Jerome Bruner (1915-2016)
“Education must be not only a transmission of culture but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them”
No wonder this is one of Jerome S. Bruner’s most quoted thoughts as it explains the essence and power of education. It also explains his belief that the purpose of education is to create independent, objective and creative thinkers.
Bruner’s ideas and theories about children’s development and perception were revolutionary. They affected generations of educators and educational policies promoting the modern concept of creative problem-solving, known as the cognitive revolution. He was never a fan of behaviorism because he didn’t believe that the mind is a passive learner (a stimulus-response machine). He was convinced that the mind is an active learner carrying an entire set of motives, instincts, and intentions that shape comprehension and perception.
Bruner was known as the psychologist of possibilities, one of the most important contributors to educational thinking, and an expert on development and education. He believed that children as curious by nature and wish to be skillful at various learning tasks. Bruner thought that the level of presentation is crucial so the children won’t get bored during the learning process. Therefore, he encouraged teachers to present schoolwork at a level that challenges but doesn’t overwhelm children’s existing developmental stage. In The Process of Education (1960) he stated one of his most important educational arguments that “the foundations of any subject may be taught to anybody at any age in some form” if presented properly.
Jerome Seymour Bruner was born on October 1, 1915, in New York, where he also died on June 5, 2016. He studied psychology at Duke University and got his B.A. in 1937. Four years later, Bruner received a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University.
During the Second World War, he served as an expert on psychological warfare for the U.S. Army. Bruner started his career as a psychology professor at Harvard University in 1945. There, he conducted extensive research in the field of cognitive and educational psychology. After 15 years, he left Harvard for a teaching position in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford in England. He returned to the United States to continue his research in the field of developmental psychology. Later on, he joined the faculty at the prestigious New York University. Bruner’s research in cognitive development (perception, learning, memory, and other aspects of understanding in young children) had a deep influence on the American educational system. His work was an introduction to the field of cognitive psychology.
Jerome Bruner was an extensive writer who wrote or co-wrote many prominent books, winning a long list of awards both in psychology and education. He was perceived as an education ambassador in the 1990s because of his work with preschools in an Italian town near Bologna, as well as other places, always exploring alternative approaches and broader connections. Bruner retired from New York University in 2013 and passed away in 2016, having reached the centenarian milestone, leaving a legacy of theories and ideas interpreted and used to create autonomous learners.
Bruner’s social constructivist theory (students actively construct or shape their knowledge) was partly influenced by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s work. Vygotsky’s ideas that students learn best in a social environment interacting with others, and learn more in the presence of a more knowledgeable other, became the outline for Bruner’s model. Bruner believed students need help and active assistance from their teachers when they start to learn new concepts. At the beginning of the learning process, students depend on their teachers’ support, but gradually become more independent in their thinking and acquire new skills and knowledge. When that happens, it is time for the teacher’s support to lessen. Bruner’s revolutionary research in cognitive development created his learning theory in education based on the following ideas:
- Learners are active representatives perceiving the subject content by discovering connections between different concepts and theories themselves;
- The basic concepts of any school subject can be taught at any age, if the material is converted to a form, and presented in a way appropriate for children;
- Education’s main purpose is to create independent learners;
- There has to be an interaction between fundamental human abilities and culturally created technologies (computer, television, cultural phenomena, language, and so on) that strengthens these abilities to enable cognitive growth.
Bruner’s ideas initiated the cognitive revolution in psychology and education. According to his beliefs, these are the principles of cognitive revolution:
1. Students are active learners
Students learn problem-solving concepts and procedures, and more importantly, they can build on their own knowledge;
Learning is an active rather than a passive process in which students compose new ideas and perceptions based on their existing or previous knowledge;
Relying on cognitive structures (schematic, intellectual models) students “go beyond the information given,” so they choose and change information, make hypotheses, and decisions;
Teachers encourage students to detect the principles by themselves;
Teachers and students are engaged in an active dialog;
Teachers present information in a form appropriate to the student’s present state of understanding.
2. Teachers should create a spiral curriculum
Any subject can be taught at any age;
Teachers should use age-appropriate topics and move from simple to gradually deep and complex treatment of the topic;
Teachers should organize curriculums in a spiral manner, enabling students to continually build upon what they already know.
3. Knowledge should be represented in three different models:
Action-based enactive representation (0-1 year): When thinking is based on physical actions-learning by doing;
Image-based iconic representation (1-6 years): When thinking is based on mental images (icons);
Language-based symbolic representation (7 years onwards): When information is saved as words, symbols… (language).
Bruner’s theory of scaffolding developed as a part of social constructivist theory. Adults cooperate with children to help them solve problems and learn tasks beyond their current ability;
Teachers guide children in problem-solving situations.
Bruner’s ideas had an enormous impact on educational practices. His work on preschool programs where he had the chance to use his theories and educational principles in practice is beneficial to this day. His way of perceiving children as skilled learners who thrive in social groups helped him create the following learning principles that can be applied to education:
1. Discovery learning
Students form their knowledge by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system (constructive approach);
Students discover a coding system rather than waiting to hear it from their teachers;
The teacher’s role is not merely to teach information but to facilitate the learning process;
Teachers create lessons that help students find connections between information;
Teachers use a spiral curriculum to assist the process of discovery learning;
Teachers create a learning environment suitable for exploration and solving problems;
Students solve problems in a unique, meaningful context when teachers are guides and facilitators rather than just lecturers;
Teachers provide opportunities for students’ constant learning;
Teachers should be well aware of their students’ developmental state to provide appropriate scaffolding;
Teachers should be creative and improvise if necessary and provide scaffolding through support other than their own (other adults, teaching assistants, parent helpers, or more knowledgeable other students in the class).
2. The Importance of Language
Language helps students deal with abstract concepts;
Language can program stimuli and free students from the restraints of dealing only with appearances when enabling more complex yet flexible cognition;
The use of words assists concepts’ development;
Information is saved through the use of language;
When using language, the student is not restricted to using only actions or images;
Fact storage is accomplished with the help of words, mathematical signs, or other symbols;
Students should learn new material by advancing from enactive to iconic to language-based representation;
Even young children can learn any new material if it’s appropriately organized to match their present capability level.
3. The Goal of Education
Education’s goal is to create independent learners;
Education’s purpose is not to convey knowledge but to facilitate students’ thinking and transferable problem-solving skills;
Education should foster symbolic thinking in children.
4. The Spiral Curriculum
Students of any age are capable of understanding complicated information through the concept of a spiral curriculum;
Teachers should structure information in a way that complex ideas can be explained at a simplified level first, and later on re-visited at a more complex level;
Teachers should teach all subjects gradually with increasing levels of difficulty over time;
Discovering information is a more effective way of learning for students that helps students to solve problems by themselves.
Bruner’s theory of cognitive development differed from most of the other stage-based theories of cognition. His idea that every student can learn complex concepts with the appropriate instructional support is widely used and implemented. Bruner’s research and discoveries in the domain of cognitive development have forever changed the perception of education and psychology. What’s even more important is that his cross-disciplinary research fostered the work of many researchers and students in both areas of expertise. Bruner’s ideas and beliefs empower teachers with the psychological and educational perspective necessary to create a unique learning environment that inspires autonomous thinkers!