Jean Piaget and the Algorithm of Human Learning

In an earlier post I looked at Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the universe, which he along with several other writers of his time saw as a kind of coherent entity evolving from the simple to the complex, and culminating in mankind’s capacity for conscious self-awareness.  For a good summary of their ideas, see here.  In general they saw the universe as being broadly composed of Physiosphere (physical matter), Biosphere (life) and Noosphere (consciousness), with each level entirely composed of and dependent upon the earlier layers.

What Teilhard and his compatriots were not very clear about was the process by which this evolution was happening, particularly regarding conscious awareness.  To them, “complexification” (as one translation of Teilhard put it) was the universe’s natural state of being.  Increasing complexity in Physiosphere eventually resulted in Biosphere, and increasing complexity in Biosphere eventually resulted in humanity and human consciousness.

But with regard to consciousness, increasing complexity is hardly an explanation.  It almost confuses the result with the process needed to get there. In consciousness there is learning involved, and adaptation, and a host of other things that an adult conscious mind must pick up in the process of growing up.  The process by which this occurs is important to understand.

Probably the simplest and best description of such a process was arrived at by child psychologist Jean Piaget.  Piaget was a contemporary of Teilhard and a fellow Frenchman, and it was Piaget’s work with children that helped him uncover the process by which the conscious mind develops from birth into adulthood.  Humans, like most animals, are born with a few innate instincts and the ability to perceive and interact with the world.

“Perceive” is the operative word, because infants don’t have any knowledge of the world yet.  They don’t interact with the world that actually exists, but with the world created by their instincts coupled with their perceptions of the world that they’re receiving through their five senses.

A big part of human learning is the construction of meaning.  In the beginning all we have are our perceptions, but as we grow and experience and learn, we gradually combine knowledge of the world with our perceptions of the world.  One of the primary characteristics of self-reflective human consciousness is the way our knowledge of the world combines with our perceptions of the world to establish what the things we perceive mean to us.  It is “meaning” that determines our responses to events.

It is as though we all develop internal mental structures of the world to represent reality to our conscious minds.  When we imagine a place or an event, it is these internal structures that are playing before our mind’s eye.  It is these internal structures that we react to emotionally, because that is where the world finds its meaning.

Meaning is constructed by each of us for ourselves, and that construction begins at birth.  We are born with a few instinctive behaviors, or reflexes, and not much else but pure perception.  Infants instinctively grasp, and suckle, and make noise.  For us as infants the world was a place full of things to grasp, to scream about, and to put in our mouths.  Soon we were orienting to faces and grabbing mom’s hair and crying when we were hungry, and just that quickly that tiny seed of consciousness was up and running and on its way to becoming a self-aware conscious mind capable of learning or contemplating pretty much anything.

To start with a grain of understanding and a few instinctive impulses and grow into a fully self-aware human consciousness in just a couple of decades is an amazing feat, especially given that this consciousness is largely constructed without any effort or intention on our part.   “Our” consciousness basically constructed itself, through our interactions with the world and in the ways we responded to it.

Piaget’s insight was simplicity itself: mental structures grow by a two-step process of assimilating new information into the existing mental structure, and when new information or experience doesn’t fit, changing that mental structure to accommodate the new experience.  When infants realize that there is more to the world than mom and things to be gnawed on, they’ve accommodated something new into their mental view of the world.  Knowledge is gained, internal structures re-ordered, meaningfulness has increased a bit.

From such simple beginnings, and through just this simple a process, the world expands as our experience grows.

Piaget identified four general stages of childhood development. They are:

Sensorimotor (0-2 years): the child is embedded in its perceptions, but is learning that things they cannot see nevertheless continue to exist.  Breaking out of the Sensorimotor stage, out of embeddedness in pure perception, is one of our earliest major acts of accommodation.

Preoperational (2-7 years): language and the use of symbols (e.g. writing and numbers).  Egocentric, meaning they cannot take the viewpoint of someone else.  In the video below a child is asked to describe what objects on a model the researcher can see.  The child describes the things that he can see, despite the fact that the researcher’s view of some of those objects is blocked and she cannot actually see them.

Concrete Operational (7-11): logic, categories, but things don’t make sense to them if they’re not “real” (e.g. hypothetical situations that would be highly unlikely in the real world are instantly rejected).  Some say that puberty is generally the boundary between Concrete Operational and Formal Operations, and I generally agree.

Formal Operational (~11 or 12 and older): Now the full range of theoretical and hypothetical thinking is available to the individual.

These should be understood as very broad, very general outlines.  The assimilation-accommodation engine of learning is a process by which a developing mind learns to adapt to its environment, particularly its family and social environment.  And that can be radically different from one region or culture to the next, even from one family to the next.

Here is a YouTube video that demonstrates behavior at each of the four stages.  The adult at the end has been given a nonsense logic question: If a feather can break glass, what happens when someone hits a glass with a feather?  Despite the silly nature of the assertion, she is operating in the “Formal Operations” stage and is able to give the logically correct answer.

This process of assimilation and accommodation is a process of adaptation.  What we’re doing inside our heads is the Noospheric equivalent of what the rest of the biosphere has been doing by natural selection from the time the first living organisms appeared in long-ancient seas.

Their adaptations, their “learning”, was accomplished by physical and genetic changes over long periods of time.  In other words, through survival of the fittest, through genetic evolution.  Through a cycle of birth, reproduction, and death that made way for each new minutely-different generation. Those whose genetics left them better physically adapted to their environment were those who thrived in the reproduction game, who passed their better-adapted genes along to create the next generation.

This birth-reproduction-death cycle brought life through 3-plus billion years of extreme changes to earth’s environment, through meteor strikes, super-volcanoes, continental drifts and collisions, through periods of extreme warmth to extreme cold. The tremendous diversity of life meant that no matter what happened, even the mass extinction events that have occurred several times in earth’s history, life has survived.  Some element of Biosphere has adapted to almost every bit of earth’s huge variety of environments.

Biospheric adaptation is done over the course of many generations.  Noospheric adaptation happens over the course of a single lifetime, and it happens in every human being.  It is our intelligence that makes this possible.  That little algorithm of assimilate and accommodate has provided us with the mastery of fire and the use of tools, communication and language and writing, the domestication of animals and food plants, all the things that have permitted this single human species to not only adapt to the most extreme environments, but to modify those environments and adapt them to us.

There is much more to say about this, I don’t feel like I even scratched the surface of all the ideas that Piaget had, which have led to some very interesting research.  But I wanted to put this out as my personal view of learning and adaptation on the “Noosphere” level.

One thought on “Jean Piaget and the Algorithm of Human Learning

  1. Pingback: Notes from an Old Battlefield | Notanist

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