vast majority of the common people believed that the world was flat.
Only among the few learned elites such as the Greek philosophers (Pythagoras, Aristotle) and later, seafarers or navigators like Christopher Columbus, did some believe otherwise.
Today with undeniable pictures of a round earth, few people hold to the beliefs.
However, they are still some who are flat Earth believers. Should they be confronted with irrefutable evidence, they would also have to undergo an accommodation in their thoughts.
6. Problem Solving
The ability to solve problems is considered to be a basic life skill and it is critical in our day-to-day lives—at home, at work, or at school.
It is another great example of accommodation because when you first encounter a problem, you may not have the skills or know the course of action to take.
However, by experimenting with the problem a bit, you may find a solution.
This means that you have to accommodate the demands of the new problem and integrate new schemas (solutions) in the process.
5. Former Cult Members
Members of a religious cult can show unusual devotion. These members usually come under the influence of charismatic leaders such as the late David Koresh or Jim Jones or the more recent QAnon phenomenon.
After being indoctrinated, they become strongly convinced of the leader’s teachings and are even prepared to sacrifice everything for the cause.
Many of the devotees are intelligent people who appear to be just like normal everyday people.
However, when the leader’s predictions or apocalyptic prophecies don’t come true, the follower may be forced to rethink their beliefs.
This makes them completely change their beliefs causing them to leave the cult and even to condemn it.
There comes a time when a seemingly good idea has to give way to a better idea.
Accommodation seems to sum this up very well by paving the way for new knowledge.
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Retrieved from http://chiron.vedu/whuitt/col/cogsys/piaget.html
The Construction of Reality in the Child. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/ works/fr/piaget2.htm