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Jerome Bruner was born on October 1, 1915 in New York City to Herman and Rose Bruner. Bruner was blind from cataracts birth but later gained his vision at age two after a successful operation. He received a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Psychology from Duke University in 1937. Bruner then went on to receive both his Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Psychology from Harvard University in 1939 and 1941 respectively. Bruner served on the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force researching social psychological phenomena during World War II. In 1945, Bruner returned to Harvard as a psychology professor and became involved in research relating to cognitive psychology and education psychology. During his time working at Harvard, Bruner coined the term scaffolding in the educational setting. Bruner explained that scaffolding is when the instructor provides an appropriate amount of guidance or support to help the students achieve the task. As time continues, the instructor reduces the amount of support provided to the students during instruction. Throughout his life, Bruner had written over 15 books and multiple articles are relating to psychology. Even though Bruner passed away on June 5, 2016, his impact in the educational setting will live on.
While researching the development of children, Bruner proposed three different modes of representation: enactive, iconic, and symbolic representation. Enactive representation occurs around zero to one years of age. This representation is action based and involves encoding information from doing an action and storing it in the memory; this information is more commonly known as muscle memory. Children during this stage represent past events through motor responses; an example of this could be a child shaking a rattle and hearing the noise while later shake their hand without the rattle and notice that there is no sound. While this is most noticeable in children, it is not limited to them. Many adults can perform a number of motor tasks that they would find difficult to describe using pictures or words. The next form of representation is iconic representation. Iconic representation is image-based and noticed around ages one to six years old. Information is stored visually in the form of images where mental pictures are formed in the mind. This form of representation for some is conscious while others say that they do not experience it at all. Iconic representation helps explains why when learning a new subject it is helpful to have diagrams or illustrations along with the verbal information being taught. The final form of representation is symbolic representation. This form is used from ages seven and up and is language-based. Information gained during this period is stored in the form of a code or symbols such as language. Symbolic representation is the most adaptable form of representation since actions and images have a fixed relation to what they represent. Symbols can be flexible meaning that they can be manipulated, ordered, and classified so that the user is not constrained by actions or images. Knowledge in this form of representation is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in some other form of symbol systems. Bruner’s constructivist theory suggests that in order to be effective when learning new material to follow the progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation, no matter the age of the learner. (McLeod, 2018)
Bruner went on to develop his version of how children develop intellectually by breaking it down to three stages. Active operations are the preoperational stage and happen from when children learn to speak to when they begin to learn to use symbols. Like enactive representation, children build relationships between action and experience. However children are not able to understand cause and effect. Even though children are not intellectually savvy enough to promptly provide solutions, they are able to establish what is right and wrong through trial and error. The next level of operations is concrete operations. During this time children are now in school and are still taking action. These actions are now operational, helping them gather data about the real world, and allowing them to transform and organize the information, internalize it and then use it to solve problems. Children are beginning to grasp the process of reversal; an example of this is when something made out of building bricks is dismantled, the child knows they can rebuild it. These certain set of operations are limited to the present, meaning that the child does not understand things that have not happened yet or grasp the idea of the existence of alternate possibilities. The final stage of operations is formal operations. Children are now able to use their intellect to operate based on hypothetical ideas and move beyond operating strictly based on their existing knowledge. Children can now contemplate new possibilities and relationships that can be confirmed through experiment. Since this is the final stage, children are able to explain how to solve a problem and ideas they could not grasp during either of the other two stages. When teaching children in this stage, it is important to use informal explanations that are easily understandable by the children. They must be taught using their level of logic or within their scope of knowledge. (Unknown, 2015)
After researching the process of intellectual development in children, Bruner then went to research how children learn. The beginning of the learning process starts with the acquisition of new information. Students either learn brand new information or learn a new, better way to understand something they have learned previously. The new knowledge is then manipulated to fit in new tasks and analyzed and discussed to understand the information in new and different ways. The manipulation of the knowledge is the second step known as transformation. The last part of this process is the students checking their work. They must determine if they were correct in their manipulations of the newly processed information and finally if they were correct. (Unknown, 2015)
