Create own Eureka moment

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Elizabeth Buie and Shirley English report on last week's Learning and Teaching conference in Glasgow
Elizabeth Buie and Shirley English report on last week's Learning and Teaching conference in Glasgow

Jerome Bruner, one of the modern world's most influential educational thinkers, has endorsed A Curriculum for Excellence as a "bold, revolutionary proposal".

Addressing delegates at the Tapestry Partnership's Learning and Teaching conference in Glasgow, Professor Bruner, who is 92 and still lectures regularly at New York University, praised ACfE's emphasis on interactive, cross-curricular teaching and its focus on "cultivating a sense of pride in learning".

He said its recommendation that pupils should be made aware of the ideals on which Scottish society is based and be given help to construct a personal response to this, was "a revolutionary statement".

"I would like kids to develop their own Eureka (moment), not be told about it by a teacher. I want schools to be places of discovery," he told more than 900 teachers attending the two-day conference last week.

Schools risked becoming creatures of habit with too little attention being paid to how they might better equip young people to cope with changing times, Professor Bruner warned.

Pursuing the goal of genuinely cross-curricular teaching would give children the confidence and skills to learn to think for themselves and consider alternatives, even if they risked reaching the wrong conclusions. Schools should not be afraid of this, he said.

His experience was that he only discovered the link between maths and history when he entered university and studied the distribution of wealth: "Thinking consists of considering alternatives. Let them (pupils) explore the presumptions that underlie their possible alternatives, to have more respect for the process of gaining knowledge."

Professor Bruner argued that it was important not to shield children from controversy, but to allow them to explore contradictions in human history, such as why the French chose Napoleon after the revolution or why America simultaneously endorsed equality and slavery.

"The purpose of education is to challenge the learner to make sense of what he is accruing in school. Meaning-making is a process for organising your knowledge. The meaning of what happens is often given by a sense of what else might have happened. This is why I would like to try teaching literature and history together."

Education should be socially relevant and delivered not just by teachers. Children should be challenging "received wisdom", such as the assumptions behind the penal system of America. They should be exposed to real-world situations - in contact with police who could explain the importance of keeping order, or sanitation.

Professor Bruner reiterated his theory that children can be taught any subject at any time in their development. He argued that it was vital the curriculum was not devised to meet convenient "bureaucratic standards"; otherwise, the education system risked "losing sight of its dual function to make pupils ready to lead productive lives on the one hand, and on the other to make the culture richer in the long run".


Born: October, 1915, in New York.

Educated at: Duke University and Harvard.

Currently, university professor at New York University.

One of the key figures in the so-called "cognitive revolution", he was educational adviser to presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

His books The Process of Education and Towards a Theory of Instruction have been particularly influential.

In the wake of the Russian launch of Sputnik, he chaired a USA-wide conference on the future of American education. It argued that what needed to happen was not simply the education of more scientists but the creation of an education system which produced better thinkers.

His subsequent inter-disciplinary programme for schools on the study of man was influential across the world, not least in Italy's Reggio Emilia.

His work was a seminal influence on later American educational thinkers David Perkins and Howard Gardner.

Photograph: Chris JamesEpicscotland.

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