Annotated Bibliography: Jerome S. Bruner

The following is an annotated bibliography for research compiled on Jerome S. Bruner. All content contained herein is open source material and can be accessed for free on the web. Direct links to the sources can be found directly in the annotations themselves, and a full list of references can be found at the end of this annotated bibliography.

I have broken my research into primary and secondary sources. Section 1 is called “Others on Bruner” and contains annotations for a variety of secondary sources, mainly websites – some better and more credible than others. Section 2 is called “Bruner on Bruner” and contains annotations for books and articles written by Bruner himself.

Section 1: Others on Bruner

The article “Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education” by Mark K. Smith (2002) on the infed.org website is a great introduction to the life and work of Jerome S. Bruner. Smith begins with a short introduction outlining Bruner’s role in the field of psychology. Smith then offers a brief biography on Bruner, mainly emphasizing his education, jobs, and research. The bulk of the article chronicles Bruner’s seminal works and theories, particularly Bruner’s “landmark text” The Process of Education (1960).

Smith simplifies Bruner’s text to four main themes: the role of structure in learning (and, by extension, teaching); readiness for learning; intuition and analytical thinking; and motives for learning. Smith smartly uses Bruner’s own quotations to briefly describe each of the four themes, which helps to avoid complete oversimplification, though, overall, this article is a summary piece; it is not very analytical.

Smith ends his article with a conclusion that explains Bruner’s lasting legacy on educational psychology, including his influence on modern-day theorists like Howard Gardner. He then offers a list of suggested readings and references.

Infed (short for The Encyclopedia of Informal Education) is actually a great website and resource, especially for those interested in the connection between teaching and community/social justice/activism. This is a non-profit website provided by the YMCA George Williams College. Though most of the contributors are from the U.K., the information contained within is for any and all students and professionals involved in teaching, community activism, social work, adult education and/or youth work. The contributors to the site are all committed to the goal lifelong learning and the idea of the role of community/culture in learning (hence, this is a proper place for an article on Bruner).

The author of this article on Bruner is Mark K. Smith. According to the Infed contributor biography page, Smith is the Rank Research Fellow and Tutor at the YMCA George Williams College, London (a college linked to Canterbury Christ Church University) and has been a visiting professor in community education at the University of Strathclyde. Smith specializes in the fields of informal education, social pedagogy and community learning, and has worked as a careers officer, youth and community worker, and project coordinator. He studied economics with politics at the University of Lancaster and gained his doctorate in the philosophy of education from the University of London. Among his books are Creators not Consumers (1980, 1982), Organise! (1981), Developing Youth Work (1988), Local Education (1994), Informal Education (1996, 1999, 2005 with Tony Jeffs), The Art of Helping Others (2008, with Heather Smith), Youth Work Practice (2010, edited with Tony Jeffs) and Journeying Together (2010, edited with Alan Rogers). He writes for, and edits, infed.org and is on the editorial board of Youth and Policy.

Instructional Design, as its name suggests, is a website on instructional design. It offers ideas for best practices, assessment, testing, and professional development. It also offers brief overviews of popular learning theories. Bruner has a page under the Constructivist learning theory, which is very short and is broken into the following headings: Constructivist theory (general paragraph on Bruner’s connection to Constructivism), Application (which actually did not provide any application whatsoever; more application was offered in the opening introductory paragraph), Example (an actual example of Bruner’s learning theory), Principles (again, these were pretty much covered in the opening paragraph), References, and Related Websites.

This webpage was not nearly as thorough as the Smith article on the Infed website. However, what this page did have that Smith did not is an application of Bruner’s theories in Bruner’s own words. This webpage offers Bruner’s explanation of how children learn about prime numbers through constructivism and then how that learning transfers to learning other mathematical concepts, such as the multiplication tables. This was a useful example to provide, and it helped to contextualize the idea of constructivism and how Bruner views the act of learning.

Simply Psychology is a fairly elementary website written by a fairly elementary fellow (I write this with a British accent in mind), Saul Mcleod. Mcleod does not necessarily have the credentials to back up his website (he was just finishing his Master’s degree in 2007 when he launched the site), but he does offer a decent overview of Bruner’s theories.

Unlike the Smith article, he does not just summarize Bruner’s work; he details important and specific aspects of Bruner’s cognitive development theories. For example, he delves much more into the Modes of Representation (enactive, iconic, and symbolic), and the important role of language in cognitive development. He also includes a graphic organizer that compares and contrasts Bruner and Piaget.

The webpage itself could stand some help from an editor.

