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Born in New York City on October 1, 1915, Jerome S. Bruner is one of the best-known and most influential psychologists of the 20th century whose contributions also extend into the fields of education and law. Bruner has made a profound contribution to the process of education and to the development of curriculum theory. He has approached education as a broad thinker rather than as a technician, considering the full range of human capacities that are involved in teaching and learning. A major theme in Bruner’s theoretical framework is that learning is an active process in which students construct new ideas or concepts based on their current and past knowledge.

Bruner’s early education was characterized by change. Following the death of his father when he was 12, his mother moved frequently—a circumstance which led Bruner to attend six different schools during his high school studies. After graduating from high school, he settled at Duke University from where he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Feeling the need for an intellectual change when he began his graduate work, Bruner transferred to Harvard University because he believed that Harvard was the place where the future of psychology was being shaped. He went on to receive both his master’s and doctorate degrees from there. Bruner was working on his doctoral thesis The Nature of Propaganda Broadcasting of Belligerent Nations at the beginning of World War II. His research on this subject led him to participate in the war effort as a social psychologist investigating public opinion, propaganda, and social attitudes for the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service of the Federal Communications Commission.

After the war, Bruner returned to Harvard as a professor of psychology and, with George Miller, cofounded the Center for Cognitive Studies. From the late 1950s on, Bruner became interested in schooling in the United States, particularly the cognitive development of children and the appropriate forms of education for students.

In 1959, Bruner was invited to chair an influential ten-day meeting of scholars on learning following the launch of Sputnik. His landmark book The Process of Education (1962) was based on the discussions of these scholars about the state of education in the United States. In this book, Bruner highlighted the central themes that surfaced at the meeting—the most significant of which was the view of the child as an active problem solver who had his or her own ways of making sense of the world. The Process of Education emphasized curriculum innovation grounded in theories of cognitive development and was a crucial factor in the generation of a range of educational programs and experiments in the 1960s.

After the publication of The Process of Education, Bruner chose to continue his educational efforts rather than return to his psychological laboratory. Serving on several major committees and commissions, his major effort became the design and production of a new middle school social studies course entitled Man: A Course of Study. The course was widely acclaimed, but it was subject to intense criticism from public groups. Though the course became iconic in curriculum developments of the time, most schools in the nation never used it in practice.

The Relevance of Education (1971) and Towards a Theory of Instruction (1996) were two other books which brought Bruner’s intelligence to bear on schooling. Each book consisted of essays on evolving ideas about instruction and how instruction affects students’ mental models of the world. Bruner emphasized three ordered ways in which children convert experience into knowledge: action, imagery and, eventually, a range of symbolic systems.

Discovery learning was a continuing theme in Bruner’s educational work. In his view, knowledge and understanding are more effectively gained by personal discovery. This instructional process encourages students to use cognitive processes such as observing, classifying, measuring, predicting, describing, and inferring to lead to personal discovery of concepts and principles.

In the early 1970s, Bruner left Harvard to teach at the University of Oxford. In 1981, he joined the faculty of the new School for Social Research in New York City. While there, he became critical of the cognitive revolution and initiated a movement toward the importance of cultural psychology, a field which stressed that education is a function of the culture-at-large and that learning occurs amid the interactions and joint construction of students trying to learn. His updated educational views were issued as The Culture of Education (1996).

Bruner currently is Research Professor of Psychology at New York University’s Law School. His interests focus on how law is practiced and how its practices can be understood by using tools developed in anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and literary theory and the use of narrative principles in an understanding of legal processes.

Contributed by Kristi A. Preisman, The University of Texas at Austin

References

Bruner, J. S. 1960. The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. 1983. In search of mind: Essays in autobiography. New York: Harper and Row.

Dejnozka, E. L., D. E. Kapel, C. S. Gifford, and M. B. Kapel, eds. 1991. American educator’s encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

Gardner, H. 2001. Jerome S. Bruner 1915–. In Fifty modern thinkers on education: From Piaget to the present, ed. J. A. Palmer, D. E. Copper, and L. Bresler, 90–96. New York: Routledge.

Smith, M. K. 2002. Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education. Encyclopedia of informal education.
Available at: www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm.

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