Jerome Bruner has been a key player in the development of psychology over the past five decades. As one of the founders of cognitive psychology, he was instrumental in revolutionising the thinking of the day from a strictly behavouristic stance to a more cognitive approach. His work emphasised "mentalism" and the ways in which people make sense of the world by "going beyond the information given". This was a shift from the prevailing belief in pure environmental control, to one which recognised that an organism takes in information from the external world, applies internal cognitive processes to it, and acts on the results. Bruner's contribution to cognitive psychology was particularly significant in his ability to demonstrate unobservable mental processes in an empirical framework. His was the first systematic attempt to apply an experimental approach to this difficult area of psychology.
Bruner has also contributed greatly to the science through his continual stretching of the boundaries. Rather than holding fixedly to one doctrine over time, as had been the case in the behavourist era, he has continued to explore new areas of thinking and consider more creative ways to tackle issues. This refreshing approach has allowed for more intensive research in specific areas, rather than on the construction of general systems.
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- Bruner was born in 1915 and at age 17, entered Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. His
academic and professional life has been extensive and he continues today to make a significant contribution to the development of psychology.
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Bruner points to the ability of humans to learn without any accompanying observable behaviour, i.e. we can manipulate the world by vicarious mental actions rather than by trial and error. He recognised that cognitive growth resulted from both environmental impact, or "culture", and the internal action that occurred to process this information.
He considered the evolution of the mind was dramatically affected by three waves of inventions, or
amplifiers, that were culturally transmitted:
- devices that could amplify motor capacities (e.g. wheels, levers, pulleys)
- devices that could amplify sensory capacities (e.g. glasses, hearing aids, radio, tv)
- devices that could amplify ratiocinative (intellectual) capacities (e.g. language, number systems, computers).
Bruner further identified three modes of representation, corresponding to these developmental stages, that we use to make meaning:
- enactive representation: when things get "represented in the muscles" (cf. motor amplification)
- iconic representation: using mental images to stand for objects/events (cf. sensory amplification)
- symbolic representation: using symbol systems (cf. intellectual amplification)
"To perceive is to categorize, to conceptualize is to categorize, to learn is to form categories, to make decisions is to categorize."
Bruner maintains that all human cognitive activity involves categories. This is the process of building and using representations, in order to make sense of the world. Incoming information is organised in terms of pre-existing categories, or we create new ones. Where we can't perceive things, we "go beyond the information given" and make inferences based on what we do know.
Bruner undertook significant experimental work, identifying our ability to recognise what belongs to a category of object/event, and how we can distinguish what does not belong. Concept formation is the initial understanding that there are different classes and categories, and that there are distinguishing attributes between objects/events which affect categorisation. Concept attainment is the next stage of development, whereby we can determine what those particular attributes may be and how they can be used to identify what belongs and what does not.
During the 1970's, Bruner's work evolved and he began to explore the processes by which communication is transferred and the way infants come to use language. His Language Acquisition Support System (LASS) reinforced his shift in emphasis to the fundamental role that culture plays in learning. He contended that in the "act of interacting" between people, we "create the world into which the child enters". Scaffolding is the process of transferring skill, whereby an adult supports a child in learning a new task and gradually withdraws control as the child gains mastery. Through distributed cognition, we share the information we know - between people and external resources - such that information is not all located in one place.
Bruner's work with learning acquisition led him to propose a discovery-oriented approach in schools, based on his theory of constructivism. This framework promotes learning as a process of constructing new ideas based on current/past knowledge. Students are encouraged to discover the facts and relationships for themselves and continually build on what they already know. The school curriculum is ideally organised in a spiral manner to facilitate this process, such that the same topics are redeveloped at succeeding age or grade levels to progressively reinforce learning.
"Indeed, it has been argued that the nature of reality itself as experienced by humans and human cultures is an emergent effect of narrative interactions."
This is an area of most recent development for Bruner. He contends that it is in the constructing of stories and myths, and listening to those of others, that we deal with experience and create a deal of our reality. Plots that have a beginning, middle and end provide us with frameworks that contextualise the information we are processing. Each culture creates its own folk psychology, constructed and expressed in narratives. According to Bruner, the task of cultural psychology is to study the mediating role of folk psychology in everyday meaning making.
"So let us return to the question of how to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community."
Guy R. Lefrancois. (1995). Theories of Human Learning. Pacific Grove, USA: Brooks/Cole.
Bruner, J. (1974). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.