From Spades to Spirals: Jerome S. Bruner and Constructivism
Insofar as we have idealized the thinker, it has been in the form of celebrating arcane wizardry as in the case of Einstein…or of rewarding the practical accomplishments that have followed thought. Thomas Edison was our conception of the American scientist as engineer. The writer, the poet, and the savant have not been folk figures in America, have not stimulated legends.
– Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (1960, p.74)
It is now fairly common knowledge that our experiences shape the way that we perceive the world around us. However, at one time, this was not the accepted view. Jerome S. Bruner first explored this idea in the 1940’s, but it was his later work, stemming from this initial research on perception, that most affected learning theory, educational psychology, and curriculum development for decades in America. While other learning theories may have more data or neuroscience to back up their hypotheses, Bruner’s ideas make more theoretical sense because they focus on the interconnectedness of learning, experience, environment, culture, and perception. Because his theories are more general, abstract, and strategically-based, they serve as a better springboard for understanding knowledge acquisition as a whole, as well as transfer of knowledge, which is one of the primary goals of both learning for students and teaching for instructors.
Bruner’s career in psychology began with his research on perception. According to Smith (2002), “Jerome Bruner, along with Leo Postman, worked on the ways in which needs, motivations, and expectations (or ‘mental sets’) influence perception.” Bruner’s research on perception has been documented most notably in two influential experiments from the 1940’s. First, in ”Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception” (1947), Bruner explained that research on perception was limited in as much as it had neglected the role of need – or social influence – on perception. His experiment focused on perception using a group of children and how they perceived the size of coins. From the research, he showed that poor children tended to overestimate the size of coins more than rich children did. He surmised that the poor children’s “need” for money inflated the actual perception of the size of the coins presented to them.
Next, “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm” (1949) focused on the ways that expectations affected perception. Bruner’s claim was that organisms have a difficult time perceiving things that do not fit into their expectations of that particular situation. For this experiment, Bruner used decks of playing cards with some of the colors and suits rearranged (e.g. 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 was that the previous experience with playing cards (i.e. that hearts are red, never black; and spades are black, never red) shaped the perception of playing cards in general. Additionally, the experiment showed that organisms tended to reject anything that did not fit into their established expectations. It is only over time, through a lack of confirmation of those perceptions, that the organism changed their perception and expectations. The video below, a clip from the movie Interstate 60, shows a variation of the “red spade” experiment and its implications:
Bruner’s work on perception led to his work on categorization (to be discussed at length later) and, eventually, to his title as the father of cognitive psychology. However, toward the 1960’s, Bruner moved away from cognitive psychology to address child development, which ultimately gave way to his research on socio-cultural theory, learning, and curriculum design. While he may have started the cognitive psychology movement, Bruner has been most noted for his work in Constructivism, which is the idea that organisms actively construct their own knowledge and understanding of the world around them.
Like many Constructivists, Bruner was reacting to Behaviorism, which defined human knowledge as responses to stimuli. In an interview with The Guardian, Bruner explained that the Behavioral theory of learning was inadequate because it focused too much on reward and punishment with its simplistic S-R formula. Keeping in line with his previous research on perception and experience, Bruner believed that punishment was a perception and, therefore, contextual: not everyone interprets punishment the same way; it is a certain action’s meaning to the individual that determines whether it is a punishment or not (Crace 2007).
Bruner was also reacting against the popular child development theories of Jean Piaget, though Bruner did adopt some Piaget-ian principles into his own work. While Piaget argued that cognitive development occurs through four sequential stages and that children can only learn certain concepts within the confines of those stages, Bruner believed that learning could happen at any age or stage depending on the mode of instruction, and the mode of instruction would depend on where the child is in terms of their “stage” of mental representation of information.
Like Piaget, Bruner believed that children stored and processed information in different ways, or stages, as they developed. The Modes of Representation, as Bruner termed them, illustrated the three ways that children view or process information. Enactive Representation (0-1 years) happens first and is an action-based encoding of information. For example, an infant whose has lost its rattle it might shake its fist in the same manner as it would shake the actual rattle to represent the idea of wanting that rattle. Iconic Representation (1-6 years) is an image-based representation in which children can store information as images in their minds. Symbolic Representation (7+ years) is the last stage of cognitive development when children can finally store information as symbols, most notably language (Mcleod 2007).
Unlike Piaget, however, Bruner viewed these representations as somewhat sequential but definitely fluid. Meaning, all humans, regardless of age, store or represent information in these different ways throughout their lifetime. For example, if a person was asked to describe “typing,” most people would not do it with verbal language; he/she would probably use a typing motion (i.e. enactive representation of moving fingers up and down in the air to mimic the act of typing on a keyboard) to explain what typing is, regardless of age or ability to use more advanced representations (Mcleod 2007). The fact that humans use all three of these stages in various situations throughout their lifespan showed that strategy, not product or outcome, is one of the primary marks of cognitive development.
