Jerome Bruner

A Web Overview

By David Hollyman

Student Id: 89119286

Massey University


1.        Jerome Bruner

2.        Brunerís work on Cognition and Constructivism

3.        Implications and Applications of Brunerís Theories

4.        Publications




Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner was born in New York in 1915.At the age of 2 he underwent operations to correct vision impaired due to cataracts.His father died when Jerome was 12, after which the family moved frequently and Jerome had an education interrupted by frequent changes of school.Despite this, Brunerís grades were good enough to enter Duke University in Durham, NC where he obtained a B.A. in 1937 followed by a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1941.


Bruner was Professor of Psychology at Harvard (1952-1972) and Watts Professor at Oxford (1972-1980), and has spent time at the New York University School of Law and the New School for Social Research in New York City.


For the past 45 years Bruner has been a leader in the establishment of cognitive psychology as an alternative to the behaviourist theories that dominated psychology in the first half of the 20th century.

Brunerís cognitive approach to his work in childhood learning and perception has made him a key figure in educational reform in the United States and Britain.


Bruner served on the Presidentís Science Advisory Committee during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies and has received many awards and honours, including the International Balzan Prize (for his ďlifelong contribution to the understanding of the human mindĒ), the CIBA Gold Medal for Distinguished Research and the Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association.


Bruner is currently Research Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Fellow in Law at New York University.Over the past 40 years he has published many books, including The Process of Education (1960), Acts of Meaning (1991) and The Culture of Education (1996).


Brunerís Work on Cognition and Constructivism

Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner demonstrated how thought processes could be subdivided into three distinct modes of reasoning.While Piaget related each mode to a specific period of childhood development, Bruner saw each mode as dominant during each developmental phase, but present and accessible throughout.Brunerís model of human development as a combination of enactive skills (manipulating objects, spatial awareness), iconic skills (visual recognition, the ability to compare and contrast) and symbolic skills (abstract reasoning) has influenced psychological and educational thought over the past 50 years.


Brunerís work came at a time when psychological thought was dominated by behaviourism, which was popular because a measurable response could be observed to a defined stimulus.This satisfied the need for scientific rigour, but explained learning without accounting for mental processes that were assumed to be not measurable.Bruner was able to apply a similar scientific rigour to unobservable mental processes.Bruner was instrumental in the move from behaviourism to cognitivism in 1950s and 1960s mainstream psychology.An important work in the early days of the cognitive movement was A Study in Thinking which Bruner published in 1956 with Jacqueline Goodnow and George Austin, and where they defined cognitive processes as ďthe means whereby organisms achieve, retain and transform information.Ē


Bruner suggested that people remember things ďwith a view towards meaning and signification, not toward the end of somehow Ďpreservingí the facts themselves.Ē This view of knowledge Ė and memory Ė as a constructed entity is consistent with constructivism, with which Bruner is also closely associated.


A constant theme in Brunerís work is that education is a process of discovery.As a structural theorist, Bruner believes that information or knowledge is most effectively gained by personal discovery, and then classified enactively, iconically or symbolically.Bruner advocated that if students were allowed to pursue concepts on their own they would gain a better understanding.Within the education system, a teacher would then engage students in active dialogue and guide them when necessary so that students would progressively build their own knowledge base, rather than be Ďtaughtí.New information would be classified and understood based on knowledge already gained.


Implications and Applications of Brunerís Theories

Brunerís theory of how children construct knowledge involves three basic modes of instruction.

In their very early years, young children rely extensively upon enactive modes to learn.As a child learns to roll over, sit up or walk, they are learning to do so through their own actions.While this mode is present in people of all ages it is more dominant when a person is young.An example of this dominance is the way a young person can often learn to play a musical instrument more quickly than an older person.

Iconic representation normally becomes dominant during the next stage of childhood years.Children learn to understand what pictures and diagrams are and how to do arithmetic using numbers and without counting objects.

Later Ė usually around adolescence - the symbolic mode of learning becomes most dominant.Students can understand and work with concepts that are abstract.

According to Bruner, developmental growth involves mastering each of the increasingly more complex modes - enactive to iconic to symbolic.Mastering this incorporates becoming more skilled in translating between each mode.An example of this sort of translation could be a discussion (symbolic mode) of what students had learned from an experiment (iconic mode).

An implication of Brunerís developmental theories is that children should be provided with study materials, activities, and tools that are matched to and capitalise on their developing cognitive capabilities.For example, a teacher wanting to help children learn about dinosaurs could use all three modes.Students could be asked to construct models of dinosaurs (enactive); they might watch a film about, or involving, dinosaurs (iconic); or they could consult reference texts and then discuss their findings (symbolic).

The influence of Brunerís work extends beyond psychology and education.Brunerís work influenced Xerox PARC researchers in their efforts to create graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that addressed enactive, iconic and symbolic ways users understand and manipulate the world around them.Bruner was a key member in founding and teaching the Colloquium on the Theory of Legal Practice which involves the study of how law is practised and how its practice can be understood through the use of tools developed within anthropology, psychology, linguistics and literary theory.



Bruner has been a prolific writer over his extensive career.In his NYU Faculty Bio, Bruner lists two of his more recent publications as representative of his work:


         Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1991)

         The Culture of Education (Harvard University Press, 1996)


Other publications by Bruner include:


         The Process of Education (Harvard University Press, 1960)

         Toward a Theory of Instruction (Harvard University Press, 1966)

         Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing (Norton, 1973)

         Childís Talk: Learning to Use Language (Norton, 1983)

         Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Harvard University Press, 1986)


Brunerís next work, due later this month (September 2000) and co-written with Anthony G. Amsterdam, is Minding the Law.


A list of most works by, or contributed to by, Bruner can be found at under Jerome Bruner and Jerome Seymour Bruner.


There are also a couple of older works accessible via the Web:


         Bruner, Jerome S. & Goodman, Cecile C. (1947). "Value and need as organizing factors in perception." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 42, 33-44.

         Bruner, Jerome S. & Postman, Leo. (1949). "On the perception of incongruity: A paradigm." Journal of Personality, 18, 206-223.