Piaget, Assimilation, Accommodation and the Blue Potato Chips
by Dr. Diane Finley, Prince George's Community College
Eastern Psychological Association Boston MA March 7-10, 2002
Question: How can we help students better learn the concepts of schema, accommodation and assimilation?
Rationale: Instructors of the General Psychology class are always struggling to find active learning strategies that will both increase interest in their students who are often not psychology majors and will enhance their learning of course concepts. Using unusual food is one way to accomplish both of these goals.
Two of the concepts that often give students in General Psychology difficulty are Piagetís assimilation and accommodation. Since these concepts are core to understanding Piagetís theory, finding a way to help students understand them is essential. Because the students at a community college are often a very diverse group, it is also important to find illustrations that will be common to many cultures. In this activity, potatoes are used to accomplish the task.
Methodology: When students enter the classroom, they are asked to draw a picture of a potato and also to write a description of the potato, including look, smell and taste. This request frequently elicits giggles.
The next step is to compile the descriptions from the students. Students are put into small groups and asked to come up with a common picture and description. After the groups have done this, we create a common, class picture of a potato. This description is used to introduce the concept of schema. These descriptions usually include brown or red skin potatoes, orange or white insides.
I then ask if a yellow potato would be considered unusual. Yukon Gold potatoes (which have a pale brown skin and gold pulp inside) are introduced along with the concept of assimilation. For most students, yellow is not that far removed from orange, it is considered merely a variation of orange, and thus it is not a big leap to just modify their description of a potato to include yellow pulp.
I then ask if students would consider having blue potatoes. Most find this concept unfathomable, unappetizing and unrelated to their schema of potatoes. Gourmet blue potato chips are then distributed, introducing the concept of accommodation. Blue is so far removed from their schemas that they must then change their schema of potato.
Other ways of dealing with incongruent information are also discussed as is the notion that we have schemas for unimportant things (like potatoes) and important issues (like religion and culture).
Results: Following use of this activity, student performance on related questions on an exam improved over classes that did not use the demonstration. Students also stated that they were more interested in the concept. Students from previous semesters have talked about the activity and Piagetian concepts in subsequent classes and seem to have retained the information longer.
Interpretation: This quick and inexpensive demonstration is an effective way of teaching Piagetian concepts. It crosses culture and is non-threatening.