Accommodation refers to the process of amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.
As a person develops schemata for the objects and events they encounter (defined as a mental organization of information), they are continuously altering those schemata. That adjustment is called accommodation.
For example, as a child grows and encounters more information, that information is processed in terms of the child’s existing schemata (assimilation) which may lead to a schema being expanded, changed, or the creation of a new schema (accommodation).
Example of Accommodation in Psychology
A child might have a schema for “dog” that includes the information: furry, four legs, and one tail.
When the child encounters a cat, they may try fit that concept into their dog schema.
However, as mom or dad may point out, there is a difference between dogs and cat. The child then creates a separate schema for “cat”.
The concepts of schemata, assimilation, and accommodation were proposed by Jean Piaget (1954) in his theory of cognitive development. He described encountering new information as creating a state of disequilibrium which the child is motivated to restore.
By accommodating the newly encountered information, adjusting an existing schema or creating a new one, equilibrium is restored.
Assimilation vs Accommodation
Piaget also proposed a concept called assimilation. Whereas accommodation involves changing an existing schema, assimilation involves adding new information to an existing schema.
Here’s the difference:
- Assimilation: Improving existing knowledge of something thanks to new but congruent information.
- Accommodation: Amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.
|Improving existing knowledge of something thanks to new but congruent information.||Amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.|
|A child owns a poodle. They see a dachshund and notice it looks like a poodle. They point at the dachshund and say “That’s a dog!” The parent says “Yes. It’s a dog called a dachshund.” The child’s ‘dog’ schema is now improved and refined – they now know two types of dogs.||A child owns a poodle. They see a cat and notice it looks like a poodle. They point at the cat and say “That’s a dog!” The parent corrects them: “that’s a cat”. The child now has to change its ‘dog’ schema to exclude some four-legged pets, and instead create a new ‘cat’ schema.|
Examples of Accommodation in Psychology
- A newborn loves to touch whatever it can control their arms well enough to reach. As they grab hold of soft fabrics and squeezable squishy toys, they form distinct schemas for both sensations.
- An infant grabs hold of a mom’s keys and puts them into their mouth. Learning that keys are not edible, their existing schema for “can eat” is adjusted to disqualify keys.
- As the visual cortex of a baby develops, they thoroughly enjoy gazing at facial features. This allows them to form separate visual schemas for “mom” and “dad.”
- A toddler has just tripped over a small toy that was laying on the floor. After that, they avoid that toy no matter what, which indicates a newly formed schema for “danger.”
- A kindergarten teacher shows the class a toy horse and zebra. She then points out the main visual distinction, thus creating a new schema for zebra in all of the students.
- When starting a new school year and meeting the teacher for the first time, each student begins replacing their previous “teacher” schema with a newer version.
- One day the students learn how to read 1 CVC word. The teacher is sure to show a photo to help kids understand what the word means. The next day the teacher shows a new CVC word and photo. At first the kids are confused because the information doesn’t fit their existing schema. Eventually they restore equilibrium by forming a separate schema for the new word and image.
- As students advance through the educational system where instruction is more serious, they constantly process and accommodate new information about different subjects. Their schemas for each subject will adjust to include key descriptors: Math=hard; Art class=Fun; World History=boring; Chemistry=aaargh.
- While in training, middle-managers must keep adjusting their old schemas for authoritarian leadership that include concepts such as bossy and cold. The new characteristics they are learning about are for transformative, servant, and collaborative leadership styles.
- When traveling to a new country, a person’s concept of “table etiquette” will be transformed to be more tolerant and accepting of cultural differences.
Case Studies of Accommodation in Psychology
1. What’s Wrong with this iPad?
You may have seen the above video of a baby poking at the photos in a magazine, trying to get the images to change. It is the first time the baby encountered a magazine.
Before, they often played with mom and dad’s iPad, which was a lot of fun because it was possible to make the images move and generate lots of interesting sounds.
But when the baby encountered a magazine for the first time, it immediately assimilated that image based on its existing schema for an iPad.
Both objects are square, roughly the same size, and can be held in the hands easily. So, of course, the baby thought the magazine was an iPad.
After poking at the magazine and nothing happening, it evoked a state of disequilibrium. The child felt confused because the new experience did not fit with its existing schema.
Eventually, the child will create a new, magazine schema that includes key descriptors: broken, not fun.
A lot of parents, teachers, and scientists are concerned about how iPads and similar technological devices affect young children.
2. Accommodation in Cognitive Robotics
Cognitive robotics refers to endowing robots with intelligent behavior. Scientists do this through teaching robots using the rules of accommodation and assimilation, as described below.
Unfortunately, programming a robot sounds a lot easier than it actually is. In part, this is due to the same actions, such as cutting or chopping, having incredibly similar movements.
