Jerome Bruner


Jerome Bruner

'Learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based on current/past knowledge' - Jerome Bruner

Born in 1915 in New York, Jerome Bruner is considered to be one of the most distinguished thinkers in psychology. In 1937 he obtained a B.A. at Duke University, North Carolina and in 1941 received a Ph.D. from Harvard. He has been a professor at some of the most elite universities in America and England and has been a prolific writer over an illustrious and productive career that has spanned an incredible 60 years. During this time he has touched upon almost every line of thought in psychology and transforming a number of them and in the process winning prestigious awards and honours. He has an impressive range of interests that span the humanities and social sciences and his research has been instrumental in the field of both psychology and education. He is a visionary, a creative thinker who incorporates and assimilates work of other great theorists, such as Piaget, in his work. Bruner who is now in his 80's is currently Research Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Fellow in Law at New York and continues writing to this day.

Bruner and the Cognitive Revolution
Bruner was very much a leader in the cognitive revolution, that in the 1950's set out to replace behaviourism. The aim of this revolution was, in Bruner's words 'to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated. It focused on the symbolic activities that human beings employed in constructing and making sense not only of the world, but of themselves (Bruner,1990:pg.2). Bruner felt the emphasis had shifted from the 'construction of meaning' to the 'processing of information' and felt that this metaphor of a computer was too limiting and did not allow for the role of culture in shaping our thoughts and the words we choose to express them.

For Bruner, an understanding of mind must include mental states like believing, desiring, intending, grasping a meaning, (Bruner,1990:pg 8) and must consider the mediating effects of culture and language. Scientists should not continue studying cognition in isolation, because the symbolic systems that individuals used in constructing meaning were systems that were already there, deeply embedded in culture and language. One of Bruner's assumptions is that the outcome of cognitive development is thinking. The intelligent mind creates from experience. 'We are 'information processors' who manipulate mental representations of the world, and this enables us to 'go beyond the information given' to us by our sensory systems.' (A Lock, 2001, Lecture 14).

Bruner's Concept of meaning
In place of information processing, Bruner offers to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community (Bruner,1990:pg.11). Concepts are mental categories for objects, events, or ideas that have a common set of features, they allow us to classify objects and events, when learning a concept the emphasis is one the relevant features rather then the irrelevant, in other words what is its crucial features. Bruner believed we develop a strategy of testing these concepts by trail and error. These concepts or categories help us incorporate and assess incoming information to provide us with a meaningfuil map of the world. In Beyond the Information Given (1974) Bruner further examines concept attainment and how concepts enable us to make inferences in problem solving.

Bruner on Learning and Education
He formulated a particular perspective of constuctivism ( the theory that learners construct their own knowledge) His constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Regarding education Bruner advocated that if students were allowed to pursue concepts on their own they would gain a better understanding. He urged discovery learning which involves the teacher providing guidance or scaffolding, organising the curriculum in a spiral manner so that the students are continually building upon what they have already learnt. This involves the teacher teaching the same content in different ways depending on the student's developmental level.

Bruner's Theory of Children's Cognitive Development
Bruner was concerned with acquisition and use of knowledge. Representation relates to the means by which growing human beings represent their experience of the world; and how they organise for future use what they have encountered.' (Bruner, 1966: pg.1). Bruner theorises that children construct knowledge using three modes of what he called representation that corresponds to developmental stages. According to Bruner, as a children develop they master each of these increasingly more complex modes, this involves becoming more skilled in translating between each mode.

  1. Enactive representation - this is the earliest stage present from infancy where a child's world is represented through objects in terms of their immediate sensation of them. For example their muscular and motor responses or ways they manipulate the environment.
  2. Iconic representation - develops at around two to three years old and involves the use of mental images that stand for certain objects or events; imagery that is relatively free of action.
  3. Symbolic representation - develops around seven years old and is the ability to transform action and image into a symbolic system to encode knowledge. Primarily these symbols are language and mathematical notation.

Bruner's Theory of the Evolution of the Mind
'Bruner suggests that the representional systems chuildren use as they develop closely parallel the history of human inventions.' (Lefrancois, 2000:pg. 196). For Bruner the evolution of the mind is evident through the following stages of inventions, that each served different functions.
  1. Amplifiers of human motor capacities - first humans succeeded in developing devices that gave them the capacity to increase their motor capacities, simple machines for example levers, the wheel etc. and machines that could make weapons. This increased the strength of humans and made them stronger.
  2. Amplifiers of sensory capacities – inventions that amplified sensory capacities, for example , the telescope, radar, television, etc
  3. Amplifiers of human ratiocinative capacities – inventions that amplify our intellectual capacities, these are human symbol systems and theories, such as computer languages and systems.
'Almost all human mental work, claims Bruner (1997a) is done with the aid of the technology that cultures provide their members. These technologies enrich human competencies enormously.' (Lefrancois, 2000: pg. 196)

2 Bruner and Cultural Psychology
It was his more recent work Bruner expanded his theoretical work to incorporate social and cultural aspects of learning. Culture, Bruner tells us shapes our minds 'individuals assign different situations they experience in their world but although those meanings are 'in the mind', it is the culture that a human being lives in that has created those meanings and those meanings enable people to engage in cultural exchange; they allow us to organise and understand our worlds in communal ways." (Bruner,1996:3) Culturalism or cultural psychology according to Bruner brings together insights from the social sciences and humanities generally , so that a model of the mind can be reformulated.

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In the Culture of Education (1990), Bruner hypotheses that the mind reaches its full potential only through the involvement in culture. Education's objective is to help learners construct meanings, not just process information, whatever the subject. He advocates the importance of narrative, (the way in which people make sense of the world through storytelling) as instrumental in 'meaning making'. As the narrative enables us to understand the past, and the present, and what is humanly possible in a way that is unique.

Bruner,J., Oliver,R.,Greenfield,P., et al (1966) Studies in cognitive growth New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Bruner,J. (1974) Beyond the information given. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Bruner,J. (1990) Acts of meaning.Cambridge/ London:Harvard University Press
Bruner,J.(1996) The Culture of Education. Cambridge/ London:Harvard University Press
Bruner, J (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press
Lefrancois., G.R. (2000) 4thed. Theories of Human Learning. The University of Alberta: Wadsworth
Lock.A., 28/08/01

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