Jerome Bruner (1915 - )
Constructivism & Discovery Learning
Born New York City, October 1, 1915. He received his A.B.
degree from Duke University in 1937 and his Ph.D in 1947
from Harvard. He was on the faculty in the Department of
Psychology at Harvard University.from 1952 - 1972.
In 1960 Bruner published The Process of Education.
This was a landmark book which led to much experimentation
and a broad range of educational programs in the 1960's.
Howard Gardner and other young researchers worked under
Bruner and were much-influenced by his work. In the early
70's Bruner left Harvard to teach at University of Oxford
for several years (1972 - 1979). He returned to Harvard in
Later he joined the New York University of Law, where he is
a senior research fellow (at the age of 93).
Bruner was one of the founding fathers of constructivist
theory. Constructivism is a broad
conceptual framework with numerous perspectives, and
Bruner's is only one. Bruner's theoretical framework
is based on the theme that learners construct new
ideas or concepts based upon existing knowledge.
Learning is an active process. Facets of the process
include selection and transformation of information,
decision making, generating hypotheses, and making
meaning from information and experiences.
Bruner's theories emphasize the significance of
categorization in learning. "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 a key concept.
Bruner was influenced by Piaget's ideas about cognitive
development in children. During the 1940's his early
work focused on the impact of needs, motivations,
& expectations (“mental sets”) and their influence
on perception. He also looked at the role of
strategies in the process of human categorization, and
development of human cognition. He presented the point
of view that children are active problem-solvers and
capable of exploring “difficult subjects”. This was
widely divergent from the dominant views in education
at the time, but found an audience.
Four Key themes emerged in Bruner's early work:
Bruner emphasized the role of structure in learning and how
it may be made central in teaching. Structure refers to
relationships among factual elements and techniques. See
the section on categorization, below.
He introduced the ideas of "readiness for learning" and
spiral curriculum. Bruner
believed that any subject could be taught at any stage
of development in a way that fit the child's cognitive
abilities. Spiral curriculum refers to the idea of
revisiting basic ideas over and over, building upon
them and elaborating to the level of full
understanding and mastery.
Bruner believed that intuitive and analytical thinking
should both be encouraged and rewarded. He believed the
intuitive skills were under-emphasized and he reflected on
the ability of experts in every field to make intuitive
He investigated motivation for learning. He felt that
ideally, interest in the subject matter is the best
stimulus for learning. Bruner did not like external
competitive goals such as grades or class ranking.
Eventually Bruner was strongly influenced by Vygotsky's
writings and began to turn away from the intrapersonal
focus he had had for learning, and began to adopt a social
and political view of learning. Bruner argued that aspects
of cognitive performance are facilitated by language. He
stressed the importance of the social setting in the
acquisition of language. His views are similar to those of
Piaget, but he places more emphasis
on the social influences on development. The earliest
social setting is the mother-child dyad, where
children work out the meanings of utterances to which
they are repeatedly exposed. Bruner identified several
important social devices including joint attention,
mutual gaze, and turn-taking.
Bruner also incorporated Darwinian thinking into his basic
assumptions about learning. He believed it was necessary to
refer to human culture and primate evolution in order to
understand growth and development. He did, however, believe
there were individual differences and that no standard
sequence could be found for all learners. He considered
instruction as an effort to assist or shape growth.In 1996
he published The Culture of Education.. This book reflected
his changes in viewpoints since the 1960's. He adopted the
point of view that culture shapes the mind and provides the
raw material with which we constrict our world and our
Four features of Bruner's theory of instruction.
1. Predisposition to learn.... This feature specifically
states the experiences which move the learner toward a love
of learning in general, or of learning something in
particular. Motivational, cultural, and personal factors
contribute to this. Bruner emphasized social factors and
early teachers and parents' influence on this. He believed
learning and problem solving emerged out of exploration.
Part of the task of a teacher is to maintain and direct a
child's spontaneous explorations.