In order to strategize, humans need to, first, classify information. Therefore, much of Bruner’s theories about learning developed from his theories on categorization, which he believed to be one of the most elementary and general cognitive functions. In A Study of Thinking, originally published in 1956, Bruner defined categorization as “[rendering] discriminably different things equivalent, to group the objects and events and people around us into classes, and to respond to them in terms of their class membership rather than their uniqueness” (Bruner, n.d., p.1). He went on to say that “Once [something is] categorized, it can be used without future learning” (Bruner, n.d., p.2).
Bruner classified categorization in two ways: identity categorization and equivalence categorization. He focused mainly on the latter because equivalence categorization explains how (i.e. strategy) organisms determine what makes things similar (i.e. looking at the general to understand the specific), rather than looking at the similar specific criteria and then giving that an “identity” (i.e. looking at the specific to understand the general). Bruner believed that organisms determine equivalence in three types of ways: affective, functional, and formal. Essentially, organisms categorize something based on how they feel about it, what they can do with it, and what it is. Formal categories are the “highest-order” categorizations because they are the most general and abstract (Bruner, n.d.).
Bruner’s theory on equivalence was important because it explained, first, how knowledge changes and grows. It also explained the important role of culture and experience. Bruner argued that the process of categorization is pretty much universal, but people in different cultures have different ways of categorizing information. Therefore, to observe the way a learner categorizes information was to learn about their culture and past experiences.
Categorization also showed 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; therefore, the organism is responsible for coding and recoding (active role) information rather than being the passive recipient of information from the environment (Bruner, n.d.).
Essentially, for Bruner, categorization is learning; thus, the role of categorization cannot be separated from learning theory. For Bruner, the whole purpose of learning was transfer, or “future use,” as he sometimes called it (Bruner, 1960, p.17), and the best way to establish future use was through equivalence categorizations. If children bring their past experiences to the table, the way they categorize information will be different. But, what will remain the same is that they will categorize information. For these reasons, he believed that people learn best when they are learning “structures” (general knowledge), as opposed to specific skills, because “[f]or a person to be able to recognize the applicability or inapplicability of an idea to a new situation and to broaden learning, he must have the general nature of the phenomenon with which he is dealing” (Bruner, 1960, p.17).
To Bruner, learning general structure gave learners greater capacity to categorize, to make connections across categories, and, from that, to understand the specifics of a subject, thereby allowing them to apply or transfer knowledge. Therefore, to Bruner, knowledge growth was not necessarily the acquisition of facts, details, or specific skills; instead, it was the application of general structures to more specific and complex tasks as a learner moves through life. Like his Russian counterpart Lev Vygotsky, Bruner was more concerned with strategy (i.e. how someone learns) than with product (i.e. producing right or wrong answers).
This social and evolutionary need to categorize might explain why Bruner viewed humans, especially children, as discoverers or scientists. The idea that children want to make sense of and master the world around them, which categorization proved, showed that children want to learn. Bruner’s problem was that instructors waste time waiting for students to be “ready” to learn and, while doing so, focus only on the minutiae of a subject rather than the general principles of learning, thus stunting any sense of discovery or interest within the child.
Hence, Bruner’s learning theories quickly developed into teaching/curriculum theories that have had many valuable educational implications. In The Process of Education (1960), Bruner explained that learning a subject involves three processes: acquisition of new information, often information that counters or replaces previous or current knowledge; transformation, or the process of manipulating knowledge to make it fit new tasks; and evaluation, or the process of checking whether the way we have manipulated information is adequate to the task (p.48). Lessons, or “learning episodes” as Bruner called them, tend to involve all three processes. When teaching students, the learning episodes are what should be altered, not the subject matter itself. Therefore, to Bruner, it is possible to teach a third-grader Euclidean geometry, but the learning episode would have to be modified to fit the third grader’s stage of cognitive development (p. 49-52). Because children – at all stages of development – have their own way of viewing the world and explaining it to themselves, a teacher’s role, therefore, is to “translate” a subject into a form that represents the structure of that subject in terms of the child’s stage of development.
Additionally, Bruner advocated the “spiral curriculum.” This process involves teaching a subject’s fundamentals or general concepts early in a learner’s education and then circling back to those principles while increasing the complexity of the subject matter. This type of curriculum would have to be standardized, as it would begin in the early years of schooling and continue through high school graduation (Bruner, 1960, p.52-54).
In “The role of tutoring in problem solving” (1976), Bruner also mentioned the idea of scaffolding. In this case, the role of the tutor (or instructor) 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. Bruner described the process of scaffolding in the following steps: recruitment, or getting the learners interested and focused on the task; reduction in degrees of freedom, or simplifying the task by reducing the number of constituent acts required to reach the solution; direction maintenance, or keeping learners focused on the pursuit of a particular objective and making the task worthwhile (i.e. setting learners up for success); marking critical features, or pointing out the features of a task that are relevant; frustration control, or being supportive, but not so much as to cause dependency; and demonstration, or modeling or idealizing a task (p. 98).
Spiraling back (pun intended) to Bruner’s theory on experience and culture shaping perception, the educational ramifications are significant here as well. Poor or sub-par educational experiences might affect students’ perceptions on learning in general. For example, constant “kill and drill” might make students focus on the “right and wrong” of a situation instead of on the process or strategy needed to address a situation. Competition (i.e. class rank, college application process) and grading in general might stunt students’ sense of discovery and make students disinterested in learning for learning’s sake as opposed to learning for reward. Constant lecturing might establish the perception that learning is something GIVEN instead of something acquired personally through experience and discovery. Standardized tests may create the perception that there is only one right answer when, in most situations, many are possible.
