Sitting by Lake Geneva (ii)

JF: We meet again and this week there is one idea in particular that I am hoping to clarify  and that seems to me to be at the heart your theory of learning.

JP: I think I can guess the matter you are about to raise. Is it the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation?

JF: Yes, that’s it. But let me work with this idea in a very general way – I appreciate that the idea is a part of a whole theory and that I am asking a great deal of generosity on your part. When I first encountered this idea I found that it explained a great deal. At the time I was teaching in a secondary school, and my greatest challenge was teaching groups who were thought to need remedial help. Their grasp of language was weak and they found mathematical calculation difficult. There they were at secondary school aged 14, 15 and 16 with no sign of being able to think abstractly and with little ability to work inside their heads. They made sense through sensory-motor-tactile action, and of course they enjoyed making sense through playing instruments, making music and becoming masters (as they were all boys) of minimalist musical composition, or rather improvisations, sometimes very extended ones.

What I now understood was that these students had been exposed to entirely the wrong educational experiences throughout their schooling, and this had served only to disable them. It was as if these molluscs had been taken to an alien environment and subjected to entirely the wrong circumstances. Neither their social or intellectual states of being had been acknowledged as part of their schooling.

JP: There are a number of matters you raise here. But quite simply you are saying that these students had throughout their schooling been expected to ‘assimilate’ too many new experiences without enough space or time for these to be ‘accommodated’. The analogy of digestion is helpful. Their digestive systems (mental structures) were continually overwhelmed. This is very common, and it is why I doubt whether schools as we know them are the best places for humans to develop. I have heard about the current enthusiasm for objectives and prescribable outcomes, for measuring progression to satisfy school managers, Inspectors, the government, and so forth. Such a climate of accountability and distrust is very unlikely to facilitate worthwhile development.

JF: The picture that I formed was of students never having the opportunity to properly assimilate the kinds of new experiences presented to them in a way that they could be accommodated to existing ones. They were always having to accommodate too much to what their teachers demanded. I saw their minds as being like a house with furniture. The teacher came along with more furniture for the house, while the learner was never given enough time or the means to see how it might fit with or replace the furniture that was already there. Once this process had gone wrong, it was as if things could only get worse, and these students then came to me confused, having merely learnt what were coping strategies, or survival strategies.

JP: Yes, that makes sense and I am happy for you to generalise in this way. However, I am sure you won’t mind me pointing out that your analogy of a house with furniture is not so helpful. The analogy is too static. The mind is dynamic, alive. The analogy of the digestive system is better. So, let me explain. I don’t think you have quite grasped it yet. Assimilation is the process whereby incoming stimuli are modified by the child’s mental structure, and accommodation the process whereby the mental structures are changed.

The idea of assimilation and accommodation must however be related to two other ideas. The assumption is that the learner is building what I call a set of schemas. A schema works as a mental model, or a mental frame of reference. It is like a file in the filing cabinet of the mind, a category or conceptual framework.

Each of us from the earliest years of life will have developed an increasing number of schemas: schemas for sucking, grasping, opening doors, running a hundred metres, making song lyrics, playing a particular instrument, shaping a musical phrase and so on. These schemas are always developing, differentiating, integrating, expanding, and this is why understanding can never be a finite matter.

Let me offer an example. If we are presented with a piece of music to perform which we have not before encountered, while we may have a schema to draw upon, it is unlikely to fit the new experience like a glove as you say. If it did this would be pure assimilation. There would be no need for accommodation. ‘I have played in this style before. I know how to shape these kinds of phrases’. However, if not, then our musical phrasing schema will need to be modified and expanded as assimilation and accommodation do their work. It is when our schemas meet new experiences, that is, they don’t too easily fit our schema, that mental structures change. However, this is a matter of very careful balance and great sensitivity. That teachers are expected to get this right with large classes is ambitious.

JF: Right, so our equilibrium is disturbed, we are made to think, readjust the furniture as it were. (Now my furniture is always alive, malleable and moving. I am animating it!) The really important ideas then are assimilation accommodation, equilibrium and schema.

JP: Yes, and in a nut shell, as you say (I like this English expression), the processes of assimilation, accommodation, dis-equilibrium and equilibrium explain how we change, learn, and develop.

JF: As you were suggesting, this then places a great responsibility on the teacher to set tasks that disturb sufficiently and lead to reordering thought.

JP: Yes, that is right, but who is the teacher? The learner, assuming he/she is an explorer, will find the right kind of challenges for themselves. This is certainly how I have learnt and developed. Or what happens commonly is that children will adapt the task set, pervert it so that they can regulate their own learning.

JF: There is a lot to think about and now another beautiful sunset.


3 thoughts on “Sitting by Lake Geneva (ii)

  1. Dear John,

    I am very much enjoying your Genevan musings. Can I pass them on to my trainees to follow? Useful stuff.

    Ps if I do do that how do I get them to follow you? I don’t understand Twitter!



  2. davidashworth


    Following John’s blog is straightforward. Tell you students to press the “Follow” button at the top of the screen [it may be at the bottom on a tablet/phone].

    They are instructed to enter an email address. They will then receive an alert and link – every time John posts a new blog.

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