Jerome Seymour Bruner is a psychologist whose contributions to cognitivist and constructivist views of human learning and child development spanned several decades.
Bruner first encountered the field of psychology in the 1930s as an undergraduate and (for a short time) graduate student at Duke University, where his early research in collaboration with behaviorists convinced him that even laboratory rats were thinking creatures whose behavior could not be reduced to simple stimulus-response connections. He followed up with graduate study at Harvard University, earning his Ph.D. in 1941.
After a four-year stint working for the federal government during World War II, Bruner returned to Harvard as a faculty member. There he soon felt at odds with current mainstream views in American psychology, and especially with the behaviorist idea that thought processes could not be observed and so could not be studied scientifically. Furthermore, Bruner's research on perception in the late 1940s and early 1950s (much of it conducted with collaborator Leo Postman) consistently pointed to the same conclusion: People's perceived realities were often quite different—and different in predictable ways—from the information their various senses actually detected in the environment. In the 1950s, Bruner also ventured into new territory by looking at how people form categories. In 1956 he published A Study of Thinking with coauthors Jacqueline Goodnow and George Austin. Although the book was justifiably criticized for its study of people's behaviors in an artificial concept-learning exercise, central to its discussion was an important insight: Rather than being merely the unwitting victims of environmental circumstances, human beings are rational, strategic learners who work hardtomake sense of the world around them.
Convinced that human cognition both could and should be a focus of study, Bruner and his colleague George Miller established and co-directed Harvard's Center for Cognitive Studies in 1960. Bringing together scholars from diverse disciplines (e.g., psychology, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, mathematics), the center was a fertile cross-breeding ground for new ideas (including those of developmentalists Jean Piaget [1896– 1980] and Lev Vygotsky [1896–1934]) and was a key player in turning the tide in American psychology from behaviorism to a more cognitively oriented perspective.
By 1972 cognitive theories, especially information processing theory, had become the mainstream point of view in American psychology. That year Bruner moved to England to join the faculty at Oxford University, where much of his research addressed cognition and cognitive development in infants. Upon his return to the United States in 1980, he spent another year at Harvard and then in 1981 joined the faculty at New York University. At NYU he continued his work in cognition into the early years of the twenty-first century, with a particular focus on the ways in which human beings impose meanings on the world around them.
Despite his many contributions to psychology, Bruner is probably best known for his work in education. In his 1960 book The Process of Education, Bruner argued against the prevailing notion that lack of readiness prevents young children from understanding difficult subject matter. He advocated a spiral curriculum in which children tackle challenging topics in age-appropriate ways even in the primary grades, revisiting these topics year after year and each time building and expanding on previous acquisitions. In a later book, Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966), Bruner suggested that children mentally represent events in three ways—first as physical actions (enactively), then as mental images (iconi-cally), and eventually as language (symbolically). Through concrete manipulatives and carefully designed activities, children can discover important ideas and principles on their own, first representing them enactively, then iconically, and finally symbolically. Thus, Bruner was an early advocate of discovery learning. Furthermore, he contended, children are intrinsically motivated to master new skills, particularly when those skills are sequenced to enable frequent success.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bruner increasingly emphasized the many ways that culture shapes the mind, both in school and in the world beyond it. In his The Culture of Education (1996), Bruner emphasized a point that many contemporary sociocultural psychologists share: Culture provides general frames of reference that permeate the meanings people impose on daily events and classroom lessons. Rather than assume that students will absorb classroom subject matter exactly as it is presented, educators must engage students in ongoing dialogues, assessing existing beliefs and understandings and modifying instruction in light of them. Education, then, must always involve two-way communication, continually informing both student and teacher alike.
Bruner, J. S., Goodnow, J. J., & Austin, G. A. (1956). A study of thinking. New York: Wiley.
Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. New York: W. W. Norton.
Bruner, J. S. (1983). In search of mind: Essays in autobiography. New York: Harper & Row.
Bruner, J. S. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Olson, D. (2008). Jerome Bruner: The cognitive revolution in educational theory. London & New York: Continuum International.
Orlofsky, D. D. (2001). Redefining teacher education: The theories of Jerome Bruner and the practice of training teachers. New York: P. Lang.