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Jerome Bruner


Arguably one of the greatest thinkers in education, Jerome Bruner has made many significant contributions to our understanding of cognitive learning theory... but what were they?

Jerome Bruner is a firm believer that learning should be generated by interest in the material rather than tests or punishment that we learn best when we find the knowledge we're attaining appealing.

Currently senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law, Bruner's main interest during his career has been ‘psychology of the mind,’ in particular perception and cognition. He has been regarded as making significant contributions over the years to our understanding of cognitive psychology, cognitive learning theory, educational psychology and the philosophy of education.

Cognitive Psychology

Bruner’s ideas focus on the relationships between learning, perception, experience, environment and culture. In his early career, along with Leo Postman, he worked on ‘the ways in which needs, motivations, and expectations influence perception'. He established that perception is not a passive process.

Two experiments demonstrate this. Using samples of poor and rich children, Bruner showed that poor children had a tendency to overestimate the size of coins  not the case with the richer children – which related to their ‘need’ for money. In another experiment, he produced unusual decks of cards with the suit colour for certain red cards becoming black and vice versa. Confusion initially reigned for those who did the experiment, resulting in slower reaction times and less accurate answers, until explanations were given as to what had been done. From then on, participants were able to identify the incongruous cards with relative ease. Bruner concluded that previous experience of playing cards, with colours delineated in the traditional way, shaped our perceptions of what to expect.

Organisms, he also concluded, tend to reject the unexpected  perception is not something that occurs immediately. Challenging behaviourism and the then popular psychophysics, he argued that perception is a form of information processing that involves interpretation and selection.

Bruner, with his ‘New Look’, became known as the father of cognitive psychology, a discipline which would concern itself with how people view and interpret the world as well as how they respond to stimuli.

Developmental and Educational Psychology

Bruner’s interests broadened while at the Centre of Cognitive Studies and now included new approaches to philosophy and anthropology. He became interested in how thoughts are organised into logical syntax and how thinking is determined by culture. With his colleagues, he was seeking a ‘higher order principle’  a continued attempt to refute behaviourism.

The reaction in the United States to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite brought Bruner into the debate on the future of education, something he admitted he had hitherto underestimated. He researched child development and suggested an optimum learning process which goes through three stages  enactive, iconic and symbolic. Although they are often represented by a pyramid, with enactive on the bottom and symbolic on the top, Bruner only broadly saw them as consecutive and always emphasised their interconnectedness.

The enactive mode is action-based - the child manipulates objects directly. Knowledge is stored primarily as a sequence of motor responses to create a result. His theory is not limited to children - in adults the enactive mode might include driving or skiing, for example.

At the iconic (image-based) level, children are dealing with mental images of objects but not manipulating them directly. The use of diagrams and illustrations to help one learn something new would be an example of the iconic mode.

The symbolic mode of learning is language-based. In this instance, children manipulate symbols instead of objects or mental images. This one, he said, ‘is clearly the most mysterious of the three’. Unlike icons, symbols are arbitrary. Words like ‘beauty’ or ‘murder’ are as neutral as any other words, whatever their connotations. The symbolic mode is a major instrument for reflective thinking, for one’s ability to consider propositions (and, indeed, alternative propositions) and create hierarchies of importance to a variety of ideas.

James Atherton provides some useful examples of iconic, enactive and symbolic modes of representation in his article here.

Scaffolding and the spiral curriculum

There are clear similarities with theories already propounded by Piaget - particularly the concept of stages. But the structure of Bruner’s stages is much more flexible. Piaget saw language as a tool produced by cognitive development. For Bruner however, the development of language runs side by side with cognitive development and indeed, this co-existence is mutually beneficial. Symbolic thought, he maintained, does not replace previous modes of communication. It allows for communication with adults and older peers and is essential to the development of thought. Effectively, it enhances communication.

His own adolescent experience, he told the Guardian, may have affected his views. Following his father’s death when he was twelve, his mother embarked on a period of restlessness, moving from place to place, causing Bruner to change school frequently. Ultimately, he came to see that this stemmed from her being grief-stricken, although he has never really understood how this new lifestyle affected him. ‘What I think I did learn, though, was the importance of context in communication. It's not so much the words and syntax we use, but the way we interact that defines how we understand something.’

And, indeed, following Vygotsky, Bruner questioned the idea of a child’s learning being in isolation. There ‘cannot be a self independent of one’s culture,’ he has written, which he sees as being passed on through the generations. It is through culture that the child works with others to develop its framework for thinking.

In this context (and similar to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development), he developed the concept of scaffolding. Bedtime stories and read-alouds are examples of this. The helpful interaction by adults to assist a child in taking on new learning, when his or her independent efforts prove insufficient, acts as a stabiliser. This allows to child to build on what it already knows and complete the task: one day the scaffolding will have to be withdrawn.

