Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst

Melissa has a Masters in Education and a PhD in Educational Psychology. She has worked as an instructional designer at UVA SOM.

Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development focuses on how learners interact with their environment to develop complex reasoning and knowledge. This lesson will focus on the six basic assumptions of that theory, including the key terms: assimilation, accommodation and equilibration. Updated: 07/05/2019


If you have ever been around a toddler, it's amazing to witness the growth and development of knowledge over the course of weeks and months. As children interact with their environment and new objects, they learn and develop ideas. Take any child to a zoo, and you will witness this process. Perhaps they have seen a typical bird before, maybe a blue jay or robin, and they associate that animal as a bird. But at the zoo they see new exotic animals with wings and feathers that fly and they know, without being told, that those animals are birds, too. Let's discuss how this process occurs according to Piaget's cognitive development theory.

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  • 0:10 Introduction
  • 0:51 Assumptions
  • 3:08 Assimilation/Accomodation
  • 5:38 Equilibration
  • 7:02 Implementing Principles
  • 8:33 Lesson Summary
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Overview and Assumptions

Psychologist Jean Piaget
Piagets Cognitive Development Theory

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, introduced a developmental epistemology that focused on the growth of intelligence from infancy to adulthood. Piaget's theory is influenced by the following ideas. These ideas helped Piaget to develop his basic assumptions, which form the foundation of his theory.

The first is that intelligence, like a biological system, constructs the structures it needs to function. Second, knowledge is the interaction between the individual and the environment. Third, the growth of intelligence is influenced by four factors:

  1. Physical environment
  2. Social environment
  3. Maturation
  4. Equilibration

Let's talk about these ideas a bit more in terms of assumptions. Piaget's theory of cognitive development has six basic assumptions, which we will focus the majority of our attention on during this lesson.

The first is that children are active and motivated learners. Children will seek out information to help them make sense of their world. For example, a child may encounter a new toy. Instead of passively observing the toy, the child will engage with it - possibly dropping it, touching it or even tasting it to learn more about what it does.

The second assumption is that children construct knowledge from their experiences. Children don't have isolated bits of information. Instead, they build and construct knowledge based on their experiences and observations. For example, a child constructs knowledge about animals by interacting with them, observing them, learning how they walk and learning what sounds they make. They continually add to their knowledge in order to create understanding and beliefs about animals.

The knowledge children acquire is organized into a schema, or groupings of similar actions or thoughts. Over time, these schemas may change, but they provide an important base level of information about particular events, objects and information.

Our third assumption is that children learn through two processes: assimilation and accommodation. These are important terms in understanding the cognitive development theory, and they typically operate hand-in-hand.

Assimilation is defined as dealing with a new event in a way that is consistent with an existing schema. For example, a toddler may assimilate a new ball into the schema of 'toys that can be thrown'. Or a second grader may assimilate a new furry animal seen at the zoo into their 'animals that are mammals' schema.

Accommodation is the process of dealing with new information or events by either modifying an existing schema or forming a new one. For example, the toddler may realize that the new ball is too heavy to be thrown, so he may have to roll it, thereby modifying his existing schema of all-toy-balls-can-be-thrown. Or the child at the zoo may note that the furry animal is flying and create a new schema of animals.

The fourth assumption of Piaget's cognitive development theory is interaction with one's physical and social environments is essential for cognitive development. According to Piaget, experimenting and manipulating physical objects is the main way children learn. For example, playing with new objects and toys and experimenting in a lab are ways to develop a child's knowledge. The social environment is also critical for cognitive development. Social interactions allow for multiple perspectives, opinions and introduction of new ways to approach a task or event.

Our fifth assumption deals with equilibrium. The process of equilibration promotes progression towards increasingly complex thought. Equilibrium is the state when leaners can explain new events with existing schemas. The term disequilibrium refers to the discomfort or cognitive conflict experienced by a child or adolescent when s/he realizes that two views they hold about a situation can't possibly be both true. The individual's recognition of the contradiction between the opposing beliefs promotes discomfort. This feeling sets the stage for the reorganization of his or her thinking on a higher level.

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