The Theory of Differentiation for adult learning – Positioning adult learning following Piaget

Dr. Gertrud Wolf

Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology is still of central importance when looking at the constructivist understanding of learning. The starting point for his theory is the act of adaptation, the cognitive modification of behavioural schemes when confronting the environment. Because of its importance for constructivism, many theories for adult learning are based on a concept of learning stemming from Piaget’s thought. One point of critique, however, is that Piaget’s notion does not allow for any possible form of behaviour other than adaptation when dealing with existing circumstances. Yet when looking at adult learning one must focus on those methods of behaviour that are not understood as achievements resulting from adaptation but rather those resulting from differentiation. For that reason the following article tests the plausibility of an adult learning theory which is in connection with Piaget’s thought and continues on with the theory of differentiation using the example of the development of the Self.

Adaptation in Jean Piaget’s theory of learning

With the concept of adaptation Piaget described the learning process both as a part of knowledge and as its genetic prerequisite and by doing so distinguished it from a behaviouristic understanding of learning. Adaptation, here with regard to the development and use of patterns of activity, is seen as the interplay of two mechanisms, namely using existing patterns acquired through assimilation and changing those patterns through accommodation. The ability to adapt develops early on from inherent biological invariants represented by reflexes such as sucking or gripping. According to Piaget, adaptation only then leads to a stable system when equilibrium between accommodation and assimilation has been achieved (cf. Piaget 1975, 1989).

Adaptation is understood as the modification of one thing to the existing conditions of something else. When looking for a complementary process to adaptation, differentiation, or the distinguishing of one thing from another, can be useful. Differentiation is suitable for use in a theory of learning because with its help a relationship can be constructed in which adult learning can be based on [models] of juvenile learning and simultaneously transcend it. In addition the notion of differentiation has already emerged in other contexts in which it has been implicitly granted a function within learning psychology so that it seems especially fitting to connect it with both Piaget as well as adult learning.

The theory of differentiation

From the beginning living beings are subject to moments of stress which are the result of the gradient of different inner and/or outer states of being and which can be regulated by the organism’s different reactive activities. According to Piaget this regulation consists in an act of adaptation with the goal of achieving equilibrium between accommodation and assimilation. The theory of differentiation starts one step earlier and assumes that when stress occurs mental energy is initially built up and accumulated and is then available for use in adaptation either as accumulation or assimilation. A kind of mental gradient force is assumed which can then be transformed into mental energy. The first structure-building function which uses this energy is adaptation. However it is also conceivable that the individual does not immediately convert stress into the behaviour of adaptation but endures it and lets it grow until an energetic crisis occurs. When this energetic crisis reaches a high point the individual is capable of transcendence, he/she can surpass himself/herself and confronting the pressure to conform create something of his/her own and with it become more of an individual. Metaphorically speaking structures can be created in his/her brain which show no prior coherent points of connection and which are not only to be understood as a further development of existing structures but as an authentic new creation. In the following developmental model which goes from the juvenile to the adult, autonomous Self, adaptation and differentiation can be understood as the basic functions of learning.

Adaptation and Differentiation in the Development of the Self

Piaget sees the infant initially as being at one with the environment. The infant starts from a very closed symbiotic relationship with his mother, in which both are involved by a high complex system of interaction, to develop – step by step – his own self. Using a simple informational model, which fits to the Watzlawick communication model as well, communication given to a child is always a reaction to his/her behaviour in one of two ways: affirmation or disaffirmation, whereas both do appear in complex combinations. According to Kohut the child forms his/her Self through communication with his/her environment. Since he/she does not yet have a Self, he/she takes on – indeed already interpretively – the attributions that are ascribed to him/her, and identifies with them. His/her adaptation with regard to the Self is dependent upon affirmation as he/she can only identify with this.

