Jerome Bruner



  • born October 1, 1915
  • American psychologist
  • currently a senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law

Key ideas & Theories

Jerome S. Bruner believes that a “theory of development should go hand in hand with a theory of instruction” (2005, p. 227) and that the outcome of cognitive development is thinking.  By creating a well-developed and intelligent mind it has endless possibilities. Moreover, the aim of education is to create independent and self-propelled thinkers.

Bruner believes that people understand the world in 3 ways:

  1. Enactive representation: representing one’s understand through motor responses
  2. Iconic representation: using images to represent understanding
  3. Symbolic representation: using symbols (i.e. language, music notes or math notation) to represent understanding

Unlike Piaget, Bruner believes moving through these stages is not dependent upon a particular age; rather, the influence of the environment can help the learner progress through the stages, allowing for a spiral curriculum.  In order to determine which mode of representation is appropriate, one must know about the learners’ prior knowledge.

Bruner also believed that learning by discovery is a key contributor to intellectual development.  He is not suggesting going through discovery steps randomly, rather using strategies for searching and finding out information, such as formulating a hypothesis and working through problem solving.  Furthermore, Bruner believed guided practice could hinder discovery learner and rather wanted the learner’s to focus on his or her own reflection.  By reflecting on the process it allowed learners’ to really understand the steps they took towards a particular outcome.  And through Bruner’s discovery learning, Collins and Stevens formed their model of inquiry of teaching.  This model has 2 goals:

  1. students derive a particular concept, rule or principle that the teacher has in mind
  2. students derive general rules or theories; learn the conduct of inquiry

Collins and Stevens use four parts to control the structure:

  1. strategies for selecting cases (i.e. illustrate more important factors, move from concrete to abstract, and more frequent cases)
  2. a student model (ask questions to discover what students know and what the gaps are)
  3. a teacher’s agenda (top level goal, all sub goals are necessary)
  4. priority rules for adding sub goals (correct errors before submission, correct prior steps to next steps, implement short fixes, deal with more important factors)

Moreover, it is important to understand how skills are influenced by culture, giving the teacher a better understanding.  Bruner suggests that cross-cultural differences appear, especially with the two cognitive cultures (narrative thinking and logical scientific thinking).

Overall, Bruner suggests that with a theory of instruction that brings together the “nature of knowledge, the nature of the knower, and the nature of the knowledge-getting process”, you can develop independent and self-propelled learners.

Bruner’s Red Spade Experiment:

A classic psychological experiment performed by Bruner and Leo Postman showed slower reaction times and less accurate answers when a deck of playing cards reversed the color of the suit symbol for some cards (e.g. red spades and black hearts).
Books by Bruner

Try Bruner’s Red Spade Experiment:

Here’s a challenge. Watch and memorize the following sequence of cards and pause the playback each time the black board comes back. See if you can list the whole sequence of cards. You’ll get two more chances.

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