A child seeing a zebra for the first time and calling it a horse. The child assimilates this information into her schema for a horse. When the child accommodates information, she takes into consideration the different properties of a zebra compared to a horse, perhaps calling a zebra a horse with stripes. When she eventually learns the name of zebra, she has accommodated this information.
A mental representation, or schema of a certain group of people (a racist schema) -- your whole life you grew up with those around you just adding more and more information to that schema that made sense to you (assimilation) -- you only notice information that fits your schema (assimilation) and confirms it -- then you get to college and actually meet people from that group and realize what you have learned from real interactions requires a radical reorganization of your schema
regarding that group (accommodation). Your new schema is completely different, not just full of additional information
Assimilation is like adding air into a balloon. You just keep blowing it up. It gets bigger and bigger. For example, a two year old's schema of a tree is "green and big with bark" -- over time the child adds information (some trees lose their leaves, some trees have names, we use a tree at Christmas, etc.) - Your balloon just gets full of more information that fits neatly with what you know and adds onto it.
Accommodation is when you have to turn your round balloon into the shape of a poodle. This new balloon "animal" is a radical shift in your schema (or balloon shape). The tree example works well where we live so I go with that, but you can invent your own. Now that they are in college in the redwood forest, we have conceptualization (schema) of trees as a source of political warfare, a commodity, a source of income for some people, we know that people sit and live in trees to save them; in other words, trees are economic, political, and social vehicles. This complete change in the schema involves a lot of cognitive energy, or accommodation, a shift in our schema.
Most students are very good at working with computers and easily learn to navigate new websites and programs (assimilation). My college is putting heavy emphasis on distance learning and the computer literate students who enroll in my online classes seem to have an early advantage (accommodation) over students who are limited in their computer experiences. Thankfully, this advantage lessens over the weeks, but I, as the instructor, have to keep this gap in mind early in the course.
Young children can go from riding a big wheel to riding a tricycle with no problem--they can assimilate--it is 'sort of the same'; but to go to a bicycle there is much accommodation that must take place.
I've usually got three or four kinds of chairs in my class and I go to each one and sit in it to illustrate assimilation. I then sit on the corner of my desk or one of the kid's desks and use that as a jumping off point to talk about accommodation. I also want to elicit differences in similarly categorized items (such as fact that some desks have drawers and some do not). I usually will have some kind of a roll cart and I ask them why it isn't a desk. They will usually say because of the rollers but then I point out that some desks are moveable. I think it might also be pertinent to let students know that we cannot define something solely by function either since I have just recently been sitting on my desk. I want kids to understand that the categorizations can be a little arbitrary but we nevertheless come to common understandings about them.
When a child learns the word for dog, they start to call all four-legged animals dogs. This is assimilation. People around them will say, no, that's not a dog, it's a cat. The schema for dog then gets modified to restrict it to only certain four-legged animals. That is accommodation.
A child learns his father is called Daddy, so he calls other males ( e.g. the mailman) Daddy. This is assimilation. He is quickly told that the other man is not Daddy, he is _______. Again, the schema for Daddy is modified. This is accommodation.
A child believes that "All furry four legged animals are dogs". He sees a breed of dog that he's never seen before and says, "That's a dog." That's assimilation. Then the child sees a raccoon (or a cat, squirrel whatever) and the child says, "That's a dog." But his parents tell him it isn't a dog, it's a raccoon. So the child accommodates, "Not all furry four legged animals are dogs, some are raccoons."
You can do the same type of example with the belief that all things that float are boats using a catamaran for assimilation and a leaf floating on the water for accommodation.
My own son, then 3 years old at the time. We were out shopping and three trucks drive by, two 18-wheelers, and a smaller truck. "Look", my son says, "a daddy truck, a mommy truck and a baby truck." Is this assimilation or accommodation? Explain why.
Use photos of babies sucking on various styles of bottles as an example of assimilation with pretty easy adaptation to different shaped nipples and bottles. But the first time they try that sucking schema on a sippy cup with a much larger opening the choking and mess usually bring about pretty rapid accommodation.
If you come to my house for the weekend, we could assimilate you into our household by having you follow our routine--you'll get up at 5:30, watch Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street on TV, and have cheerios for breakfast. If we accommodate to you instead, we'll all get up at noon, watch Oprah, and have cold pizza for breakfast (assuming that's your usual routine).
Sometimes I pass out 2 new flavors of lifesavers to the class. All but a few of the international students seem to have a well-developed schema for lifesavers candy which over the years has expanded from the original 5 flavors to include many other (but mostly fruity) flavors. So a new fruity flavor like mango or cantaloupe is pretty easily assimilated. But when they try the Musk lifesavers I order from Australia - what a difference! Is this a candy or a perfume? Am I eating a fragrance? Most decide these Pepto-Bismol pink lifesavers have no business in the candy category
When you take in new information and try to understand it using a schema you already have, you are assimilating that information into your current way of thinking. We don't, however, accommodate information--we accommodate TO it by changing the way we think. That is, when your current way of thinking doesn't help, you need to accommodate your current schema, or accommodate TO the new information by developing a new schema.
