Jean Piaget and the Psychobiology of Human Learning

Several years ago while reading a news article written by a prominent journalist, I happened to come across a factual error which at the time I believed was significant enough to point out directly to the writer. This was a time when commenting systems had not yet became the standard part of online news websites that we see today. So aiming to be helpful I wrote a polite email to this journalist merely pointing out the inaccuracy. Much to my surprise, the distempered response that I received came back along the lines of: "I've been a journalist for X amount of years, I know what I'm doing. Who are you to tell me that I'm wrong!?". In essence pride and all sorts of other apparent cognitive biases (backfire effect, confirmation bias etc.) had blinded this person to the possibility that they could have in any way made a mistake).

Now let us consider if a child were to act in a similar manner, that past experience (however brief) -in and of itself and without accurate regard to context- provided immunity against future mistakes. Would such a child even stand a hope of successfully surviving the trials and tribulations of childhood?

While as adults we may find amusement in the seemingly elementary mistakes of children, their ability to learn such a great deal about the world in so brief an amount of time, is a marvel of biology and evolution. Imagine what wondrous accomplishments we would accrue if as adults we had within us the the capability to learn at a rate equal to that of a child; and so by understanding the processes through which children learn, we too stand to benefit.

With this in mind, an excellent place to begin understanding the roots of human learning would be the ground-breaking studies that the great Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget carried out in the early to mid 20th century.

A tall, stoop-shouldered, and somewhat portly man, Piaget was a familiar sight on the streets of Geneva - frequently seen pedalling by on his bicycle or strolling by with his beret and pipe, mulling over new problems arising out of his most recent investigations into the mystery of how knowledge developed in young humans. As a father of 3 young children himself, he neither had to search far for inspiration nor to find research subjects. Indeed in his own words he made clear that he spent considerable time observing his own children (2 girls and 1 boy), subjecting them to various experiments (perfectly harmless I'm sure!).

In exploring the problem of 'how we know' Piaget was an interdisciplinary expert and this was evident in his ability draw upon new advances in several disciplines and by making novel contributions to those disciplines.

"It is with children that we have the best chance of studying the development of logical knowledge, mathematical knowledge, physical knowledge, and so forth."

-Jean Piaget

In his works Piaget borrowed two key terms from biology when describing our learning capabilities. These were assimilation and accommodation.

The procedure of constructing our understandings is what Piaget called the cognitive function of assimilation. In its biological context, assimilation describes the way in which organisms use their physiological structures to absorb nutrients from the environment and to convert these into a useable form. Piaget argued that this is what happens in the cognitive realm where human actions also have structures. Hence; there are sensory-motor structures, language structures, and logical structures. He called all of these cognitive structures. In this way human beings use their cognitive structures to assimilate knowledge from the environment. Similar then to how physiological structures act on the environment and transform it into nutrients; in the cognitive realm, cognitive structures act on the environment and transform what we see, do, hear, touch etc. and their related experiences into knowledge.

One key distinction of cognitive assimilation from biological assimilation though is that in the cognitive form, we do not absorb anything, but are simply exposed to our environment. The interaction with our environment therefore merely presents us with something to be understood. We then assimilate the world into the theories that we have, and in this way, we make sense of the world. Knowledge is therefore created, not received. This is a crucial concept to understand for any form of human learning and is why different forms of knowledge can be created by different people despite the fact that they are exposed to the same source of information.

"...the past determines the present, but the present acts upon our interpretation of the past, so that the past is always interpreted in terms of the present situation; there is interaction between the present and the past."

Jean Piaget: The Man and His Ideas

The second cognitive function that Piaget identified is accommodation. Accommodation takes place when human beings modify or reconstruct the structures and the theories through which they create knowledge. Piaget finds a parallel in the realm of biology, where organisms modify their physiological structures in order to accommodate to the environment. Piaget's favourite example was the pond snail, Lymnaea, found in the great Swiss lakes and which he had studied earlier in his career (Piaget had observed over 80,000 of these individual molluscs!). He discovered that when these snails are exposed to continual intense wave action they produce a novel physiological structure that enables them to accommodate to the changed environment and thus survive.

Piaget finds the same function of accommodation in the cognitive realm: human beings change or modify their cognitive structures and their theories which they use to create knowledge. He termed the balance between assimilation and accommodation - equilibration. In this model, intelligence is viewed as a homoeostatic/balancing and open system which extends into the environment to obtain knowledge, but which also tends to close in terms of mental structure to incorporate that knowledge into existing cognitive frameworks. It is this continual process of building on the old with the new which leads to intellectual growth or increased intelligence.

"It is impossible to disassociate the biological and the social aspects when you are dealing with psychological development. A phenomenon is always biological in its roots, and social at its end point. But we must not forget, also, that between the two it is mental."

-Jean Piaget

Further to these theories, Piaget ultimately discovered clear cognitive differences between children and adults, and demonstrated that although children always have mistaken or inadequate understandings of the world, these are in time, overcome or eliminated.

If then, as it appears, that mistakes and the ability to learn from our mistakes are a core element of learning, why do we observe some adults with an impaired version of this critical skill, a skill that is fundamental to learning. Is this due to the fact that we make fewer mistakes? That we fail to recognise that we are making mistakes? Are we unable or somehow hampered in our ability to learn from our mistakes (impaired accommodation)? Or do we simply refuse to learn and continue to suffer from our cognitive biases? Perhaps the problem lies in all of these areas.

Although as adults we may face the inherent biological limitations of our synapses not developing at the same astounding rate as that of a child's; or our brains being organised in a fundamentally different way, what we can do is to understand the importance of Piaget's concepts and apply them to all areas of life; whether for our personal development or the creation of intelligent learning organisations. Perhaps then we would obtain a more accurate and complete picture of reality, with a better knowledge of how to respond to this intelligence, and, of course, hopefully fewer obstinate journalists scoffing at those who would aim to correct their errors.

Image: Laura B. Dahl

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