Jerome Bruner's Theory


The Basics
Jerome Bruner is a Harvard-educated psychologist who has been very influential among educators, particularly during the curriculum reform projects of the 1960s. Bruner is primarily in the cognitive tradition, although he is very heavily influenced by Piaget.

Bruner views people as being active in the process of learning, continually structuring and restructuring their environment. Thus, he is quite opposed to the view of the passive learner mechanically associating stimuli and responses. Instead, Bruner believes that people selectively perceive certain aspects of their environment, represent those perceptions internally, and then act on those internal representations. Bruner has written about the course of cognitive development in which a child progressively develops three modes of representation: enactive, iconic, and symbolic. To be successful, the mode of instruction should match the mode that the learner is using.

Because Bruner views learning as an active, involved process, he has been a prime proponent of the discovery learning approach. In this approach, students are presented with a problem and some evidence: they must seek to reconcile that information and “discover” the solution to the problem.

Another theme in Bruner’s writings is the structure of knowledge. Bruner believes that when the basic structure of a subject (consisting of the ideas, concepts, principles, and their relationships) is emphasized, the learners will be more able to improve their intuitive thinking.
Podcast Review 
You can hear Dr. Hannum reviewing Bruner's theory by clicking the icon above. This was recorded during a graduate seminar on learning theories. You can also Download podcast.

View of Learning 
Here is a comprehensive set of objectives for Bruner along with points based on these objectives:

1. Define, give examples, and describe characteristics of the three modes of representation (enactive, iconic, symbolic).
For Bruner a child beginning at infancy develops through three stages: 1) an enactive stage characterized by direct manipulation of objects without any internal representation of the objects, 2) an iconic stage characterized by internal representation of external objects visually as images or icons, and 3) a symbolic stage characterized by symbolic representation of external objects through words, formulas or other symbolic means. Bruno believes that just as a child goes through each of these three stages when growing up, anytime we are presenting new instruction to the students we should present it by going through these three stages. So in his view anytime we're teaching we should first present a concept in the enactive stage involving direct manipulation of objects, then we re-introduce the concept in the iconic stage using some form of imagery, and finally we re-introduced the concept symbolical using words or formula or other notation.

2. Describe Bruner’s view of a learner as active and compare this view with the reactive, passive view.
For Bruner learning is a very active process in which the student is directly involved in the manipulation of the content in the three modes of representation. To be successful in learning new content, the learners must be actively engaged in the process, not sitting quietly and listening to a teacher explain something.

3. Describe the process of cognitive development and the forces affecting development.
Many of Bruner's ideas regarding cognitive development follow from Piaget, with whom he worked. In Burner's view there are three stages in development: 1) the enactive stage, 2) the iconic stage, and 3) the symbolic stage. Each stage is characterized by different way of representing the external environment internally in one's head. An infant in the enactive stage does not represent his environment internally rather simply deals with actions on objects in the external world. When a child has reached the iconic stage he has the ability to represent external objects internally as images or icons. Furthermore a child in the iconic stage can manipulate these images internally and see possibilities for rearranging external objects. Once a child has reached a symbolic stage she has the ability to represent the external world through some symbolic representation of physical objects. For example, an object may be represented by its name or label, by a verbal description of the object, or some other symbolic means. In Bruner's view of development, a child does not move through an early stage in the sense that she leaves the current stage and moves into a new stage characterized by a new way of thinking. Rather as a child develops she accumulates additional abilities as she moves from an early stage to a later stage such that the child in the iconic stage can function both in an inactive stage and an iconic stage. Likewise the child in a symbolic stage can function in that stage as well as in the iconic stage or in the enactive stage. Cognition development is a natural process but depends on environment in which the child has sufficient opportunity to be engaged. If the environment is stark and not stimulating, the child will not develop as well and she would in a richer environment.

4. Describe the role of language in cognitive development.
Language is very fundamental according to Bruner. It is through language that we learn about objects and how to understand them. For people at the symbolic stage language is also the basis of our thought. Because language is so vital to our thought process if we do not have the word for a concept then according to Bruner we don't fully understand that concept. In this sense our language shapes to a large extent that which we are able to learn and know.

5. Describe the relation between the internal and external environment.
Our internal Environments are formed based on our interactions with the external environment. Thus, our internal environment is to some extent a copy of the external environment. However, it is important to note that these internal representations are not direct copies of the external environment at all. However, a person's internal representation is also a function of his perception of the external environment, and our perceptions of the identical event vary widely. Obviously our external environment plays a key role in the determining the make-up of our internal representation of that. But so too does our internal representations impact what we perceive in our external world. A fearful person may look at someone who has just raised his hand as threatening him while a more content person may see the other person raising his hand and interpret that as a gesture of greeting, not one of hostility. In one sense these two observers see the same thing, a person raising his hand. However, in actuality each person perceives something quite different. One sees a threat; the other sees a welcoming gesture. I will extrarenal environment certainly influences our internal environment, and likewise I internal environments influence what we perceive in the extra world.

