Early Childhood Education

Bruner, Jerome (1915-)


Jerome Bruner is a cognitive psychologist who has been a major influence on educational theory and practice for over half a century. As one of the key figures in the “cognitive revolution” of the 1950s, Bruner was one of the first interpreters of Lev Vygotsky‘s work in the United States and Western Europe. More recently he has become critical of the direction educational theory and practice has taken since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and he now espouses a cultural view of education (1996). His interest and influence go well beyond psychology into the humanities and law.

Bruner was born in 1915 in New York City and at the age of two he had an eye surgery to correct a vision impairment. His early years were marked by frequent moves, often changing schools. In 1937, he received a B.A. degree from Duke University and in 1941 was awarded a Ph.D. in Psychology at Harvard, where he eventually served as a professor of psychology (1952-1972). He served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee during the Kennedy andJohnson administrations and was instrumental in the development of the Head Start program. He moved to England in 1972 as the Watts Professor of Psychology at Oxford University (1972-1980). Bruner has had numerous academic positions, the most recent of which is as a senior research fellow at the New York University School of Law.

Bruner’s long career runs parallel to the evolution of cognitive psychology and education in the second half of the twentieth century and remains at the center of progressive education at the beginning of the twenty-first. He began his career studying the mechanisms of thought and learning. In the 1950s, he was at the forefront of the effort to establish cognitive psychology as an alternative to the mechanistic approaches suggested by behaviorism. Indeed, throughout his career Bruner has been concerned with meaning making. This began with a research program describing the mental processes involved in cognition (e.g., spatial awareness, abstract reasoning). This focus on the active processes in the development of thinking marks Bruner as one of the earliest constructivists. The child is an active contributor to the development of his thinking, and as with Jean Piaget, the starting place for learning is with the processes that the child has built to that point in development. According to this view, construction of individual mental abilities is done in active encounters with the real world. Such active learning is a central theme guiding contemporary U.S. perspectives on developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education.

In the 1960s, Bruner (1966) brought his work on cognition directly into the discussion of educational practice (Toward A Theory of Instruction). In this and other works, he encourages teachers to help children build upon their current knowledge through the discovery of principles that underlie an understanding of the physical and social world. He recommends curriculum that is organized in a spiral, in which understandings are built upon what the child currently knows. In line with these views are principles of instruction that take into account the characteristics of the children and that are focused on engaging them in a process of discovery.

In the 1970s, Bruner began examining the role of scaffolding in the learning process. With David Wood and Gail Ross he examined how adults support children in problem-solving tasks. This notion of scaffolding has become a central concept in contemporary discussions of social constructivist theory as well as the early childhood curriculum (Berk and Winsler, 1995). Bruner’s work on early language acquisition, also initiated in the 1970s, examines the social environment that leads to meaningful communication. That is, for Bruner, the use of language is not simply the result of an inborn language acquisition device but requires interactions with key people in which it becomes functional. As with his earlier work on mental processes, the emphasis is on active meaning-making in a practical context.

Bruner’s criticism of the cognitive revolution is articulated in Acts of Meaning (1990), in which he describes how inquiry into how children create meaning was supplanted in psychological and educational research by a mechanistic effort to describe how information is processed. In this and subsequent work he outlines the role of culture in providing a framework for meaning-making as well as children’s use of narrative as a means of organizing their understandings of the world and their place in the world. He expands on this central role for narrative in The Culture of Education (1996) and describes schools as places where culture is transmitted and created.

The broad range of Bruner’s work touches on many aspects of early childhood education. In the analysis of specific instructional strategies, he has helped articulate the notions of discovery learning and scaffolding. His emphasis on the pragmatic aspects of early language learning has informed the current discussion of early literacy. His influence is acknowledged among progressive early childhood programs internationally, including those of Reggio Emilia. In the broader arena of educational practice he has asked for a re-evaluation of education systems that test for fragmented knowledge rather than the construction of meaning. In the area of public policy, he has more recently engaged in a critique of the national No Child Left Behind Act. See also Development, Language, Second Language Acquisition in Early Childhood.

Further Readings: Berk, L., and A. Winsler (1995). Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood education. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bruner, J. (1983). Child’s talk: Learning to use language. New York: Norton; Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

John Hornstein