Bransford, John D.
John D. Bransford helped start the cognitive revolution and used cognitive theory to create ground-breaking instructional designs. Bransford received his PhD in cognitive psychology at the University of Minnesota in 1970. His early experimental research demonstrated the constructive nature of understanding and learning. In a classic study, Bransford, Barclay, and Franks (1972) asked people to read sentence pairs such as “The turtle was sitting on the log,” and “The fish swam under the log.” Afterwards, participants completed a verification task in which they decided whether they had seen a given sentence verbatim. People demonstrated systematic errors that indicated they had constructed a mental model of the situation. For instance, they incorrectly verified that they had read, “The turtle swam under the frog,” when, in fact, the sentences never stated that explicitly. Prevailing theories of behaviorism could not explain why people made this mistake because behaviorism could only refer to the stimulus and not what might or might not be going on in the mind.
A central tenet of Bransford's constructivism is that learning builds on prior knowledge. Prior knowledge was not in the lexicon of the prevailing theory of behaviorism, which explained human behavior through reinforcement not knowledge. Bransford and Johnson (1972) demonstrated the significance of prior knowledge by showing participants passages that were largely unintelligible. For example, “The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient dependingon how much there istodo. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step.” Bransford showed that a simple phrase that elicits the correct prior knowledge can make the unintelligible become meaningful. In this example, the phrase would be “washing clothes.”
These early demonstrations presaged a career of high creativity and theoretical edge. Initially, journal editors were incredulous of his findings and he had difficulty publishing. However, he demonstrated the effects on the editors themselves, and they realized that they had been blinded by their theories.
As of 2007, Bransford had published roughly 90 journal articles, 90 book chapters, 6 authored books, and 4 edited volumes. His work has been translated into various languages, including French and Japanese. One explanation for Bransford's high level of productivity and reach is his combination of curiosity and collaborative abilities. Only four of his publications are sole-authored. His collaborative efforts enabled him to expand his scholarship into publications that appear in psychology, reading, medicine, engineering, technology, business, science, math, and special education outlets; the work is further cited in fields as diverse as animal neuroscience and economics.
One of his most broadly collaborative periods involved the development of the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV). Bransford gathered a diverse collection of scholars who dedicated themselves to designing effective, technology-driven educational lessons and assessments in multiple content areas. Much of the work stemmed from his theory of transfer appropriate processing, which attempted to explain why people sometimes fail to apply their prior knowledge. Of the many original creations of the CTGV (1997), one of the most notable is the “Adventures of Jasper Woodbury.” The Jasper series helped students engage in sustained mathematical problem solving, so they could learn to solve problems that might arise in everyday life and not just word problems. Bransford recognized that students could not learn complex problem solving at school unless they had a strong body of prior knowledge to help anchor their reasoning. To solve this problem, Bransford created anchored instruction: Each Jasper adventure was presented as a twenty-minute video narrative. In one adventure, for example, students had to create a plan to rescue an eagle that had been injured. The video developed the context, constraints, quantities, and the goal of the problem. The anchor created the prior knowledge that enabled students to experience complex problem solving with mathematics, and students developed the type of knowledge that was likely to transfer to everyday settings.
In the late 1990s, Bransford led a team of federally commissioned scholars to author the volume, How People Learn (2000). This book brought learning back into the spotlight and has had a tremendous impact on the research agenda in the United States and internationally.
Bransford, J. D., Barlay, J. R., & Franks, J. J. (1972). Sentence memory: A constructive vs. interpretive approach. Cognitive Psychology, 3, 193–209.
Bransford, J. D., & Johnson, M. K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717–726.
Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1997). The Jasper Project: Lessons in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
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