Equilibration—the process of finding equilibrium or balance—is Piaget’s explanation for how learning grows. Individuals try to balance their present understandings with new events or data they encounter that conflict with what they know, while attempting to maintain stability. When individuals encounter something foreign to their learning structures, the imbalance created is restored through equilibration.

Piaget viewed equilibration as a biological, self-regulatory mechanism for all living things that helps organisms adapt to the external environment by changing internally through learning, rather than by mutation. His theory is largely applied to children’s cognitive growth.

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There are four factors in cognitive growth: maturation of the nervous system, social interactions, interactions with the physical environment, and equilibration. Piaget viewed equilibration as the major force tying these together. As children mature biologically and interact with people and objects, they must respond to even simple environmental stimuli, acting on these mentally and physically to understand their encounters in the world. Each encounter involves a constant balancing and rebalancing, resulting in what Piaget called “an ever-widening spiral of knowing.”

Adaptation and organization are dual psychological mechanisms that lead to learning and cognitive growth. Adaptation is the adjustment to the environment, the outside-in aspect. When new events, objects, actions, or ideas are encountered that do not fit existing learning structures, the individual has to assimilate the new elements (a taking-in aspect) and modify those organizational structures to accommodate  the new information. For example, when a 2-year-old who has only experienced vanilla ice cream is given chocolate and strawberry, he has to assimilate (take in) the different flavors and colors and accommodate (modify) the knowing structure that ice cream is not just white, but varies.

Organization is the interrelated internal mental structures, the inside-out aspect. These organizations of rules and principles are also called logical structures, in which elements are continually rearranged and combined to form a strongly interconnected cognitive system allowing for ever more complex thinking. For example, the first time a child uses a computer, a very simple scheme is constructed consisting of rudimentary rules—touching keys makes marks on the screen. After time and practice, the child’s computing structure accommodates word processing, e-mail, Web searches, and so forth. Development of computing principles becomes more complete and may continue to grow. Logical structures allow anticipation and planning for possibilities, leading to ever-higher levels of adaptation. With these structures, computer use becomes a tool for further learning.

Types Of Equilibration

Type 1—Simple Equilibration

Equilibration of object to scheme: for example, balls to a scheme of throwing. Schemes are mental structures, patterns of thought and action that allow the assimilation of new elements, helping to adapt to the environment. Although Piaget considered schemes to be focused on action (e.g., grasping, eating, drawing), concepts, theories, or ideas can also be thought of as schemes if they have assimilatory power.

Type 2—Reciprocal Equilibration

Equilibration between schemes that build subsystems, rules applicable to several schemes. When a 6-year-old cuts a snowflake from folded paper and “invents” using it as a stencil, two schemes are coordinated—cutting and coloring. The constructed principle, an insight about multiple uses, could be applied with the question, “What else can I do with it?”

Type 3—Equilibrations of Totalities

Hierarchical equilibrations in which the totality is differentiated into parts and then the parts are integrated back into the whole. Principles that apply to multiple experiences are constructed. Piaget considered this type “The secret of development and of the transition from one stage to the next.” For example, the child moves to the concrete operational stage of reasoning by constructing the rules for conservation of identity (when a ball of clay is transformed into a pancake, if nothing is removed or added, it is the same amount of clay), reciprocity (a change in one aspect is compensated by change in another aspect: the pancake is wider and flatter), and reversibility (the pancake can be returned to the original form).

Equilibration  of  totalities  may  occur  other  than just in stage advances, particularly if applied to adult thought. Expertise may exist in a given area with very advanced, principled structures, highly integrated and differentiated in that domain. There may also be new or far less developed areas of knowing. Thus the individual can function on different learning levels, and there may be several semiautonomous totalities or subtotalities that have the potential to connect to each other.

Gifted and creative individuals develop their mental structures somewhat differently, as there is a constant effort at rule construction and connection among schemes. This allows able learners to be paradoxically better equilibrated because they anticipate possibilities and less equilibrated because there are so many conflicts to present ways of thinking.

Relationship Between Equilibration And Stage Growth

Adaptation through assimilation and accommodation and organization through the evolution of more advanced structures or stages are how equilibration and stage growth are related. This relationship can be expressed by the formula in Figure 1 (Cohen & Kim, 1999).

