Jerome Bruner

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Jerome Seymour Bruner was born in New York City on October 1, 1915. He was the youngest of four children born to Jewish immigrants from Poland. Bruner was born blind and only gained sight after he underwent cataract surgery at the age of two. He received his B.A. in psychology from Duke University in 1937. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he received his M.A. (1939) and Ph. D. (1941) in psychology from Harvard University. Upon completing his Ph. D., at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, Bruner tried to join the military, but was turned down due to his poor eyesight. Instead, he served in the psychological warfare division and worked as a social psychologist studying foreign radio broadcasts and social attitudes for U.S. Army intelligence. With the end of the war, he returned to Harvard to complete his Ph. D and became a faculty member, serving as professor of psychology (beginning in 1952) as well as being co-founder of the Harvard University Center for Cognitive Studies (1961). In 1972, Bruner left Harvard to accept a position as professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University where he remained until 1979. From 1991 to the present, he has been on the faculty at New York University of Law as a research professor of psychology and senior research fellow of law.

Bruner’s Theories

Bruner is known for a number of theories. His learning theories evolved from his research during the 1940s and 1950s on the ways people use categories to construct concepts and create mental models of the world. His studies noted the significance of students' active participation in learning, placing him in the camp of constructivism (of which he was one of the founding fathers), a cognitive development theory that contends that learning is “an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge” (Constructivist Theory).


Bruner believed that the process of learning involved organizing the world around us into mental categories invented by the learner. By doing this, the learner is forming constructs with which to think and use information. Every category, its name, the items in it, and their shared features compose a concept that helps people hold information in its abstract form.

Categories help people:
  • Reduce the complexity of their environment
  • Identify objects in the world
  • Reduce the need for constant learning
  • Provide direction for activity
  • Order and relate classes of events rather than deal with individual events.

“To perceive is to categorize, to conceptualize is to categorize, to learn is to form categories, to make decisions is to categorize.” Interpreting information and experiences by similarities and differences is key.

Modes of Representation or Learning

Bruner hypothesized that the usual course of intellectual development moves through three stages: enactive, iconic, and symbolic, in that order. However, unlike Piaget's stages, Bruner did not contend that these stages were necessarily age-dependent, or invariant. “Any idea or problem or body of knowledge can be presented in a form simple enough so that any particular learner can understand it in a recognizable form.”

  1. Enactive: During earliest childhood, learn about the world through actions on physical objects and the outcomes of these actions.
  2. Iconic: During middle childhood, learning can be obtained through using models and pictures.
  3. Symbolic: During adolescence, learner develops the capacity to think in abstract terms.


Based on this model, and believing that all three modes continue to remain available and can be highly developed even once symbolic learning has begun, Bruner recommended that using a combination of concrete, pictorial and then symbolic activities will lead to more effective learning.


Discovery Learning

Bruner’s definition of “discovery” was not restricted to “the act of finding out something that before was unknown to mankind, but rather (included) all forms of obtaining knowledge for oneself by the use of one’s own mind.” He went on to state that there are “powerful effects that come from permitting the student to put things together for himself, to be his own discoverer.”

Discovery learning is:

  • a learning method that encourages students to ask questions and formulate their own tentative answers, and to deduce general principles from practical examples or experiences.

  • a learning situation in which the principal content of what is to be learned is not given, but must be independently discovered by the learner, making the student an active participant in the learning process.

In discovery learning, the learner is encouraged to actively use their intuition, imagination, and creativity. 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. For example, the teacher presents examples and the students work with the examples until they discover the interrelationships. Bruner believed that classroom learning should take place through inductive reasoning by using specific examples to formulate general principle.He suggested that teachers can nurture inductive thinking by encouraging students to make guesses based on incomplete evidence and then to confirm or disprove the guesses systematically.

Educational Implications

Spiral Curriculum

For Bruner, the purpose of education is not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate a child’s thinking and problem solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations. Specifically, education should also develop symbolic thinking in children. While there are similarities between Bruner’s modes of representation and Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, he opposed Piaget’s theory of readiness which states that cognitive development occurs as a result of maturation (meaning you cannot teach a child to perform certain activities until they are biologically ready.) Bruner believes that a child of any age is capable of understanding complex concepts if these are presented through the use spiralling.

In a spiral curriculum, the information is structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then revisited at more complex levels later. This means subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficulty. This allows the introduction of complex concepts at earlier ages, and allows students to experiment with and “discover” more about the concept for themselves over time.

In a Discovery Learning Classroom

According to Bruner, “The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking part in the formulation and at times may play the principal role in it.” In a discovery learning classroom, you would expect to find:

A teacher who:
  • Designs activities and tools matched to students’ cognitive abilities
  • Translates information into the learner’s mode of representation
  • Activates problem solving by modeling trial and error, curiosity and creates a motivation to learn
  • Coaches students to discover principles for themselves.

Students who:
  • Participate in the knowledge-getting process
  • Test hypotheses
  • Solve problems
  • Interact with the environment
  • Engage in dialogue and collaborate with the teacher and other students.

Important Works

The Process of Education (1960)
On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (1962)
Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966)
The Relevance of Education (1971)
Beyond the Information Given: Studies in Psychology of Knowing (1973)
The Culture of Education (1996)

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