2. Structure of knowledge....it is possible to structure
knowledge in a way that enables the learner to most readily
grasp the information. This is a relative feature, as there
are many ways to structure a body of knowledge and many
preferences among learners. Bruner offered considerable
detail about structuring knowledge.
Understanding the fundamental structure of a subject makes
it more comprehensible. Bruner viewed categorization as a
fundamental process in the structuring of knowledge. (See
the section below on categorization.)
Details are better retained when placed within the contest
of an ordered and structured pattern.
To generate knowledge which is transferable to other
contexts, fundamental principles or patterns are best
The discrepancy between beginning and advanced knowledge in
a subject area is diminished when instruction centers on a
structure and principles of orientation. This means that a
body of knowledge must be in a simple enough form for the
learner to understand it and it must be in a form
recognizable to the student's experience.
3. Modes of representation: visual, words, symbols.
4. Effective sequencing- no one sequencing will fit every
learner, but in general, increasing difficulty. Sequencing,
or lack of it, can make learning easier or more difficult.
Form and pacing of reinforcement
Bruner gave much attention to categorization of information
in the construction of internal cognitive maps. He believed
that perception, conceptualization, learning, decision
making, and making inferences all involved categorization.
Bruner suggested a system of coding in which people form a
hierarchical arrangement of related categories. Each
successively higher level of categories becomes more
specific, echoing Benjamin Bloom's understanding of
knowledge acquisition as well as the related idea of
instructional scaffolding (Bloom's Taxonomy).
Categories are "rules" that
specify four thing about objects.
1. Criterial attributes - required characteristics for
inclusion of an object in a category. (Example, for an
object to be included in the category "car" it must have an
engine, 4 wheels, and be a possible means of
2. The second rule prescribes how the criteral attributes
3. The third rule assignees weight to various properties.
(Example, it could be a car even if a tire was missing, and
if it was used for hauling cargo it would be shifted to a
different category of "truck" or perhaps "van".
4. The fourth rule sets acceptance limits on attributes.
Some attributes can vary widely, such as color. Others are
fixed. For example a vehicle without an engine is not a
car. Likewise, a vehicle with only two wheels would not be
included in "car".
There a several kinds of categories:
Identity categories - categories include objects based on
their attributes or features.
Equivalent categories (provide rules for combining
categories. Equivalence can be determined by affective
criteria, which render objects equivalent by emotional
reactions, functional criteria, based on related functions
(for example, "car", "truck", "van" could all be combined
in an inclusive category called "motor vehicle"), or by
formal criteria, for example by science, law, or cultural
agreement. For example, and apple is still an apple whether
it is green, ripe, dried, etc (identity). It is food
(functional), and it is a member of of a botanical
classification group (formal).
Coding systems are categories
serve to recognize sensory input. They are major
organizational variables in higher cognitive
functioning. Going beyond immediate sensory data
involves making inferences on the basis of related
categories. Related categories form a "coding system."
These are hierarchical arrangements of related
Bruner's theories introduced the idea that people interpret
the world largely in terms of similarities and differences.
This is a significant contribution to how individuals
construct their unique models of the world.
Bruner emphasized four characteristics of effective
instruction which emerged from his theoretical constructs.
1. Personalized: instruction should relate to learners'
predisposition, and facilitate interest toward learning,
2. Content Structure: content should be structured so it
can be most easily grasped by the learner
3. Sequencing: sequencing is an important aspect for
presentation of material
4. Reinforcement: rewards and punishment should be selected
and paced appropriately.
Bruner postulated three stages of intellectual development.
The first stage he termed "Enactive", when a person learns
about the world through actions on physical objects and the
outcomes of these actions.
The second stage was called "Iconic" where learning can be
obtained through using models and pictures.
The final stage was "Symbolic" in which the learner
develops the capacity to think in abstract terms. Based on
this three-stage notion, Bruner recommended using a
combination of concrete, pictorial then symbolic activities
will lead to more effective learning.
Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press