The relationship between adaptation and organization is complementary (dotted lines). Although they occur simultaneously, the focus can be on one or the other, but not both at the same time. This relationship is also reciprocal (two-way arrows), connected by the inseparable processes of assimilation and accommodation. As the individual’s mental structures become increasingly organized and principled, the ability to adapt successfully increases.

Existing  knowing  structures  are  both  conserved and enriched as new experiences are encountered and integrated. The stage of development and the level of intelligence influence the achievement of equilibrium, which  is  always  temporary. The  seeds  of  the  new disequilibrium occur in every equilibration, as there are always new questions or conflicts.

Equilibration f1Figure 1         Cohen’s Equilibration Formula


Perturbations, gaps, contradictions, or conflicts to present knowing structures are the stimuli for cognitive advancement and the dynamic engine of equilibration. When in a state of disequilibrium, individuals attempt to return to a state of balance by compensating for the imbalance through the constructive process of equilibration. The puzzlement or problem must be real to the individual. It must be moderately novel, not too foreign to the learning structures, nor too familiar, for learning to occur. In other words, the individual must have already constructed preliminary mental structures that can deal with the new aspect. If an element is too foreign, it will be ignored. If it is already familiar, no learning will take place. Ignoring is one way of compensating.


Internal structures are accommodated to moderate novelties by means of compensations, actions aimed at canceling or neutralizing disturbances. Compensation is an act that restores the balance in response to a knowledge disturbance. Every equilibration involves both construction and compensation. The compensations needed to accommodate schemes require the balancing of negations (constructing what is not visible or presentwhat the object or idea is not) with the affirmations (what is visible, present, evident) in the object. The baby must learn what is blue (affirmations) by grasping what is not blue (negations). To do this requires reversibility of thought, the ability to mentally undo an action. Young children do not construct negations very successfully. Their equilibrations tend to be unstable as they focus more on the positive characteristics. If there is no disturbance or conflict because the assimilation is habitual and requires no compensation, no growth occurs. The levels of compensations are as follows:

Alpha—The individual does not deal with the inconsistency and distorts, denies, or ignores it. No instruction can occur at this level until the needed underlying structures and concepts are constructed in order to be aware of the inconsistency or contradiction. Example: The year-old baby ignores most of the zoo animals for lack of experience with animals.

Beta—The individual attempts to deal with the inconsistency but can only deal with partial modifications (partial accommodation). The novel element is distorted to fit present schemes. Equilibrium is unstable, an optimal level for learning. Example: The same baby notices the tiger and calls it “keecat,” distorting the object to fit a familiar cat scheme.

Gamma—If the item is not inconsistent to internal schemes, mental reorganization already occurred and the disturbance is integrated easily. Example: Two years later, the child easily recognizes most zoo animals and can quickly grasp animal categories when told the gorilla is not a monkey.

Reflective Abstraction

Reflective abstraction is the constructive aspect of equilibration. It is the linking and feedback mechanism that moves the individual from one level to the next. It occurs when the individual constructs rules or principles from actions or thoughts, leading to new organization and greater capacity. These relationships are not inherent in the objects or ideas themselves, but must be constructed. For Piaget, reflective abstraction is composed of two inseparable aspects: a reflecting or projecting to a higher level what is known on a lower level (thinking about 2 + 6 + 9 or 9 + 6 + 2 and the resultant sum) and a reorganization or reconstruction of what has been projected (a conscious rule construction—the order in addition does not matter; the commutative property). When the individual is next confronted by a new but related problem, application of the rule can put the conflicts into a logical relationship.

In sum, equilibration is an open and dynamic balancing  between  the  external  adaptive  requirements  and the internal organization that changes in response to conflicts these engender. It explains the small steps in learning, as in simple equilibrations of object to scheme  or reciprocal equilibration of subsystems. It explains the transitions between stages, when the totality is reorganized and differentiated with new rules or principles. It also provides an overall direction for the development of cognitive structures. Broadly, equilibration is a biological tool by which all organisms adapt to the world and change themselves to do so. Piaget’s most powerful contribution and the backbone that holds together all of his work, this concept was evidenced even in his earliest writings. The concept of equilibration can be applied to internal systems of affect and even to social, political, or business systems, which must change internally through learning in order to adapt to the world.


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