5.3 Preschool Curriculum: Can you show the relevance of the Jerome Bruner Theory of constructivism and discovery learning in today’s teaching environment?

5.4 Show the relevance of the Jerome Bruner Theory of constructivism and discovery learning in today’s teaching environment

Jerome Bruner Theory of Constructivism & Discovery Learning  

Bruner was one of the founding fathers of constructivist theory. Constructivism is a broad conceptual framework with numerous perspectives, and Bruner’s is only one. Bruner’s theoretical framework is based on the theme that learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon existing knowledge. Learning is an active process. Facets of the process include selection and transformation of information, decision-making, generating hypotheses, and making meaning from information and experiences. Bruner’s theories emphasize the significance of categorization in learning. “To perceive is to categorize, to conceptualize is to categorize, to learn is to form categories, to make decisions is to categorize.” Interpreting information and experiences by similarities and differences is a key concept.

Bruner was influenced by Piaget’s ideas about cognitive development in children. During the 1940’s his early work focused on the impact of needs, motivations, & expectations (“mental sets”) and their influence on perception. He also looked at the role of strategies in the process of human categorization, and development of human cognition. He presented the point of view that children are active problem-solvers and capable of exploring “difficult subjects”. This was widely divergent from the dominant views in education at the time, but found an audience.


Four Key Themes Emerged in Bruner’s Early Work

Bruner emphasized the role of structure in learning and how it may be made central in teaching. Structure refers to relationships among factual elements and techniques.

He introduced the ideas of “readiness for learning” and spiral curriculum. Bruner believed that any subject could be taught at any stage of development in a way that fit the child’s cognitive abilities. Spiral curriculum refers to the idea of revisiting basic ideas over and over, building upon them and elaborating to the level of full understanding and mastery. It proposes that when structuring a course, it should be organised in a simple-to-complex, general-to-detailed, abstract-to-concrete manner. Another principle is that one should follow learning prerequisite sequence; it is applied to individual chapters within a course.  In order for a student to develop from simple to more complex chapters, certain prerequisite knowledge and skills must first be mastered.  This prerequisite sequencing provides linkages between each chapter as student spirals upwards in a course of a study.  As new knowledge and skills are introduced in subsequent chapters, they reinforce what is already learnt and become related to previously learned information.  What the student gradually achieves is a rich breadth and depth of information that is not normally developed in curricula where each topic is discrete and disconnected from each other. Bruner believed that intuitive and analytical thinking should both be encouraged and rewarded. He believed the intuitive skills were under-emphasized and he reflected on the ability of experts in every field to make intuitive leaps.


He investigated motivation for learning. He felt that ideally, interest in the subject matter is the best stimulus for learning. Bruner did not like external competitive goals such as grades or class ranking.

Eventually Bruner was strongly influenced by Vygotsky’s writings and began to turn away from the intrapersonal focus he had had for learning, and began to adopt a social and political view of learning. Bruner argued that aspects of cognitive performance are facilitated by language. He stressed the importance of the social setting in the acquisition of language. His views are similar to those of Piaget, but he places more emphasis on the social influences on development. The earliest social setting is the mother-child dyad, where children work out the meanings of utterances to which they are repeatedly exposed. Bruner identified several important social devices including joint attention, mutual gaze, and turn taking.  Bruner also incorporated Darwinian thinking into his basic assumptions about learning. He believed it was necessary to refer to human culture and primate evolution in order to understand growth and development. He did, however, believe there were individual differences and that no standard sequence could be found for all learners. He considered instruction as an effort to assist or shape growth. In 1996 he published a book called “The Culture of Education”. This book reflected his changes in viewpoints since the 1960’s. He adopted the point of view that culture shapes the mind and provides the raw material with which we constrict our world and our self-conception.


Four Features of Bruner’s Theory of Instruction

Predisposition to learn: This feature specifically states the experiences, which move the learner toward a love of learning in general, or of learning something in particular. Motivational, cultural, and personal factors contribute to this. Bruner emphasized social factors and early teachers and parents’ influence on this. He believed learning and problem solving emerged out of exploration. Part of the task of a teacher is to maintain and direct a child’s spontaneous explorations.

Structure of knowledge: It is possible to structure knowledge in a way that enables the learner to most readily grasp the information. This is a relative feature, as there are many ways to structure a body of knowledge and many preferences among learners. Bruner offered considerable detail about structuring knowledge. Understanding the fundamental structure of a subject makes it more comprehensible. Bruner viewed categorization as a fundamental process in the structuring of knowledge. (See the section below on categorization.) Details are better retained when placed within the contest of an ordered and structured pattern. To generate knowledge, which is transferable to other contexts, fundamental principles or patterns are best suited. The discrepancy between beginning and advanced knowledge in a subject area is diminished when instruction centers on a structure and principles of orientation. This means that a body of knowledge must be simple enough for the learner to understand it and it must be in a form recognizable to the student’s experience.

Modes of representation: visual, words, symbols.

Effective sequencing: No one sequencing will fit every learner, but in general, increasing difficulty. Sequencing, or lack of it, can make learning easier or more difficult. Bruner gave much attention to categorization of information in the construction of internal cognitive maps. He believed that perception, conceptualization, learning, decision-making, and making inferences all involved categorization. Bruner suggested a system of coding in which people form a hierarchical arrangement of related categories. Each successively higher level of categories becomes more specific, echoing Benjamin Bloom’s understanding of knowledge acquisition as well as the related idea of instructional scaffolding (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Intellectual Development: Bruner postulated three stages of intellectual development.

The first stage he termed “Enactive”, when a person learns about the world through actions on physical objects and the outcomes of these actions. The second stage is called “Iconic” where learning can be obtained through using models and pictures. The final stage is “Symbolic” in which the learner develops the capacity to think in abstract terms. Based on this three-stage notion, Bruner recommended using a combination of concrete, pictorial then symbolic activities would lead to more effective learning.




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