The emory.edu webpage is just Bruner quotations, mainly from his book The Culture of Education (1996) and Acts of Meaning (1990). It’s not particularly helpful, insightful or analytical, but if a person were looking for a quick entry into Bruner’s mind, the quotations are useful in that way.

The programming and robotics course taught at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland describes itself as having a “constructivist, problem based learning approach.” To that end, the website for the course has a few links dedicated to constructivism, particularly to Bruner and Vygotsky.

The page begins with an overview of constructivism in general. It then moves on to explain Bruner’s constructivist vision. This site does not offer any new information that the other sites did not already provide, but it focuses a bit more on Bruner’s theories on learning itself than some of the other sites have thus far.

It summarizes the essential tenets of Bruner’s theories on learning and knowledge acquisition: learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based on current or past knowledge; understanding the structure of a subject is more important than memorizing basic facts; active learning is the basis for understanding; learners select and transform information, construct hypotheses, and make decisions, relying on cognitive structures to do so; learners require background preparation in the form of cognitive structures (schemas?) that provide meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to go beyond the information given.

The webpage also describes the teacher’s role in learning. The teacher’s role is to “translate” information to be learned into a format that is appropriate to the learner’s state of understanding. Teachers should engage students in Socratic dialogue. Teachers should use the “spiral curriculum” method in which teachers continue to return to previous information/ concepts. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing manipulation of information.

The reliability of this site is questionable. There is a reference section, but there is no author listed for the information on this page. Additionally, I tried to access a few of the links on this page, but the webpages could not be found, so I don’t think it’s been updated for a while. It’s also unclear who is hosting this site. It appears to be the college, but then there is another link to an NDP website, which appears to be a government site. It’s unclear what the connection is between the course and the government website. I would not advocate using this site as a credible resource.

It is no surprise that Harvard would toot its own horn that Bruner is a product of its psychology department. And, that is exactly the point of this webpage. It mainly emphasizes the work he did at Harvard, though (not stated of course) much of his later work that he values so much came after leaving Harvard (see the interview with The Guardian).

This webpage gives a very barebones overview of Bruner’s work. Other websites go into greater detail. The one aspect of this page that differs from the others is the mention of “narrative thought” and “paradigmatic thought.” Most of the other pages stopped after mentioning Bruner’s three modes of internal representation, but this site went one small step beyond that by explaining that the combination of those three modes produce two different types of thoughts:  narrative thought, which is temporally/causally sequential, focused on details and action; and paradigmatic thought, which is mental categorization by abstract, systematic similarities of unrelated phenomena.

Included on this site is a PDF document that gives a history of the Cognitive Revolution. There is a section on Bruner’s book A Study of Thinking that contains an overview of his experiments on strategies, which was a groundbreaking idea at the time. Most studies up to this point focused on subjects categorizing objects (i.e. “red square”) and being able to guess which new objects fit into that same category. Essentially, researchers were looking for right or wrong answers. Bruner, however, was more interested in how people strategized to categorize something. His researchers would inform a subject if they were right or wrong about a categorization, but they would then look at how that information (knowing that they were right or wrong) shaped future categorization behavior. For example, did the subject change their hypothesis about categorization?

The PDF also describes Bruner’s “New Look” psychology. Essentially, Bruner showed that knowledge and expectations can shape perception. This theory was shown in his experiment on subjects looking at a blurry slide that gradually came into focus and guessing what the object on the slide is. If the subject got the answer wrong (made an incorrect hypothesis) early on, they tended to persist with this way of thinking and had trouble identifying the picture even as it came into focus and became clearer.

The entry from The Encyclopedia of Psychology offers the standard background information on Bruner, but it has a bit more information on his actual experiments on experience and perception. Bruner, along with Leo Postman, conducted experiments on the relationship between experience and expectation (mental sets) and perception. The article details the experiments in the following way:

Their approach, sometimes referred to as the “New Look,” contrasted a functional perspective with the prevailing “formal” one that treated perception as a self-sufficient process to be considered separately from the world around it. When Bruner and Postman showed young children toys and plain blocks of equal height, the children, expecting toys to be larger than blocks, thought the toys were taller. The toys also seemed to increase in size when the researchers made them unavailable. In further experiments involving mental sets, the two scientists used an instrument called a tachistoscope to show their subjects brief views of playing cards, including some nonstandard cards, such as a red ace of spades. As long as the subjects were not alerted to the presence of the abnormal cards, almost none saw them.

The article also outlines his steps of cognitive development as well as the role language plays not only in representing experience but in transforming it.