6. Define equivalence, information seeking, and invariance.
Two objects can be considered equivalent when they share the common defining property of a category although they may look different. For example, a red apple and a green apple are both apples although obviously they look quite different because of the color. A tall, stout man with red hair and a short, thin man with blond hair should both be seen as men because they are equivalent in terms of the essential characteristic that defines a person as a male although they appear to be quite different. Likewise a child should see that a big red square made of cardboard is equivalent to a small green square made of wood in the sense that both are geometric shapes with four equal sides and four right angles. This is the concept of equivalence, seeing that things which don't look similar are in fact members of the same category. A related concept is that of invariance. Take the example of a square. Any object geometric object with four equal sides and four right angles is a square. You can have big squares or little squares, green squares or red squares, squares that are made from paper or from wood because none of these dimensions matter to the definition of a square. Invariance refers to those properties that cannot vary if something is to remain in the same category. You can take a little square and make it big, but it is still a square. In that sense it is invariant because it still has all the properties found in squares. It does not vary as a result of size, color, texture, weight, etc. Bruner sees people as constantly seeking our information to help them balance their internal representation of the world with their observations. It's not that our senses passively dump data on us but rather than we constantly see out information to help us understand our world.

7. Describe the purpose and role of instruction.
The purpose of instruction for Bruner is to create an environment in which a person can discover new knowledge for him or herself. Instruction exists to guide and support new learners as they interact with their environment to construct new knowledge for themselves. The purpose of instruction is not to tell the student that which they ought to learn but rather to create an interesting and stimulating environment in which students can discover this knowledge with the teacher's support.

8. Describe the role of curiosity and intrinsic motivation in learning.
Bruner opposes the use of the external reinforcement or rewards as a way to motivate students to learn. Rather Bruner favors creating a stimulation environment filled with interesting problems that the students are curious about so that they will be intrinsically motivated to learn. Intrinsic motivation has the advantages of being more robust than rewards, plus it is an inherent part of the learning process not some tack-on goodies that the teacher provides. If a teacher can engage the student's curiosity, then the learning will become intrinsically motivating and will continue. If a teacher manipulates external reinforcement or rewards as a way to engage the learners, this learning will not sustain itself but rather will disappear when the reinforcers are gone.

9. Explain the reasons for the emphasis on the structure of a subject and the mode of representation of a subject.
Bruner places a major emphasis on big ideas and the key concepts within any subject matter. This is the important stuff to learn because the other more specific content to be derived from these big ideas. Learning the big ideas is also more powerful than trying to learn a lot of little specific things. For example, if you needed to know the area of different size circles it's much more powerful to learn a big concept which is that the area equals pi times radius squared (A=π*r2), than it is to try to memorize all the areas of different sized circles. In essence, you can learn one thing – the formula to determine area – rather than having to learn all the areas for circles that have a different radius. Learning the big ideas is much more powerful because you can generate so much from it and at the same time more economical in that it's less that you have to learn in order to solve many problems. In addition to placing emphasis on learning the structure of the subject, Bruner also placed emphasis on using the three different modes of representation when teaching a subject. Because our development goes through three different stages that correspond to the modes of representation (the inactive, the iconic and this symbolic), Bruner believes that when introducing new content we should first introduce it the enactive stage, then come back and reintroduce it in the iconic stage and finally reintroduce it in the symbolic stage. This mimics our progression through developmental stages and facilitates us discovering new knowledge for ourselves. It also engages learners in the process of constructing their new knowledge.

10. Define spiral curriculum, describe its use, and provide the rationale for it.
Spiral curriculum is Bruner's preferred way of organizing content to be taught because it follows from how students represent content from the enactive to the symbolic stage. Bruner would first introduce new content in an interactive mode of representation using physical objects. Then later he would come back to the same content but reintroduce it in an iconic mode using images to represent the contest. Finally he would reintroduce the content a third time but this time he would introduce it in a symbolic mode of representation. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum – you spiral back and reintroduce previous taught content in a different mode of representation and with more complexity thus building on prior learning as students construct more sophisticated understandings. Why? Because this parallels the developmental stages through which learners advance.

11. How are economy and power involved in instruction, and what is their relationship to each other?
As previously noted, big ideas are both more economical and have more power. They are economical in that you can learn one thing, one big idea, and from that general many things. Thus, it is more economical to learn a general principle rather than to try to memorize many specific instances of this. Likewise big ideas are more powerful because you can derive so many things from a big idea. In essence, the big ideas within any subject are both powerful in that so much can be derived from them and economical in that it is easier to remember a big idea than trying to remember all the little specific things that can be derived from a big idea. Ideas that are economical are powerful.

