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Schemas, assimilation, and accommodation

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] According to Piaget, all of us, even very young children, are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. And in order to do this, we build schemas or mental models. And we use these schemas as frameworks by which we organize and interpret new information. So for Piaget, cognitive development was all about the development of schemas. But obviously, in order for them to develop, they need to be able to grow and change. And Piaget said that this happened through the process of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation describes how we interpret new experiences in terms of our current understanding, so in terms of our current schemas. Accommodation describes how we later adjust our schemas to better incorporate new experiences. I like to think of schemas as cubbyholes, like places where you stored things when you were in preschool. But I also sometimes picture them as those toys people had when they were younger. And the toy that I'm thinking of are these boxes. And each side of that box has a hole. And those holes can only fit specific shapes. So if this toy is our schema, I want you to picture the objects that could potentially fit into it as new information in our environment. And as we encounter these new things in our environment, we try to assimilate that information. And we do this by placing this new information in our previously constructed schemas. And as long as it fits, as long as it's consistent with what we already know, then we don't have a problem. But what happens when we run into something that doesn't exactly fit? In that case we're forced to modify our existing schemas. So maybe we'll add a star-shaped hole to our box. But that might not be possible. And maybe we have to construct a brand new schema in order to take this information into account. And this is what we refer to as accommodation. So we can accommodate either by adjusting previously existing schemas or by creating new ones. So imagine we have a child who has a schema about dog where dog is defined as a furry, four-legged animal. Now, imagine that that child sees a cat or maybe a raccoon for the first time. That child is going to try to assimilate that new creature into categories that he or she already has. So maybe the child will proclaim "Doggie!" at which point his parents would probably tell him that, "No, no, that is not a dog. "In fact, that's a raccoon, and we don't pet those." And so in order to really understand what this new creature is, the child has to accommodate. They have to think, okay, well, now I know that not all furry, four-legged animals are dogs. Some are raccoons. And they are not always friendly. I think it's easy to mix up assimilation and accommodation because they're so similar to one another. And so I think the best way to distinguish between assimilation and accommodation is to keep an example in your head. But if you're struggling with that, another way to distinguish between them might be to look at the differences between these two words. Assimilation has two Ss in it. So I think of that as standing for same schema or incorporation information into a schema that you already have. Accommodation has two Cs which you can think of as standing for change and create or cases where you have to change an existing schema or create a new one. Another way to think about this material is in terms of equilibrium and disequilibrium. As we move around in the world, we are typically exposed to a lot of new information. And we can deal with most of that new information with assimilation alone. And by assimilating that new information into our schemas as we interact with the world, we are kept in a state of equilibrium. But when we encounter something that doesn't fit with our current schemas, this puts us in a state of disequilibrium, which is an unpleasant state to be in because it's frustrating. So we then use accommodation as a means of dealing with this frustration. And by accommodating this information we restore balance, so we return to equilibrium. So imagine that you're a child and the only dogs you have ever seen are Huskies. And one day you come across a Golden Retriever. And this is new information, so you're gonna strive to understand it. And you do this through assimilation. You proclaim it a dog, and you return to a state of equilibrium. And then maybe later on you come across a Chihuahua. And you think, okay, well, this one looks a little bit different. But it still has many of the features that I have come to use to define dog. And so, hey, this one is also a dog. So you assimilate this information. You return to equilibrium. And then maybe later you come across yet another creature. And first you try to assimilate this information. It has four legs, it has ears. It has two eyes, it has a tail. It's a dog. But then maybe you notice that other people around you aren't treating this creature like a dog. It's not acting like the other dogs that you see in a park. And so you start to wonder. Maybe this isn't a dog. And now you're in a state of disequilibrium. And so at this point maybe you ask your parents and they inform you that, nope, this is not a dog. This is, in fact, a squirrel. And so now you have a concept where you didn't have one before. Now you have this notion of squirrel. Now you have a new schema. And because you have a place to put this new information, you are now returned to a state of equilibrium. So the idea here is that development moves along in an state of equilibrium as we assimilate new information that we come across. But every once in a while we run into something that throws part of our world view into disarray. And this disequilibrium is what drives our learning process because we accommodate as a way to restore equilibrium.