“Jerome Bruner: The lesson of the story” was a really insightful and touching interview with Bruner conducted by John Crace, a feature writer for The Guardian, in 2007. While the article deals a lot with Bruner’s personal life, Crace (and Bruner, too) does a good job of connecting the personal events to Bruner’s theories on cognitive development. For example, Crace writes about the death of Bruner’s father when Bruner was just 12 years old. Bruner states that it was this event (and the way his mother dealt with it) that showed him the importance of context in communication and that the way we interact defines how we understand something. Thus, the major theme of the article is revealed: humans learn from storytelling.

The article focuses on Bruner’s career, but it begins with Bruner’s ideas on the use of narrative in learning. Bruner argues that so much of the work of psychology today is focused on neuroscience that we’ve lost sight of the important cultural aspects of learning, such as language and storytelling. Storytelling, according to Bruner, not only personalizes information (makes “the strange familiar,” he says) but also helps with transfer of knowledge. Bruner says that if learners go beyond just memorizing facts and use their imaginations to think of other possible outcomes of situations, then this will help them think about how to think about future situations (learning about learning or knowing about knowing, essentially).

Bruner also gives an interesting critique of behaviorism in this article. He addresses the idea of punishment, and states that punishment is contextual. Not everyone interprets punishment the same way; it’s what the certain action means to an individual that determines whether it’s a punishment or not. In this case, he’s giving credence to his idea of context being more relevant or comprehensive than the S-R behaviorist formula.

Keeping in line with Bruner’s thoughts on storytelling, the following, not particularly insightful, video is a good way to get a visual of Bruner and hear his voice. This video is actually about Allen, an instructor, and his SQUEAK project, but Allen’s mentor is Jerome Bruner. There are a few clips of Bruner discussing the ways that we construct meaning, mainly through storytelling (narrative or science or math).

Section 2: Bruner on Bruner

Bruner’s landmark text The Process of Education is a quick, easy read: 92 pages, not too theoretical. Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 6 are the most worthwhile. Chapters 4 and 5 spend too much time in vagaries (i.e. what is intuitive thinking and how do we foster it in learners?) and/or complaints about the current (current being 1960 – but the parallels today are uncanny) system of education (i.e. we focus too much on popularity and sports and not on academic inquiry). Neither chapter really offers any concrete information, data, or solutions.

Chapter 1 – Introduction – focuses mainly on the issue of specific skills versus general understanding as the means for growing knowledge for future use, which, to Bruner, is the primary objective of learning. He states that the American education system spends too much time on specific skills and correct answers and not enough time on building general understanding, or “structure,” as he terms it. He explains that “transfer” is one of the biggest learning problems, and it is only through developing the understanding of a subject’s “structure” in a learner that a learner can hope to transfer that knowledge to future use. To understand the structure of a subject is to understand it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully. Bruner believes that whether the student knows the names of formal operations in any subject is less important for transfer than whether he/she is able to use those operations. Unlike Piaget, Bruner feels that the foundations of any subject can be taught in some form to a learner of any age. He feels that educators are wasting too much time waiting for students to be “ready” to learn important subjects, like physics or geometry, on the grounds that these topics are too difficult. In order for learners to develop a deep understanding of a subject, learners need to learn and use these subjects early, often, and in progressively more complex forms. Bruner, therefore, advocates the “spiral curriculum,” which involves the continued return to basic principles of a subject as the teacher leads students through more progressively complex variations of that subject.

Chapter 2 – The Importance of Structure – focuses on the definition of structure, learning, and how to focus on structure when teaching. He begins by explaining the two ways in which learning helps us in the future: specific transfer of training through skills (i.e. hammering a nail), habits, or associations; and nonspecific transfer of principles and attitudes, a general idea which can be used as a basis for understanding subsequent problems as special cases of the idea originally mastered. The first transfer is, as its name suggests, limited to the transfer only of specific skills. The second transfer is, in Bruner’s estimation, the heart of the educational process. However, it is also the skill most neglected in teaching and learning. Learning general structure is the foundation of that second more important kind of future use. Additionally, learning this general structure makes learners excited about discovery, which creates a sense of self-confidence and establishes intuitive thought and hunches. Bruner explains the benefits of teaching: first, understanding the fundamentals of a subject (i.e. themes, large ideas, concepts) makes it more comprehensible to learners. Second, knowing formulas and simplistic detailed material makes the information easier for storage in long term memory. Third, learning these fundamentals and simplified representations (“knowing the more specific instance of a general case”) appears to be the best way to achieve transfer of knowledge.

