Jerome Bruner, a key player in the US Head Start initiative, has long been in favour of educational reform. The Process of Education (1960) laid out his general views on the subject, Bruner in The Culture of Education (1997) makes an appeal for a broad based culture of learning beyond the narrow confines of traditional schooling. But he is perhaps best known as the man who uses the term’scaffolding’ in learning theory.
His introduction to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language was written in in 1962 and, influenced by Vygotsky, he emphasises the role of the teacher, language and instruction. He thought that learners, in problem solving, used different processes and that these vary from person to person and that social interaction lay at the root of good learning. The background to his theories on instruction is based on a social constructivist view of development based on the gradual exposure to socially mediated narratives and explanations.
Jerome Bruner is a social constructivist in the sense that he sees learning as a dynamic process where learners construct or build knowledge, based on their existing knowledge. This is an active process of selection, construction and decision-making that builds on existing mental models. It is this that brings meaning to the new knowledge, allowing the learner to move beyond their existing structures. He builds on the Socratic tradition of learning through dialogue, encouraging the learners to come to enlighten themselves through reflection. Careful curriculum design is essential so that one area builds upon the other. His ‘spiral curriculum’ where one repeatedly revisits knowledge and skills, but at a higher level each time, has much to recommend, as it is compatible with other areas in the psychology of learning.
His theory of instruction addresses four principles:
1. Readiness: The learner must have a predisposition to learn and so their experiences and context must be considered.
2. Structure: The content must be structured so that it can be grasped by the learner.
3. Sequence: Material must be presented in the most effective sequences.
4. Generation: Good learning should encourage extrapolation, manipulation and a filling in the gaps, just beyond the learners existing knowledge.
Bruner also gave us the word ‘scaffolding’ in educational theory, and the recognition that learners need to be either self-aware or helped to build on existing knowledge, is certainly a useful device, albeit a little hazy. The problem with this constructivist generalisation is that it immediately begs more detailed questions about what we mean by ‘structure’, ‘sequence’ and ‘scaffolding’.
Bruner, like Vygotsky, focuses on the social and cultural aspects of learning but can also be seen as a cognitive psychologist. He suggests that people learn with meaning and personal significance in mind, not just through attention to the facts. Knowledge and memory are therefore constructed. Learning must therefore be a process of discovery where learners build their own knowledge, with the active dialogue of teachers, building on their existing knowledge. However, social constructivism is sometimes in danger of producing a vocabulary that is used without much reference to actual practice and detail.
It comes up against fruitful science, where researchers focus on how different types of memory work in terms of their limitations, elaboration, storage, reinforcement and recall. The endless, general theorizing in ‘social’ context rarely identifies practical issues that determine actual remembered recall of knowledge and skills, although his three ‘modes of representation’ action, image and language are reasonable matches to action, episodic and semantic memory. Where it is useful is in developmental psychology where one can progress from action to image to language.