Adaptation in Piaget's Theory of Development

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Adaptation is the ability to adjust to new information and experiences. Learning is essentially adapting to our constantly changing environment. Through adaptation, we are able to adopt new behaviors that allow us to cope with change.

Twentieth century Swiss psychologist and genetic epistemologist Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development outlined four stages of learning. These stages include sensorimotor (0 to 2 years old), preoperational (2 to 7 years old), concrete operational (7 to 12 years old), and formal operational (12 years old and up)—however, the age each stage starts can vary.

According to Piaget's theory, adaptation is one of the important processes guiding cognitive development. The adaptation process itself can take place in two ways: assimilation and accommodation.

Piaget's Schemas and Learning

Schemas are cognitive or mental structures that are formed based on past experiences. The concept was first described in 1932 by Frederic Bartlett, and Piaget incorporated the term into his theory of cognitive development.

People use these mental categories to help understand the world around them. Schemas are influential in shaping how someone takes in new information and organizes it. Thus, schemas can play an important role in learning. Adaptation is one schema that describes how people learn and understand new information.

An example of how a schema would work in real life would be a child seeing a dog and learning what it is. The next time a child sees a dog, they can use their existing schema to identify it.

Adaptation Through Assimilation

In assimilation, people take in information from the outside world and convert it to fit in with their existing ideas and concepts. New information can sometimes be readily assimilated into an existing schema.

Think of this as like having a mental database. When information fits into an existing category, it can be quickly and easily assimilated into the database.

However, this process doesn't always work perfectly, especially during early childhood. Here's one classic example: Imagine a very small child is seeing a dog for the first time. If the child already knows what a cat is, they might assume the dog is a cat: It fits into their existing schema for cats, since both are small, furry, and have four legs. Correcting mistakes like these takes place through the next adaptation process, accommodation.

Adaptation Through Accommodation

In accommodation, people process new information by changing their mental representations to fit that new information. When people encounter information that is completely new or that challenges their existing ideas, they often have to form a new schema to accommodate the information or alter their existing mental categories.

This is much like trying to add information to a computer database only to find that there is not a pre-existing category that will fit the data. In order to incorporate it into the database, you will have to create a brand new field or change an existing one.

Not surprisingly, the accommodation process tends to be much more difficult than assimilation. People are often resistant to changing their schemas, particularly if it involves changing a deeply held belief.

The child in the previous example that initially thought that a dog was a cat might begin to notice key differences between the two animals. One barks while the other meows. One likes to play while the other wants to sleep all day. After a while, the child will accommodate the new information by creating a new schema for dogs while at the same time altering their existing schema for cats.

Adaptation in Cognitive Development

The adaptation process is a critical part of cognitive development. According to Piaget's theory, this process is what facilitates growth through each of the four developmental stages.

Schemas continue to change over time as people experience new things. Through the adaptive processes of assimilation and accommodation, children and adults are able to take in new information, form new ideas or change existing ones, and adopt new behaviors that make them better prepared to deal with the world around them.

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