One example was given to me by a student and I use it because it makes sense. It makes Piaget's theory very concrete, but it helps students to better grasp the concepts. The student visualized a schema as a "cubby hole" (where we stored our things in preschool). When we encounter information in our environment that makes sense to us, it fits in our cubby hole; we assimilate the information. When we encounter information in our environment that doesn't make sense, we are forced to alter our cubby hole or build a new one (accommodate). To help them remember the difference I point out that assimilate has two s's -- same schema; accommodate has two c's -- change or create a new schema.
When I discuss assimilation and accommodation I use 9/11 as an example. I talk about the schema that most people had when the first plane hit the tower (an accident). So, we assimilated that information. In fact, watching documentaries of 9/11 they show the Today show hosts discussing the "accident" after the first plane hit. When the second plane hit the tower, we were forced to accommodate the information that this wasn't an accident. For most individuals this was very difficult to accommodate, so people watched it over and over again on the news trying to make sense of it.
My students relate well to this example. They often will talk about how they thought they were watching a movie when the first saw it on TV (they had a schema for this type of violence -- a movie) and their brains tried to assimilate that info. Now, however, if a plane crashes into a building the first assumption is usually terrorism (the media will even speculate about this first). This is because we now have a schema for terrorism in our country and we assimilate these types of activities into that schema.
I talk about how for a baby any new object is something to put in their mouth, but they gradually learn how new are to be used.
Another example I use involves a house that blew up in our community due to a gas leak. We live in a small community and most people heard the explosion. It is very interesting asking people what they thought when they heard the explosion. Individuals who had served in wars thought there had been a bomb (schema for that type of sound was for a bomb). Some of my students thought it was a meth lab exploding (I am not sure we have a large meth lab problem, but an interesting schema nonetheless). Others thought there was a car accident because they had heard such a noise before when they had seen a car accident. We then talk about how they had to accommodate the information that it was actually a house that exploded. I had some students who lived near the house and they talked about how whenever they now hear a loud noise, they get anxious thinking it is an explosion.
When I was growing up my parents believed that tattoos were bad, so I created a schema for people with tattoos. I assimilated such information as "probably rides a motorcycle," "is dirty," and "probably has been in jail" into this schema during my childhood (because that's what my parents said). When I got to college, I met a lot of people with tattoos who did not fit into my schema, and thus had to do some accommodation to accept those people.
Warning: this example is gross but students remember it well*
When a small child first learns that they have "stuff" in their diaper and they figure out how to get TO that "stuff" by themselves, they start testing the "stuff" and figure out its properties. They can create a "poo schema" as my husband jokingly refers to it, and they begin to assimilate new info into this schema: it can fly, it can be used as finger paint, etc. Hopefully, once the parent works with them on potty training, they will change - they will now become the child that stands in front of the toilet and says "ew, stinky" just like their Mom does. This would demonstrate accommodating.
I do something similar to the tree example. I show a picture of a good old generic tree (usually an oak). As children they learn that this is a tree and we talk about developing a tree schema (leaves on top, tall, brown trunk, leaves fall off). I then show a palm tree and explain how you now have to assimilate this new tree into your tree schema. I then show an evergreen which they've also had to assimilate into their schema. Finally I show a picture of a banyan tree. Most of my students (trapped in Utah) have never seen or heard of a banyan tree and I spend a few minutes telling them about banyans. I tell them they have now accommodated this tree into their tree schema. Now trees don't just grow up, but spread out and grow down.
I use the example from the Disney movie Bambi. When Thumper is taking the young Bambi through the forest teaching him the names of different objects, they come across a field of flowers. As Bambi is sniffing the flowers, a skunk pops up out of the flowers. Bambi exclaims, "Flower!" Thumper cracks up, telling him that the skunk is not a flower. The skunk shyly says that Bambi can call him "flower" if he wants to. I tell them that Bambi tried to assimilate the skunk into his schema of flower, since he associated the skunk with the field of flowers. We also talk about how that is not a realistic example of assimilation since most children don't confuse animals with plants.
Use Leo Leonni's story "Fish is Fish." This happens to be a favorite of mine, so I was intrigued to see it used as a way to teach Piaget. In this story, a young fish and tadpole are friends. The tadpole becomes a frog and leaves the pond. When he comes back, he describes the world outside the pond to his friend the fish. He describes birds, cows and people to the fish.
The relevant point is that the fish, which has never seen a cow or a person, takes the frogs descriptions and imagines them. He sees the bird as a fish with wings, and a cow as a fish with legs, etc. In other words, he assimilates the information into established schemes.
If you go to the Amazon website, you can see the front cover to get an
idea of the story. Here's the link:
A child believes that "All furry four legged animals are dogs". He sees a breed of dog that he's never seen before and says, "That's a dog." That's assimilation. Then the child sees a raccoon (or a cat, squirrel whatever) and the child says, "That's a dog." But his parents tell him it isn't a dog, it's a raccoon. So the child accommodates.