12. Distinguish reinforcement as Bruner uses it from the more traditional behavioral use.
The more common concept of reinforcement is that of external reinforcement or providing the student with a reward for learning something to motivate them. Bruner sees this as artificial and a short-term gain at best. When the external reinforcement goes away so does the learning, and a teacher can't always be there to provide inexorable reinforcement or reward. For Bruner it is better to skip these extra reinforcers and rely instead on the intrinsic motivation of students which is neither artificial nor contrived. By design the curriculum around interesting problems and engaging the students and discovering meaning through direct manipulation of objects, images and finally symbols, you appeal to a student's internal or intrinsic motivation. A student is learning not in order to get an external reward but rather because the process of learning itself is so much fun. The reinforcement Brewer wishes to engage is that reinforcement that is inherent in the process of discovery learning.

13. Explain the basis for discovery learning and describe the expected benefits of this method.
Discovery learning is important according to Bruner because it provides the opportunity for students to construct their own meaning rather than simply memorizing the meeting someone else has assigned to something. Discovery learning has students as active, engaged participants in the process, which also enhances their intrinsic motivation for learning. Discovery learning is also more resistant to forgetting. When students are actively engaged in discovery learning there are also much less likely to be disruptive or "problem students' in the classroom.

14. Define intuitive thinking.
Intuitive thinking characterizes human thought according to Bruner. By intuitive thinking he means that a person goes beyond the information they are given to find meaning and solve problems. Intuitive thinking involves the use of hunches or guesses that extend beyond that which is known. This is the essence of creativity.

15. Describe the changes in formal education that Bruner advocates.
Bruner advocates changes both in what is taught in schools and how the teaching takes place. Clearly he would focus the curriculum on the study of several broad, basic ideas that were interdisciplinary rather than the accumulation of lots of facts within specific fields of study. He is less concerned with the specifics of what students learn in school than he is with them learning the process of discovering so that they can generate new knowledge. He would be opposed to having a list of all that should be learned in a high school biology class or in the fifth grade. The curriculum should not center on accumulating factual knowledge like it does today but rather focus on enabling the students to understand the process by which they can learn and acquiring several big ideas. He would be appalled by the emphasis placed in education I'm testing students so frequently to see if they have mastered some specific skill or piece of information. Lectures would rapidly fall by the wayside if brother was in charge and the teachers role would shift from that of an expert who knows and explains everything to that of a coach or a guide who assists students in discovering knowledge on their own and making meaning from it.

16. Describe readiness for learning.
Some years ago Bruner made a famous statement that shuck the educational establishment. He said, in essence, that any student was ready and able to learn anything if it was taught in some intellectually honest fashion. This statement follows directly from his concept of developmental stages and modes of representation. What he meant was that any student, even very young students, can understand complex concepts if they are talk in the mode of representation that corresponds to that of the student. Young children are not capable of understanding complex formulas in physics or computing the forces that exist on objects and influence their movement. However young students can operate in an enactive mode and push an object in their hand with more force than the object you are holding those moving it towards you. They can't represent this iconically or understand it symbolically. They cannot construct diagrams showing the different forces that exist on objects nor can they compute formula to calculate the forces on an object to show what direction it will move in, how quickly and how far. But they can understand an external force exerted on an object moves that object even if this is only in their enactive way of representing knowledge. In that sense a young student is ready to learn basic physics. Bruner does not see that we should wait until a student has entered some developmental stage like Piaget proposed in order to be able to learn new content. Readiness does not depend on the students level of maturation like Piaget believes nor does it depend on the existence of specific prerequisite knowledge in their cognitive structures like Ausubel believes. Rather readiness depends on the teacher introducing new content at the appropriate mode of representation and also on the teacher selecting problems to focus on that are interesting and relevant to the students.

17. Describe the influence of developmental psychology on Bruner.
As previously noted, Bruner was influenced by the work of Piaget particularly the concept of developmental stages. However, he differs from Piaget in that Bruner believes we don't move through one development stage to the next leaving the ways of thinking that characterized the old one and entering into the new stage with new ways of thinking but rather that we add additional capabilities when we go into another developmental stage. Bruner was also intrigued by the interplay between internal and external factors that shape development. The concept of development as an orderly process that moved at different rates for different children was one that appealed to Bruner. Bruner sees development as originating from within but also shaped very much by interaction with the environment. Because of the considerable role the environment plays in shaping development, Bruner does not see that development unfolds in a manner totally prescribed at birth. The environment a child grows up in can either accelerate or decelerate his development.

Bruner has been influential in education and remains a well-known contributor to shaping teaching and learning. He got his start influencing education early, in 1959, when he chaired a group of academics that was attempting to reform education after the Soviets launched Sputnik. This work led to Bruner's "Process of Education" that remains an influential book and began Bruner's long role as a psychologist who addresses educational issues, especially teaching and learning.

Bruner has been an influential proponent of discovery learning and a more active roll in instruction for the student. He guided several major curriculum reform projects that were based on his ideas of instruction. Many of his ideas remain influential in schools today including learning through discovery, the use of manipulatives, having students work together on projects, portfolio assessment, science labs, the student as experimenter, the teacher as guide or coach rather than a lecturer, and active learning.