The two processes that are involved in every interaction are assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation means gaining some knowledge and making it fit in with what you already know. This is a necessity in order to develop our cognitive structures. This is a process that everyone encounters even though they may not be aware of when it is happening. Our perceptions of things are enhanced when something of the outside world is assimilated or added into our internal world. Accommodation is the changing of one’s structure of thought. During this process, the gaining of new knowledge fails to co-exist with what we already know. Therefore, we must accommodate or adjust our previous way of thinking to maintain stability. These two processes interact to form a state of equilibrium.
Equilibrium is something we all strive to obtain because it is here that we are most confident with our state of being. The Piagetian model of equilibration displays how these two processes work together to reach a state of stability. When people gain new information, they are at a state of instability. This is when the two processes (assimilation and accommodation) are brought into effect. We use both of these techniques to maintain a state of equilibrium. With assimilation, equilibrium is established by returning to the original way of thinking with added knowledge. The only difference is that with accommodation the previous state of equilibrium is combined with an entirely new category. The model also demonstrates a third way of dealing with new information. By ignoring the information, no knowledge is gained, yet equilibrium is still maintained.
Assimilation and accommodation appear at certain stages of development. These two processes actually begin to occur within the first month of the child’s birth. This is during the first stage of the sensori-motor period. Assimilation is the most well known activity during this stage, but accommodation is also brought into play. These two processes begin during this first stage, but do not start to develop until later in the child’s life and in a later period in development.
During preoperational stage of cognitive development, as defined by Piaget, children begin to assimilate as a way of adaptive behavior. They are at the age now where they can begin to really take in new knowledge and new things. They are able to go back to their previous way of thinking, but with some new information. The formation of stable concepts and beginnings of mental reasoning are characteristics of this stage. The child begins to acquire new information and assimilates this information to reach a level of stability. Children’s thinking during this period is illogical and they lack the ability to make connections between categories. An example of assimilation would be a child being outside during the day and seeing the bright circle of light coming from the sky and being told by their parent that it is the sun. One night the child is outside and sees the bright circle of light coming from the sky and says it is the sun. The child associates any bright circle of light coming from the sky the sun. The child has not yet distinguished between the sun and the moon.
As this period shifts over to the next stage of concrete operations, the child begins making accommodations. This causes the child to make categorical links between their previous knowledge and their newly learned knowledge. The child also starts to think logically, but only to a certain degree. This also helps the child’s accommodation skills. To give an example of accommodation, I will refer to the example I used to show assimilation. A child is outside during the day and sees the sun and at night the child sees the moon. The child notices that the light source during the day is a lot brighter than of the light source during the night. The child is able to distinguish between the two and knows that the two images are not the same. The child is able to make categorical links between the two objects.
Both of these skills take place throughout a child’s life and continue through their adult life. Although one may predominate at any given time, they are inseparable and relate to each other. These processes work together to allow the child to adapt to his or her environment.