Chapter 3 – Readiness for Learning – focuses on when and how to teach children certain subjects. In Bruner’s estimation, children – at all stages of development – have a way of viewing the world and explaining it to themselves. A teacher’s role is to then “translate” a subject into a form that represents the structure of that subject in terms of the child’s way of viewing things. For Bruner, learning a subject involves three processes: acquisition of new information – often information that counters or replaces previous or current knowledge; transformation – the process of manipulating knowledge to make it fit new tasks; evaluation – the process of checking whether the way we have manipulated information is adequate to the task. In learning, there are usually, what Bruner calls “learning episodes,” that involve all three processes. When we focus on teaching students, the episodes are what should be altered, not the subject matter. Therefore, it is possible to teach a third graded Euclidean geometry, but the learning episode would have to be altered to fit the stage that third grade learners are in. In this chapter, Bruner also goes into more detail on the “spiral curriculum” as a way of teaching a subject’s fundamentals early in a learner’s schooling and then circling back to those general principles throughout the rest of the learner’s curriculum through high school graduation.

Chapter 4 – Intuitive and Analytical Thinking – focuses on the need to encourage learners to develop and use intuition – in balance with using analytical thinking as a “check” – as a means for problem solving. This chapter was not as clear as the others because it doesn’t seem that Bruner can really define intuitive thinking all that well, except for the very basic way that we all understand what intuition means (as in, the dictionary definition of it). There’s really no research on it at the time of this book’s publication, so there’s no way to study its validity. Essentially, he wants teachers to encourage students to take educated guesses and not simply reward right answers and punish wrong ones. There really isn’t much in this chapter that can be applied to actual teaching.

Chapter 5 – Motives for Learning- is yet another chapter that is a “missed opportunity” as far as I’m concerned. The chapter does mention the idea of fostering a sense of discovery in learners and encouraging the idea of learning for learning’s sake. But, most of the chapter is simply Bruner complaining about the current educational system and its focus on popularity and sports and competition (right answers) as opposed to encouraging students to want to be learners.

Chapter 6 – Aids to Teaching – is a chapter that will seem completely irrelevant now in the 21st century with all of our awesome technology, but Bruner does a good job of explaining how to use instructional aids appropriately. The reader will have to replace “educational films” with Youtube and “learning machines” with software programs, but the gist of using these aids in the classroom is the same.

Though the full text e-book version of Bruner’s 1956 work A Study of Thinking is not available, there is just enough of the preface and introduction to get at least a basic understanding of some of his major ideas about learning, particularly about categorization.

As shown in Bruner’s later work The Process of Education, Bruner believes that the function of learning is “future use.” The way that we enable that function is through categorization. Categorization serves an adaptive/evolutionary purpose in that we would never be able to survive if we had to remember every individual nuance of the world around us. Therefore, categorizing reduces the complexity of the world around us. It is also the means by which we identify objects in the world. It provides direction for instrumental activity; meaning, because of categories, we know in advance what the appropriate or inappropriate action is to be taken in a situation.

Bruner classifies categorization in two ways: identity categorization and equivalence categorization. He focuses much more on the latter because equivalence deals with how we determine what makes something similar (rather than looking at the similar criteria and then giving it an “identity”). Bruner believes that we determine equivalence in three types of ways: affective, functional, and formal. Essentially, we categorize something based on how we feel about it, what we can do with it, and what it is. Formal categories are basically the “highest-order” categorizations.

It’s important to look at equivalence because it tells us a lot about ourselves. Obviously, it explains how knowledge changes and grows. But, it also explains the important role of culture and experience. Bruner argues that the process of categorization is pretty much universal, but people in different cultures have different ways of categorizing information, so to observe the way a learner categorizes information is to learn about their culture and past experiences.

Categorization also shows the way that the individual interacts with the world and constructs his/her own meaning. The number of ways something can be categorized is dependent on the organism. The organism selects and abstracts differently from one situation to the next. The organism is responsible for coding and recoding (active role) information rather than being the passive recipient of information from the environment.

“The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving” (Wood,  Bruner, Ross 1976) explains the role of the “expert” (tutor) in helping learners acquire skills/knowledge that will help them later to meet new, more complex challenges. To do this, learners must develop strategies or discover the means to an end. The role of the tutor, then, is to provide a “scaffold” that helps students move upwards toward more complex thinking. “Scaffolding” is a way for children to learn something that is just outside the reach of their capabilities by way of the tutor controlling the more difficult aspects of a task so that the learner can focus on the  aspects of a task he/she is competent at, thus leading the learner to a successful completion of the task.