While Bruner’s work, and Constructivism in general, has played a significant role in pedagogical theory and instructional design, his theories are not without limitations. One weakness is Bruner’s ideas on interest or motivation. He believed that using the general structure teaching method, as well as the “spiral curriculum,” would inspire discovery and interest in learning within students (Bruner, 1960, p. 31). However, there are some problems with this idea. First, on a logistical level, he provided no data to support this claim; and, second, on a philosophical level, it seems as though, in his estimation, the onus for inspiring that interest falls solely on the instructor with the construction of the “learning episodes” and the “spiral curriculum.” No other external or internal factors were explored in great depth in his discussion of motivation, and for a theorist who specialized in the way that the environment affects people’s experiences, his short-sightedness on this issue is problematic.
Motivation is a highly controversial subject, under constant debate for whether or not it can be extrinsically influenced at all; therefore, it is questionable how much a student’s interest in learning can be modified solely by the instructor or curriculum if and when other internal or external influences come into play that may be more influential than what occurs in the classroom. Bruner acknowledged some of these factors when he called for a change of perspective on education in the school systems, such as proposing a decreased emphasis on sports, competition/grading, and popularity (Bruner, 1960, p.70-71; 74; 77), but, nonetheless, he failed to address the influence of popular culture/ media and even family values on a child, all of which can have tremendous influences on the way that students perceive the value of education. What if a child comes from an uneducated or undereducated family that does not know how to properly articulate or foster educational values or, worse, devalues education altogether? What if a child continuously watches movies and TV shows that portray educated people as “dorky” or “elitist” or, even more disturbing, celebrates (and pays handsomely) the uneducated moron (Jersey Shore, anyone?)? If experience truly shapes perception, and perception of learning shapes students’ interest in it, then external influences beyond just the classroom and curriculum should be explored with equal attention.
A second “gap” in Bruner’s work is his ideas on intuitive thinking. In The Process of Education (1960), Bruner dedicated a whole chapter (Chapter 4) to intuitive thinking because intuitive thinking is what experts do and, therefore, should be encouraged with learners of any age. Bruner felt that experts may use analytical thinking to prove or test a hypothesis, but the intuitive thought is the impetus for the hypothetical process; the analytical thinking is what backs it up. Again, Bruner returned to the idea of general structure here as the means by which students can develop broad knowledge and strategies, which will lead to an increase in intuitive thinking. The problem is that while there may be a basic definition for intuition, it is very difficult to observe, study, or teach. Bruner could not really prove that learning general structure would lead to an increase in intuitive thinking either or what an increase in intuitive thinking would actually look like. How would one set up an experiment that shows a learner using more intuitive thought to solve a problem, or how learning general structure inspired that intuitive thinking? Just like his views on general structure and motivation, Bruner’s ideas on intuition look good on paper, but they are generally idealistic without much weight to back them up.
As alluded to above, the biggest problem with Constructivists like Vygotsky and Bruner is that while their theories make perfect, for lack of a better word, theoretical sense, they really don’t have “accepted” research/data to back them up, which may call their predictive adequacy into question since their research may be not quantifiable or reproducible. Bruner had plenty of experiments on perception but lacked data to support his claims about learning and transfer, mainly because his theories on learning and transfer dealt more with strategy and categorization than with specific and concrete acquired information or skill. Not to say that he did not have experiments, but he suffered from the same problem as Vygotsky in that he conducted experiments in alternative ways that bucked the conventions of the time, thereby limiting the provability of his work. Like Vygotsky, Bruner felt that researchers could observe people’s behavior in short time frames and basically make assumptions about how they will behave in the future based on those observations if the right conditions are set within that experiment (i.e. making a task more difficult for learners, or providing them with alternate routes to a solution). He said as much and used this approach in his research on tutors (Wood, Bruner, and Ross, 1976, p.91), in which he was more concerned with how students strategized to solve a problem with the aid of a tutor than whether or not the students correctly or incorrectly completed the task. Along the same lines, Bruner also did not have evidence to support his learning theory in terms of neuroscience. But, since Bruner is more of a socio-cultural theorist, it could be assumed that he was not really all that concerned with whether or not brain science supported his theories.
The fact of the matter is that no single theory can best explain learning in full. Learning theory, like learning itself, is multifaceted. However, if the goal of creating a learning theory is to understand how people learn so that we can teach them, then the theory should reflect the practice and vice versa. Jerome S. Bruner’s work in cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and cultural psychology, like the organisms he describes in his theories, did just that: categorize information and make connections across those categorizations. One can see in his theories the influences and intersections of the constructivists, schema theorists, information processing theorists, and – even though he dismissed them – the behaviorists. Because his theories are of a more general structure – broader, more abstract, less specific – they offer greater opportunity, especially for instructors, for application and future use, which, as Bruner pointed out, is truly the ultimate goal of learning.
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.
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.
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.
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.