Bruner believes that a child is capable of abstract thought at all ages through the addition of increasingly complex ideas in topic-based learning. This he calls the spiral curriculum. Force, mass, friction or momentum might be taught to very young children in enactive form and then developed in the other two modes in subsequent years. 'We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development'. Unlike Piaget, he believes that cognitive development can be speeded up.

Man: A Course of Study

Bruner published several works on current educational systems and how education could be improved. He was critical of fact-learning systems - ‘knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it’. He served as a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, diverting funds away from higher to pre-school education. ‘The more elementary a course and the younger its students, the more serious must be the pedagogical aim of forming the intellectual powers of those of whom it serves.’

Over 30years, starting in 1964, he worked on the development of a complete social studies curriculum – Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) – with three central underlying questions:

  • What makes human beings uniquely human?
  • How did this come about?
  • How could humans become more so?

With the ‘spiral curriculum’ at its root, the entire history of a living being - such as a salmon, a herring gull or a baboon - would be taught, with concepts such as nurturing, innate and learned behaviour introduced. This would develop into a human lifespan, using the Netsilik Inuit as an example, and the interaction with other life forms such as reindeer and seals. The course included a self-contained kit of course materials including film cassettes, visual aids and games. Well ahead of its time, with interactive materials drawing in a whole class, the focus was on teaching skills – asking questions, discussion and reaching evidence-based conclusions.

Opposition from conservatives who disliked the cross-cultural nature of MACOS , the questioning of aspects of life such as belief and morality, along with insufficient training of teachers, ended up seriously undermining it. Fundamentalists opposed the very Darwinian nature of the spiral curriculum.

Language development

For most of the 1970s, Bruner was the Watts Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University where he developed a social interactionist theory of language development. He worked on L.A.S.S - a Language Acquisition Social System - where he argued that language was acquired through conversation and its various codes (in antithesis to Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device that allows us to learn the rules of grammar when we are exposed to human speech).

He seized on new technology – the video recorder – to get researchers to make home studies of everyday events in children’s life and try to understand how they crack the linguistic code. He did not deviate from his belief in the importance of parental input and scaffolding to create shared meaning. Indeed, during this productive time with a ‘wonderfully talented group of academics and tutors’, he influenced Lady Plowden to recognise the connection between missing out on important family interactions and failure at junior school level which she took up with the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher.

Narrative Construction of Reality

Bruner returned to New York in 1980. The next phase of his career saw him developing a narrative construction of reality, leading to the publication of his highly successful book, ‘Actual Minds, Possible Worlds,’ which has been cited by over sixteen thousand scholarly publications.

In it, he uses recent research in anthropology, psychology, philosophy of language, literary theory and linguistics to formulate the kinds of mental processes involved in our creation of world-versions. He puts forward the proposition that there are two quite distinct 'modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality.' The 'paradigmatic mode' uses causal explanation and has its most sophisticated realisation in the sciences. The 'narrative mode' proceeds by way of storytelling and encompasses 'the vicissitudes of human intention' and how to endow experience with meaning. The effect of the latter is a subjunctive reality - one containing possibilities, not certainties. He sees the two modes as complementary but not irreducible to one other.

He remains adamant that an isolated individual working ‘in his or her own skin’ is not a useful unit of analysis. ‘We must accept the view that the human mind cannot express its nascent powers without the enablement of the symbolic systems of culture. While many of these systems are relatively autonomous in a given culture (…) some relate to domains of skill that must be shared by virtually all members of a culture if the culture is to be effective…Another domain that must be widely (though roughly) shared for a culture to operate with requisite effectiveness is the domain of social beliefs and procedures—what we think people are like and how they must get on with each other...These are domains that are, in the main, organised narratively.’

An inspired educator

‘Jerome Bruner is not merely one of the foremost educational thinkers of the era,’ commented Howard Gardner in 2001; 'he is also an inspired learner and teacher. His infectious curiosity inspires all who are not completely jaded. Individuals of every age and background are invited to join in. Logical analyses, technical dissertations, rich and wide knowledge of diverse subject matters, asides to an ever wider orbit of information, intuitive leaps, pregnant enigmas pour forth from his indefatigable mouth and pen. In his words, “Intellectual activity is anywhere and everywhere, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third-grade classroom”. To those who know him, Bruner remains the Compleat Educator in the flesh...’

‘The writer, the poet, and the savant have not been folk figures in America... have not stimulated legends,’ Bruner wrote in 1960. As the full impact of his teachings become clearer, we may find that he is an exception.

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