BrunerJerome 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 1979.

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 leaps.

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 self-conception.

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 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 suited.

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 transportation,

2. The second rule prescribes how the criteral attributes are combined.

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 categories.
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.

Intellectual Development

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.

Learning Theory Bibliography

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Harley, 1995
LeFrancois, 1972
Sahakian, 1976