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MSPnet Blog: “Jerome Bruner”

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posted June 14, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

Jerome Bruner, one of the key figures in the “cognitive revolution,” died on June 6th, 100 years old. You will not get much of a feeling for Bruner’s stature from the inept NY Times obituary, but really it’s hard to convey the dimensions of Bruner’s accomplishments and a among them the contributions he made to our understanding of education as a process. Howard Gardner is quoted saying, ” “He was the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey — and there is no one like him today, ” and this comment hints at some of the dimensions of Bruner’s legacy. (See here for some personal reflections from a range of former students and younger colleagues.)

Bruner was famously diverse in his interests, starting out as a psychologist and ending as a “law professor”, but this diversity was a consequence of a powerful, inventive, and searching intellect’s engagement with the problems of  mind.  Bruner played a key role in the debates of the 1950s, through which new pathways into the black box of mental processes were devised (a retrospective account by  one of the other seminal figures, George Miller, can be read here).  Bruner and colleagues published A study of thinking, which provided evidence that rigorous laboratory methods (of the sort espoused by behaviorism), acute clinical studies (such as Piaget’s and the Geneva school’s)  could be combined with models of the learning, cognizing brain, to provide fresh insight into many mysteries of cognition, growth, and psychology.

Bruner’s work was one of many foundational contributions in a time of intellectual ferment (which included the rise of Chomsky’s generative grammar, and the convergence of fields constituting “artificial intelligence,” with names like McCarthy, Selfridge, and Minsky), as part of the intellectual movement later called the “cognitive revolution.”  Bruner (like Roman Jakobson) was in dialogue with many of the pioneers in this welter of ideas and emerging fields, but also with other streams of thought in psychology, most notably Piaget and Vygotsky.

Bruner’s interest in education crystallized in the early 1960s.  His first and perhaps most influential programmatic statement was The process of education, which argued that education could be — and ought to be — informed by the growing insights of cognitive psychology, and moreover could make its own contributions (of interesting problems and insights) to the cognitive sciences.  Bruner reflected in 1971 on one of the most challenging and productive ideas arising from this period of our educational history:

During the early sixties, in various projects, it was discovered again and again how difficult it was to get to the limit of chidren’s competence when the teaching was good… No wonder then that we concluded that any subject could be taught in some honest form to any child at any stage in his development. This did not necessarily mean that it could be taught in its final form, but it did mean that basically there was a courteous translation that could reduce ideas to a form that young students could grasp.  (from The Process of Education revisited. In  Phi Delta Kappan, 53, 1, 18-21, Sep 71)

This insight opened the door to the development of the “spiral curriculum,”  as well as many of the most experimental curriculum projects of the 1960s and 1970s, which increasingly reflected the constructivist (Piaget et al. ) and sociocultural (Vygotsky et al.) ideas which Bruner  championed.  Not all the experiments were successful, though often this had less to do with the curriculum itself than with the political/social setting within which schools operate (See Peter Dow’s Schoolhouse Politics, and Jonathan Zimmerman’s  reflection on Bruner’s legacy in The Atlantic).  My own apprenticeship in curriculum development (and much else) at TERC, in the late 1980s,  took place in a climate that was deeply imbued with this optimistic and ambitious view of curriculum.

(Pro tip:  If you want a fun way to learn a lot about cognitive psychology, education, philosophy, and a dozen other related topics, I encourage you to collect some colleagues to compare and contrast  (based on a few key texts) Bruner’s approach to education with Dewey’s.  This should keep you agreeably and growthfully busy for a few years. )

But while Bruner was in many ways a major figure in education (across the curriculum), like Dewey he himself saw education always as one part of his broader concerns (though an essential part in multiple ways), which explored mind in (situated) action (indeed, he titled his “essays in autobiography” In search of mind).

His clear and graceful style invites one to wander through his own many works more technical (e.g. Beyond the information given) to more general  (e.g. In search of mind, Actual minds, possible worlds, Acts of meaning). One of the pieces that I have found most provocative is his essay on “two modes of thought” in Actual Minds, possible worlds.  The two modes he is reflecting on are “story” versus “argument,” and he reflects widely on the ways that that these modes, deeply rooted in our organism, are experienced, and the way we act (individually and socially).  He sets out the core idea thus:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought….Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.

Bruner spent a couple of final, productive decades in a law school because, I think, he saw law as one place where these two modes of thought are both fundamental ingredients.

I encourage you to read Maria Popova’s essay on  It’s an inviting and broad-ranging entree into the mind palace of Jerome Bruner, in which to wander is to be instructed, irked,challenged, and sometimes delighted.