Jerome Bruner is one of the foremost education psychologists. A graduate of Duke University (B.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D.), Bruner has contributed greatly to the study of development, cognitive ability, and pedagogy. I recently read a collection of his essays published in a book entitled “Toward A Theory of Instruction.”
Jean Piaget is perhaps one of the earliest well-known child psychologists. Piaget theorized that children move through distinct stages and are limited in what they can learn and understand by the stage that they’re in. Rather than distinct stages Bruner sees stages that a child moves continuously through. Bruner’s research suggests that even young learners are capable of learning any material if the instruction followed a sequence of action to icon to symbol and is adapted to the learner. Bruner writes,
“. . . There is an appropriate version of any skill or knowledge that may be imparted at whatever age one wishes to begin teaching – however preparatory the version may be . . .The deepening and enrichment of this earlier understanding is again a source of reward for intellectual labors.” (pg. 35)
Regarding sequence of learning, Bruner identified three systems of representation: enactive representation (action-based), iconic representation (image-based), symbolic representation (language-based) – (pg. 10-11) He writes that
“. . . the nature of intellectual development . . . seems to run the course of these three systems of representation until the human being is able to command all three.” (pg. 12)
Bruner also used blocks to teach mathematics to children. He found that allowing them to build (action), and giving them imagery (the blocks illustrated the math problems and concepts), helped the kids learn the language (symbolism) of mathematics. He writes that,
“The children always began by constructing an embodiment of some concept, building a concrete model for purposes of operational definition. The fruit of the construction was an image and some operations that ‘stood for’ the concept. From there on, the task was to provide means of representation that were free of particular manipulations and specific images. Only symbolic operations provide the means of representing an idea in this way . . .”, the children “not only understood the abstractions they had learned but also had a store of concrete images that served to exemplify the abstractions. When they searched for a way to deal with new problems, the task was usually carried out not simply by abstract means but also by ‘matching up’ images.” (pg. 65)
One last really important contribution by Bruner in regards to education is his emphasis on sequential learning. He rightly points out that we learn at different paces and that there are personalized factors that are at play in determining the speed at which an individual can master a new concept.
“Instruction consists of leading the learner through a sequence of statements and restatements of a problem or body of knowledge that increase the learner’s ability to grasp, transform, and transfer what he is learning. In short, the sequence in which a learner encounters materials within a domain of knowledge affects the difficulty he will have in achieving mastery.” (pg. 49)
Our philosophy of education at Demme Learning, as seen in our Math-U-See and Spelling You See curriculum, is very similar in these regards to the research of Bruner. We too place importance on sequential learning that is student-paced and individualized, builds concept on concept, and moves from enactive (action, building the problem), to iconic (looking at the problem via the blocks), to symbolic (language, which is why have the children build then say or teach back.)
Towards the end of the book, Bruner writes with insight on the necessity of mastering the two major tools of thought, mathematics and the deployment of language.
“It was Dante, I believe, who commented that the poor workman hated his tools. It is more than a little troubling to me that so many of our students dislike two of the major tools of thought – mathematics and the conscious deployment of their native language in its written form, both of them devices for ordering thoughts about things and thoughts about thoughts. I should hope that in the new era that lies ahead we will give a proper consideration to making these tools more lovable. Perhaps the best way to make them so is to make them more powerful in the hands of their users.” (pg. 112)
Bruner’s book, “Toward a Theory of Instruction” is an excellent foray into his thoughts on education theory and is a must read for anyone interested in education. If you don’t have time for the book here is a five minute interview with Jerome Bruner to get you started.