The child can however only define himself/herself using positive statements such as: “I am good” or “I am bad”. He/she is not able to identify with pejorative statements such as, “I am not nice” because he/she cannot yet answer the question, “What am I then?” “I am not nice” would then mean, “I am what I am not.” For this reason disaffirmed behaviour always leads to an imbalance between the environment and the organism, to stress conditions which the child – in conformity with Piaget – copes with using adaptation, and continues adapting to until affirmation is again received.

It can however be presumed that with increasing age and thus with an increase in intelligence and the ability to reflect, the Self might also be able to develop through a pejorative answer from another person. The statement, “You are not nice” can then be transformed into “I am something else” and in this way be used for self-development. It is empirically easy to verify that at the beginning of adolescence, when dismissive statements are made, the ability to oppose the pressure to conform increases.

Adolescence, when looking at the ability to differentiate, emerges to be a critical phase in which important communication processes between educators and adolescents channel the further ability to differentiate. Once the critical phase has been overcome the adult Self continues to develop solely through processes of differentiation and no longer through adaptation. This does not mean that the adult is no longer dependent upon affirmation but it now has a different function: it sets off positive feelings and strengthens self-esteem but only when it is not based on conforming and as long as there is no indication of dependency. As a motivational factor, i.e. for job performance, it continues to remain functional however the Self’s decisive developmental steps are performed in adulthood as acts of differentiation. The Self differentiates itself in interaction with others, increasingly acquires its own contours which allow it to become truly individual. At this point those that currently surround the adult play a more important role and give the adult individual the chance to progressively free himself/herself from the family of origin and in that way become more individual with reference to his/her biography. Differentiation promotes the unfolding of the autonomous Self (see figure 1).

Figure 1: The adult Self develops itself further through differentiation

Accordingly adults differ in how strongly pronounced their ability to differentiate is. A lower level of differentiation hinders the development of the Self. For in the mode of adaptation the adult remains dependent on affirmation and develops accordingly a dependent Self which leads to a greater degree of insecurity and is for that reason not a solid basis for a mature personality.


Adult education accordingly means more within the adult biography than simply hitting the books again and adult learning more than simply continued learning. Adult learning can now be assigned an individual quality out of which individual interests and motivations are derived and made fruitful for learning processes. If adult learning is understood as an act of differentiation other effects can be ascribed to it within a biography than when adult’s learning is merely conceived as a furthering of a child’s learning. Precisely those courses which deal with considerable and often unsettling alterations of the learner’s personality and self-concepts are seen in a different light, depending upon whether the learning process is further understood as an act of adaptation or as one of differentiation. With the help of an adult educational learning theory lecturers can also be prepared for their job, in ways different than before, of addressing adults in learning processes as adults and not as students. It is to be expected that lecturers who continue to force learners into acts of adaptation and therefore do not address them on an adult level probably provoke more resistance in learning than do those who aim at using learning processes based on differentiation.

With the help of differentiation the Piaget-understanding of learning can thus be expanded to include an important function and can distinguish adult learning from a child’s learning. Adaptation and differentiation are seen in this theory as two basic functions of human learning in which adaptation is the basis upon which differentiation develops. For the advancement of the theory it will also require empirical research. The next logical step after developing the theoretical formulation would be to do research collecting information on the different degrees of differentiation and their possible increase by means of pedagogic interventions using qualitative and quantitative methods. Since adult learning activities always include personality forming aspects, an important evaluation instrument could simultaneously be developed. All in all the theory of differentiation opens up an entire line of new and innovative research perspectives for adult education.


Kohut, Heinz (1979): Heilung des Selbst. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp

Piaget, Jean (1975): Der Aufbau der Wirklichkeit beim Kinde. Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 2. Stuttgart: Klett

Piaget, Jean (1989): Das Erwachen der Intelligenz beim Kinde. Stuttgart: Klett

Wolf, Gertrud (2011): Zur Konstruktion des Erwachsenen. Grundlagen einer erwachsenenpädagogischen Lerntheorie. Wiesbaden

European InfoNet Adult Education, 02.07.2013