An icon of the mind

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Jerome Bruner added a human touch to the field of psychological enquiry, writes Ted Wragg

Psychology professors are not usually renowned for making a major contribution to teaching and learning in the classroom, but Jerome Bruner is the most striking exception to this rule. His contributions to both theory and practice have been - and indeed remain, as he approaches his 90th birthday - a major influence. He is unquestionably a 20th-century international giant.

During his long and active career in Harvard, Oxford and New York universities, from the 1930s to the present, he has consistently put forward challenging theories about education, as earlier figures had done.

But his ideas are grounded in research and his own curriculum projects.

Bruner was the main force behind the pioneering Headstart project in the 1960s, when an excited President Kennedy sought to create a fairer society by giving vulnerable children a flying start before they began formal schooling. The initiative was adapted and copied around the world.

Later he created Man: a Course of Study (MACOS), in which children look at salmon, herring gulls and baboons, and then at society - their own as well as that of the Netsilik Eskimos - asking themselves what qualities and features are uniquely human, how people reach that state, and how we might become more human. Howard Gardner, now well known for his analysis of different forms of intelligence, was a researcher on the programme.

I once visited a school where the course was used only with lower-ability classes and children jeered "Macos" at each other if someone did something stupid in the playground. This would have upset Bruner, as the initiative was stretching for all abilities, if taught properly.

Many people know of his claim that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development, a tantalising proposition that cannot be proved or disproved. Bruner is probably best-known to teachers, however, as someone they had to study during their initial training, usually alongside Jean Piaget.

They might recall Piaget's and Bruner's theories about children's mental development. Piaget devised the "sensori-motor", "pre-operational", "concrete" and "formal operational" stages. Bruner spoke of the "enactive" phase, when children learn to take action for themselves, move, manipulate and play. His "iconic" stage comes when they understand pictures, diagrams, representations of various kinds and use numbers. The "symbolic" mode involves being able to think in the abstract.

Piaget regarded his phases as sequential, but Bruner put much more stress on these modes of thought being available throughout people's lives, although each phase might be dominant at a particular stage of development.

When Piaget was asked if children could be accelerated through his stages or had to wait until they arrived, he replied whimsically, "Ask Bruner.

He's an optimist".

To be central in the establishment of an "-ism" or "-ology" is a major achievement. Bruner managed to influence at least two: "cognitivism" and "constructivism". In the 1950s, theories of teaching and learning were dominated by B F Skinner, whose work was based on experimental laboratory studies. Rats and pigeons were conditioned to behave in certain ways by being offered food when they conformed to what the experimenter wanted.

Skinner's behaviourism both horrified and fascinated people. It seemed mechanical and manipulative, but it also offered recognisable explanations about how certain aspects of teaching worked, like offering rewards for approved behaviour.

Bruner's ideas were more human, emphasising meaning, influenced by such figures as Rudolph Steiner and the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

Cognitivism became a welcome antidote to behaviourism, stressing the influence of needs, motivation and expectations on children's perception and cognitive development.

During his time at Harvard, Bruner moved from interesting academic to world figure. His very readable books The Process of Education (1960) and Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966) made a huge international impact. The former work argued for a "spiral curriculum" in schools that would allow children to revisit topics later at a higher level so that they would understand better.

The latter book was a major influence on constructivism in education. It asserted that learning is an active process during which children construct their knowledge from past and present experiences. He gives a neat example of this in his 1973 book Going Beyond the Information Given. If children play with a handful of beans they can construct multiplication tables by arranging them in rows, and also discover prime numbers when they have one too many or too few to complete the array.

In the 1970s he spent eight years as a professor of psychology at Oxford university. It marked an interesting transition, away from the individualism of cognitivism, towards a greater focus on the development of children's language and the culture in which human beings operate. Adults "scaffold" concepts for children, skilfully or badly, giving them a structure within which they can hang their knowledge and generate novelty.

After Oxford he moved back to New York university, where he shone his powerful intellect on the issue of law, exposing the linguistic tricks that lawyers use to argue their cases, often to the disadvantage of the downtrodden in society. Retirement was clearly not an option for him; nor had social justice disappeared from his agenda.

I have just finished a book of my own writings for a new series called The World Library of Educationalists. When the publisher told me that Bruner had been asked to contribute a volume I was delirious. It is privilege enough to be on the same planet, let alone in the same series.

For me his whole philosophy is neatly summed up by the story he tells of a maths professor who finds that his quantum mechanics class is bewildered:

"I went through it once and looked up only to find the class full of blank faces - they had obviously not understood. I went through it a second time and they still did not understand it. And so I went through it a third time, and that time I understood it."

Although he is a giant of the 20th century, I see Bruner as providing an inspirational model for teachers in the 21st century. He is an optimist who asserts the excitement of teaching and learning, the discoveries, the beliefs, the sensitivities, the very reasons why teachers join the profession.

The current climate may not seem especially conducive to his adventurous ideas, but politicians say they want more creative teaching and Bruner offers a better blueprint than most other thinkers.

So use his ideas as a spur to shake off dependency and apprehension, to have the confidence to exercise more of your own professional judgment about where children are, how they can think and act better, what they need to construct their own meanings and understandings, with not a tickbox in sight. Make the principle of social justice a reality. Assert what is human about humanity. What are you waiting for?


* 1915 Bruner born in New York city.

* Childhood Two cataract operations by the age of two.

Aged 12 when his father dies.

* Education He proves to be a brilliant scholar, gaining a BA degree at Duke university (1937), and a master's (1939) and a doctorate (1941) at Harvard, where he later joins the staff.

* Wartime Works as a social psychologist, an expert in propaganda, public opinion and social attitudes (the subject of his PhD).

* 1952-72 Professor of psychology at Harvard and head andco-founder of the center for cognitive studies. Adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson and a key architect of the trendsettingpre-school programme Headstart, andmain creator of Man: a Course of Study (MACOS).

* 1960 The Process of Education.

* 1966 Toward a Theory of Instruction.

* 1972-80 Worksas Watts Professor of experimental psychology at Oxford university.

* 1973 Going Beyond the Information Given.

* 1981 Joins the school for social research at New York university.

* 1996 The Culture of Education.


' We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development'

' Ideally, interest in the material to be learned is the best stimulus to learning, rather than such external goals as grades or later competitive advantage'

' Knowing is a process not a product'

' To perceive is to categorise, to conceptualise is to categorise, to learnis to categorise, to make decisionsis to categorise'

' How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognise, is a function of how one conceives of the culture and its aims, professed and otherwise'

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