4.3 Processes of development
A central concept in Piaget's theory is that of the schema, a representation of a sequence of actions developed as a result of a child's action on the environment. A schema is, initially, a simple sequence of behaviour like sucking, or reaching and grasping. Piaget believed that the fact of possessing a schema, such as sucking, in itself creates a motivation for its exercise and for its application to multiple objects and situations which is beyond any immediate physical need to apply it, such as for feeding.
At first, a schema such as sucking has a reflex quality about it, since it does not seem to be adapted at all to the properties of the object being sucked; the same action is evoked by a finger, a nipple or the corner of a cloth. Piaget described this sort of schema activity as assimilation (the process of ‘fitting’ aspects of the environment into existing schemas), when the schema ‘assimilates’ different objects without adaptation.
We see this sort of behaviour in the child initially applying sucking in a more or less indiscriminate way to any object that can be brought to the mouth, as a means of exploring that object. It is as if sucking has a need to be exercised, at first just for itself, then on the baby's hands and later as a means of exploring objects. Piaget saw this intrinsic motivation (the desire to spontaneously apply existing schemas to new situations) as a primary moving force in development, keeping the child actively applying schemas to new situations as they arise.
Gradually, the action schema of sucking becomes more adaptable, more responsive to differences in objects. This introduces a third central process in Piaget's theory: accommodation (the process of modifying schemas to suit the environment better). This happens when schemas are modified to match the special characteristics of objects and situations. For example, the schema of reaching for and grasping objects is, initially, predominantly assimilative: it consists of a fairly crude ‘swipe and grab’ in the general direction of an attractive object. As the baby grows, the schema becomes more refined and is adapted to the object's position and size: it begins to accommodate to the object.
The three processes – of intrinsic motivation, assimilation and accommodation – were central to Piaget's explanation of how development progresses. We can see how this might account for the step-by-step development of behaviour by the gradual modification of schemas, each accommodation introducing new flexibility and adaptive possibilities.