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Assimilation is a cognitive process in which there is an integration of new information into an existing schema of ideas. For example, when an unfamiliar dog is seen, a person will probably just assimilate it into their dog schema. However, if the dog behaves strangely, and in ways that don't seem dog-like, there will be accommodation as a new schema is formed for that particular dog.
In his formalization of the theory of constructivism Jean Piaget, articulated the mechanisms by which knowledge is internalized by learners. He suggested that through processes of accommodation and assimilation, individuals construct new knowledge from their experiences. When individuals assimilate, they incorporate the new experience into an already existing framework without changing that framework. This may occur when individuals' experiences are aligned with their internal representations of the world, but may also occur as a failure to change a faulty understanding; for example, they may not notice events, may misunderstand input from others, or may decide that an event is a fluke and is therefore unimportant as information about the world. In contrast, when individuals' experiences contradict their internal representations, they may change their perceptions of the experiences to fit their internal representations. According to the theory, accommodation is the process of reframing one's mental representation of the external world to fit new experiences. Accommodation can be understood as the mechanism by which failure leads to learning: when we act on the expectation that the world operates in one way and it violates our expectations, we often fail, but by accommodating this new experience and reframing our model of the way the world works, we learn from the experience of failure, or others' failure.
It is important to note that constructivism is not a particular pedagogy. In fact, constructivism is a theory describing how learning happens, regardless of whether learners are using their experiences to understand a lecture or following the instructions for building a model airplane. In both cases, the theory of constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge out of their experiences.
However, constructivism is often associated with pedagogic approaches that promote active learning, or learning by doing. There are many critics of "learning by doing" (a.k.a "discovery learning") as an instructional strategy (e.g. see the criticisms below). While there is much enthusiasm for Constructivism as a design strategy, according to Tobias and Duffy "... to us it would appear that constructivism remains more of a philosophical framework than a theory that either allows us to precisely describe instruction or prescribe design strategies.(p.4)". This is unfortunate because there is quite a bit of promise to the educational philosophy behind constructivism, but constructivists seem to be having difficulties defining testable learning theories. In part this is due to Piaget's distrust of empirical methods and reliance upon the clinical method.
- Tobias, S. (2009). Constructivist instruction: Success or failure?, New York: Taylor & Francis.
- Kirschner, P. A. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75–86.
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