Knowing how children learned helped lead Bruner to create what is known as the spiral curriculum. The idea behind the spiral curriculum is that even the most complex material, when presented and structured properly, can be understood by very young children. This contrasts with the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists since they believe that a child must finish one stage to move on to another before advancing to the next stage. Bruner states that the knowledge being taught should be constructed around ideas, principles, and values that are considered important and provide worth to the learner as they mature. There are three main components to the spiral curriculum. The first one is that the students revisit a topic, theme, or subject multiple times throughout their school career. The second component is that the complexity of the topic or theme increase with each revisit. The last component is that the new learning has a relationship with old learning and is put in context with the old information. (Johnston ,2012) One of the main benefits from the spiral curriculum is that the information is reinforced and solidified each time the student revisits the subject matter. Students are also encouraged to apply the knowledge they learn early on to later course objectives. The spiral curriculum also allows for a logical progression from simple ideas/concepts to more complicated ones. (Unknown, 2015)
Bruner strongly believed that the purpose of education is not to convey knowledge but to instead help aid a child’s thinking and problem-solving skills that can be transferred to a range of situations. He viewed children as active problem-solvers who are ready to explore difficult subjects while being out of tune with the dominant view in the educational setting. Bruner thought that the teaching and learning of structure should be one of the top priorities in education instead of the teaching of facts and techniques. If the students learned about structure from a young age, they would be able to prefect it as they move thru their educational career (spiral curriculum). The spiral curriculum stemmed from Bruner’s belief that schools have wasted a lot of people’s time by putting off teaching important are because they were seen as too difficult to children at a certain age. By introducing a harder concept at a younger age, students are able to build upon that concept throughout their academic career and thus would have a better grasp on the concept when compared to teaching it at a later age. Along with the spiral curriculum, Bruner has stated that intuition, while it is an essential feature of productive thinking, is being neglected in favor of teaching and reciting facts. He stated that many professionals rely on their intuition in the field but students that are not taught to use their intuition while learning will not be able to use it later in life and that could lead to many downfalls in their respected career fields. While external goals in school (grades) motivate students to learn, Bruner believed that the best incentive for learning is having interest in the material being taught. When students are interested in what is being taught, they are more likely to remember what they were taught and be able to recall and use the learned information later in life. (Smith, 2002)
Like all educational theories, there are both pros and cons with Bruner’s theory. Using the spiral curriculum to teach children certain topics is one of the advantages with Bruner’s theory. An example of a topic that could be taught with the spiral curriculum is tragedy; students are first taught this concept using myths and short stories and as they progress they are able to understand more complicated works like those from Shakespeare. Bruner’s theory differs from those like Piaget’s by being fluid in the levels structure. By this, the students do not have to ‘complete’ one stage to move onto the next, they simply add on to what they know with each level. Another pro with this educational theory is that it can be applied to anyone no matter their age, meaning there is no specific time frame in which the student/child should have completed a certain stage at. The draw backs from this theory are that Bruner himself believe that most of the time students spend at school was wasted and that students are not always going to be interested in what they are being taught. The way the schooling system is structured, where students learn about multiple subjects, should not be considered wasted time. One of the key points that Bruner kept going back to is that students should be interested in what they are learning and not learning for the sake of external rewards. If students are not taught about different topics, even those they might not be interested in, how are they supposed to know what exactly interests them. Therefor looking at time spent at school learning topics that students might not be interested in should not be looked at as a waste of time. On the other hand, since not every topic will interest all students, sometimes external goals/rewards are needed for certain students.
Johnston, & Howard. (2012, February 29). The Spiral Curriculum. Research into Practice. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED538282
McLeod, S. (2018, January 01). Bruner. Retrieved April 20, 2019, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/bruner.html
Smith, M.K. (2002) ‘Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved April 27, 2019, from http://infed.org/mobi/jerome-bruner-and-the-process-of-education/
Unknown. [Series: Adaptive Learning] Jerome Bruner & the Spiral Curriculum. (2015)
Retrieved April 27, 2019, from https://www.mheducation.ca/blog/adaptive-learning-series-jerome-bruner-the-spiral-curriculum/
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