The process of scaffolding is described in the following way: recruitment (getting the learners interested and focused on the task); reduction in degrees of freedom (simplifying the task by reducing the number of constituent acts required to reach the solution); direction maintenance (keeping learners focused on the pursuit of a particular objective and making the task worthwhile – setting learners up for success); marking critical features (point out the features of a task that are relevant); frustration control (being supportive, but not so much as to cause dependency); and demonstration (modeling or idealizing a task).

More, Bruner discusses the need for the learner to comprehend the solution before beginning the procedure in order for assistance to actually work. Essentially, the learner must understand what the outcome is before getting help with it or trying to achieve it on their own. This underscores his overarching idea that learners need to focus more on the general rather than the specific.

In ”Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception” (1947), Bruner explains that the research on perception has been limited in as much as it has neglected the role of need – or social influence – on perception. This article details his experiment on perception using a group of children and how they perceive the size of coins. From the research, he shows that poor children overestimate the size of coins more than rich children. He surmises that the poor children’s “need” for money inflates the actual perception of the coins presented to them. While the article is a bit heavy in terms of information, data, and theory, the idea that perception is affected by experience comes through clearly.

Similar to the previous article, “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm” (1949) aims to discuss perception. The experiments contained herein, though, focus on the ways that expectations affect perception. Bruner’s hypothesis essentially is that organisms have a difficult time perceiving things that do not fit into their expectations in that case. For this experiment, Bruner used playing cards with some of the colors and suits rearranged (i.e. red spades and black hearts). Subjects were asked to identify the suit as the cards were flipped through in front of them at variable speeds. Essentially, subjects had a more difficult time correctly identifying the “incongruous” cards, especially if the incongruous card followed a “normal” playing card. However, once the incongruity came to the attention of the subject, the subject could more correctly identify the incongruous cards. The conclusion is that the previous experience with playing cards (that hearts are red, never black; and spades are black, never red) shapes the perception of playing cards in general. Additionally, the experiment shows that organisms tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit into their established expectations. It is only over time, through a lack of confirmation of those perceptions, that the organism changes their perception and expectations. It seems to me that this is akin to the idea of assimilation and accommodation.

To see Bruner’s card experiment in pop culture, check out this video:

References

 About the department. Jerome S. Bruner (1915- ). (2007). Retrieved from  http://www.isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k3007&pageid=icb.page19708&pageContentId=icb.pagecontent44003&view=view.do&viewParam_name=bruner.html.

Bruner, J. and Goodman, C. (1947). Value and need as organizing factors in perception. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 42. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bruner/Value/.

Bruner, J. and Postman, L. (1949). On the perception of incongruity: A paradigm. Journal of personality, 18. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bruner/Cards/.

Bruner, J. (n.d.). The process of education. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&rlz=&q=The+Process+of+Education+full+text&btnG=Google+Search#q=%22The+Process+of+Education%22+and+Bruner+and+full+text&hl=en&prmd=imvns&ei=7yDrT_52g7XoAcjnie8F&start=10&sa=N&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=86fa095157477f71&biw=1366&bih=535.

Bruner, J. (n.d.). A study of thinking. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=xDZlQgt-xa0C&oi=fnd&pg=PR10&dq=New+Look+and+Bruner&ots=voA7LETVcp&sig=ciaYFj_SCm9VHPXeJQg80ipFdsw#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Bruner, Jerome S. (1915- ). (2001). In Encyclopedia of Psychology. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2699/is_0000/ai_2699000048/.

Constructivism: constructivist theory and social development theory. (2002). Retrieved from https://www.scss.tcd.ie/disciplines/information_systems/crite/crite_web/lpr/teaching/constructivism.html

Crace, J. (March 2007). Jerome Bruner: the lesson of the story. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/mar/27/academicexperts.highereducationprofile.

Culatta, R. (2012). Constructivist theory (Jerome Bruner). Retrieved from http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/constructivist.html.

Jerome Bruner. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2H_swMUlOg.

Mcleod, S. A. (2007). Simply psychology, psychology articles for A-level and degree students. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/.

Red spades. (n.d.). In Interstate 60. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QssVSQETjmU&feature=related.

Smith, M.K. (2002). Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm.

Some thoughts from Jerome Bruner. Passages from The Culture of Education and a few from Acts of Meaning. (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.des.emory.edu /mfp/brunerculture.html.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., and Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of child psychology, 17. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1976.tb00381.x/pdf.

4 Responses to Annotated Bibliography: Jerome S. Bruner

  1. Thanks! Big fan of Bruner. Never heard of that movie before, great clip! Also enjoyed browsing your summaries.

  2. dpal says:

    this is a great resource I stumbbled upon while writing a research paper on concept mapping…well done!

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