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Topic: "Jerome Bruner"

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Topic started by: Brian Drayton on 6/14/16

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 ofBruner’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 (aretrospective accountbyone 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). Bruner (like Roman Jakobson) was in dialogue with manyof 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 thateducation 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 <cite>Phi Delta Kappan</cite>, 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’sreflection on Bruner’s legacy in The Atlantic). My own apprenticeship in curriculum development (and much else) at TERC took place in a climate that was deeply imbued with

(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 tocompare 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 piecesthat 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 thatthat these modes, deeply rooted in our organism, are experienced, and the way we act (individually and socially). Hesets 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 convinceofis 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.

I encourage you to read Maria Popova’s essayon 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.




Originally posted Jun 14, 2016

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This topic has 6 posts, showing all.

early childhood learning and teaching

posted by: Amy Cohen on 6/15/2016 9:18 am

Children seem to be avid learners. But teachers can help or hinder childrens' learning. I hope we can attend to what teachers need to know of content and pedagogy and affect in order to take advantage of kids' capacity to learn. Teachers who know little math or who have painful memories of their own attempts to learn or teach math can convince kids that it is okay not to learn math. This is an unpleasant side effect of the "I'm okay. You're okay" point of view. Barbie said "math is hard". A parent said "I never learned this stuff. Don't worry". A teacher said "If you don't have the 'math gene', you can learn so don't worry". The kid politely tries to please the adult and doesn't try to learn math.

Did Bruner address this kind of issue? Did he help us learn how to help adults overcome or at least conceal their math avoidance?

teachers avoiding subjects they find aversive

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/15/2016 9:45 am

Hi, Amy,
Interesting question. Nothing specific to your question comes to mind. I will say that Bruner was aware of Schwab and others
(including Dewey whom he didn't discuss much) who had high standards for teachers' knowledge of their fields. Of course, elementary teachers are often not able to stay within their comfort zones. What strategies are there for helping them "remediate" or (better) increase their capacity in such areas when they encounter them? This for me is one of the main virtues in the idea of school-based "learning communities" -- if they provide the opportunity, and the support/collegial engagement that will enable them to diagnose and address areas of weakness or under preparation. How do you think this dilemma can be dealt with?

Learning narrative

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 6/16/2016 9:45 am

Tackling the math issue is increasingly important and Im glad that you reached back to share some of the common strokes that we end up sharing with kids about our own math experiences. Im also hearing a similar type of negative encouragement around coding so drilling into how to deal with profiling interests with adult characterization may be an area that even focused learning communities have trouble ..or even unintentionally continue by their very design.
Ive tended to slightly alter and expand the term professional learning communities to become a community of practice. Practice has the elasticity of definition that allows it to both be professional as practiced domain..while also practicing as in improving towards a non-set goal. The teachers in the MSP were required to be involved with Professional Learning Communities which set a negative impact to that idea and also pointed out that if they were learners that they had not mastered the area of study. Giving them another choice built a better outcome and changed the conversation. Terms and narratives that grow around them as they are used are so critical to watch and consider over time

Note: Digest version of yesterday's post was incomplete

posted by: Brian Drayton on 6/15/2016 9:39 am

so visit the page to see various sentences and thoughts completed!

two modes of thought

posted by: Betsy Stefany on 6/15/2016 10:46 am

While I am sorry for the passing of such an obvious key giant in the educational theory, I am extremely grateful for your recap of his works, especially regarding the two modes of thought. I never would have stumbled upon the basis for what I find to be critical in engaging true interest in complex topics. The movement between subjective and objective thinking was the best way I could consider that learning gained energy and secured individual interest over time. That simple statement that story and argument lean on each other is critical to hear and to be posted to consider as we move forward to capture learning progress.
Thank you for your attentive reflection on this fine person's body of work.

Professional learning communities - ways that have elicited engagement.

posted by: Amy Cohen on 6/17/2016 9:06 am

Two or three years back, I was part of a team of mathematicians and mathematics educators who lead a professional learning community in a high-needs district. Teachers were compensated at union scale for the overtime involved. The topics "fractions" and "formative assessment" were suggested by the math supervisor. The teachers (all middle school grades) were treated as fellow professionals. We suggested a couple of accessible and engaging math tasks each meeting and used the coaching of the group work to elicit conversations about learning and teaching fractions.

Teacher reactions were uniformly favorable - of course, participation was voluntary and compensated. [Teachers (from this and other districts) told us that in "professional learning communities" required by administrators, teachers sat passively and listened to announcements and pronouncements having little to do with math or teaching and much to do with rules, procedures, and test scores. ] They enjoyed creating their own formative assessments to be used as "Do now" activities. They shared their students' work with each other at our sessions. We were amazed at how much they could see in even the simplest of "do now" tasks as to where the kids were in their learning. One said "You mean that a formative assessment does not need to be a 10-item pre-test from a text-book?"

Several of the teachers from this group have since taken on "teacher leader" roles in later MSP projects an have participated in math teacher circles with no compensation except (1) the chance to do math with colleagues, (2) the chance to talk about teaching away from evaluation sessions, and (3) a lite supper. Try any search engine on the string "math teacher circles" for links to the American Institute for Mathematics role in facilitating the spread of successful math teacher circles.

post updated by the author 6/17/2016