Those movements are also performed with a wide variety of tools, on many different objects, in various ways, and using different movement patterns.
Who would’ve thought that dicing an onion would be so complex?
In the words of Aksoy et al. (2014),
“In spite of this high-dimensional complexity, children can understand and learn the “meaning” of an action, whereas robots so far cannot” (p. 107).
The researchers decided to utilize Piaget’s framework of cognitive development to enhance the understanding of robots.
First, they created a large action dataset consisting of eight actions:
cutting, chopping, stirring, pushing, hiding, putting, taking, and uncovering. Each manipulation consisted of 15 variations by 5 different individuals, and 30 different objects manipulated for a total of 120 demonstrations.
To make a long story short, the incremental learning framework the researchers designed proved highly effective:
“…a growing (cumulative) memory of actions can be efficiently developed in a machine similar to processes suggested for human learning by the psychologist Jean Piaget in 1953” (p. 108).
3. Accommodation of Gender Schemata
Sometimes accommodation can take place over a period of decades, even centuries. There may be no better example of how time and culture shape a schema than the case of gender roles.
In Western cultures such as the U. S., gender roles have undergone a slow but dramatic transformation over the last 100+ years. Before the industrial revolution, both men and women engaged in grueling work on the farm.
The schemata for gender roles were very similar. As the industrial revolution developed, gender roles schemata experienced a transformation.
New economic parameters required that existing roles accommodate a new reality. Roles became more defined as men and women adopted different roles in society.
These roles were changed again during World War I and II, and then once more in the 1950s.
As the economic needs of the country shifted, society as a whole and the individuals that make up that society, altered their gender schemata accordingly.
This is an example of accommodation at the societal level.
4. Accommodation of Digital Technologies
Reinking et al. (2000) present a Piagetian perspective for understanding how digital technologies can affect literacy instruction.
They suggest that:
“…a developmental framework for understanding technological integration might be built around Piaget’s classical theory of how learning develops through a process of assimilation and accommodation” (p. 111).
The researchers trace a brief history of how early technologies, such as word processing programs, have become a valuable tool of efficiency for teachers.
However, the transformation from a tool, to integrating into existing instructional approaches as subjects of instruction themselves, represents what Piaget would refer to as accommodation.
In the words of the authors:
“…there are increasingly more examples of combining word processing with multimedia presentation software such as PowerPoint to engage students in creating multimedia documents for classroom projects… the examples cited in this article suggest that educators’ and researchers’ views of technology in relation to literacy are shifting away from a view that we refer to here as assimilation and more towards one of accommodation” (pp. 115-116).
5. The Entire Educational Continuum
If we define accommodation as Piaget did, the process of altering an existing schema to take into account new information and experience, then we can see that the entire educational continuum is just one continuous stream of accommodation processes.
For example, students enter kindergarten with several hundred schemata for words, objects, and rules. Each one is fairly simple, consisting of just a few pieces of information.
As the student progresses through the grades, existing schemata are continuously altered, becoming increasingly complex, and splitting into numerous other schemata. This accommodation process never stops.
If a student goes through undergraduate study and then on to the master’s or doctoral level, accommodation process will continue to alter schemata.
Even after all of those years of advanced study, a true scientist is still assimilating and accommodating information as scientific knowledge evolves over decades.
Accommodation is a process that occurs when newly encountered information or experience does not neatly fit into an existing schema. According to Piaget, that will lead to a dramatic transformation of the schema that may also result in the formation of a unique schema.
Human beings are making alterations to, and forming new schemas throughout their lifespan. This can be seen in babies that try to determine what is edible, to scientists that make new discoveries that shape knowledge.
If we allow ourselves some flexibility in the definition of accommodation, we can see its usefulness in areas as far ranging as cognitive robotics and societal changes in gender roles.
To think that such far-reaching ramifications all stem from a single psychologist’s observations of his own children nearly 80 years ago is truly astonishing.
Aksoy, E., Schoeler, M., & Wörgötter, F. (2014). Testing Piaget’s ideas on robots: Assimilation and accommodation using the semantics of actions. IEEE ICDL-EPIROB 2014 – 4th Joint IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and on Epigenetic Robotics, 107-108. https://doi.org/10.1109/DEVLRN.2014.6982962
Hanfstingl, B., Arzenšek, A., Apschner, J., & Gölly, K. I. (2021). Assimilation and accommodation: A systematic review of the last two decades. European Psychologist, 27. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000463
Piaget, J. (1954). The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.
Piaget, J. (1956; 1965). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. International Universities Press Inc. New York. Reinking, D.,
Labbo, L., & Mckenna, M. (2000). From assimilation to accommodation: A developmental framework for integrating digital technologies into literacy research and instruction. Journal of Research in Reading, 23(2), 110 – 122. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.00108