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Bruner's view of a learner actively constructing meaning from the earliest ages holds significant implications for curriculum design, classroom activities, teacher and student responsibilities, and the role of the school library.
To address readiness, structure, sequence, and motives, Bruner introduced the spiral curriculum, “in which ideas are first presented in a form and language … which can be gasped by the child, ideas that can be revisted later with greater precision and power until, finally, the student has achieved the reward of mastery” (Bruner, “On Knowing” 107). In this design, students return to topics throughout their academic careers, continually building upon what they have already learned as they develop and mature.
Bruner advocated a “discovery learning” approach to education, “Permitting the student to put things together for himself, to be his own discoverer” (“On Knowing” 82). “Discovery… is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence … to new insights” (Bruner, “On Knowing” 82).
Several attributes characterize discovery learning (Bicknell-Holmes and Hoffman 314-15):
The creation, integration and generalization of knowledge through exploration and problem solving.
Interest-based activities in which the learner exercises some control over the sequence and frequency
Activities that strive to integrate new knowledge with the learner's existing knowledge base
Emphasis on learning rather than content
Recognition of the importance of "failure" as a tool for examination, reflection, and refocused efforts
Involvement of students in higher levels of cognitive processing, such as synthesis, evaluation, extrapolation, and analysis
Integration of feedback opportunities into instruction or activities
Discovery occurs through a continuous process of representing things. First students need an opportunity to manipulate. When learning about measurement, for example, students can begin by pacing off a yard or measuring with a ruler. Then by reflecting on and comparing their actions, students can discover and devise formulas for measurement to represent and simplify their actions. In fact, Bruner claimed that discovery is a byproduct of making things simpler (“On Knowing” 100).
Methods for offering discovery learning can include (Bicknell Holmes and Hoffman 315-319):
Students learn vicariously through stories or vignettes
Students learn through fun, game-like activities, such as a game show or a crossword puzzle
Students learn through an organized question-and-answer session with the instructor and other students
By modeling the instructor or online system, students learn how to ask better questions
Students learn by practicing skills or witnessing their application in a realistic but artificial environment
Discovery learning offers multiple benefits (Bruner, "On Knowing" 83-95):
Increased intellectual potency:
Mastering a variety of problem-solving techniques and using them to transform information
Feelings of increased awareness and understanding that sustain students and provide gratification during independent problem-solving.
Learning the heuristics of discovering:
Practicing problem-solving and identifying the underlying skills that can be applied to new situations.
Organizing knowledge around one’s own interests and cognitive structures, thereby increasing the likelihood that knowledge can be retrieved for later use
Bruner cautioned against a solely lecture-oriented instructional approach: “Teaching by telling [is] out of the context of action” (qtd. in Presno). Instead, teachers should use a variety of instructional|approaches consistent with the cognitive development of their students. For example, a teacher wanting
to help children learn about dinosaurs could ask students to construct models of dinosaurs (enactive); they might watch a film about or involving (iconic); or they could consult reference texts and then discuss their findings (symbolic) (Hollyman).
In a Bruner classroom, the teacher is transformed from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide by the side.” Specific teacher behaviors include:
Identifying the key elements of an academic discipline
Designing activities and tools matched to students’ cognitive abilities
Translating information into the learner’s mode of representation
Constructing interesting, challenging exercises that incite curiosity and create a motivation to learn
Activating problem solving by modeling trial and error, curiosity, and enthusiasm
Facilitating the student’s reflection and recoding processes by providing aids and dialogues
Helping the students see relationships and patterns
Leading students to develop concepts and make sense of operations
Coaching students to discover principles for themselves
Interacting one-on-one with students
Providing timely feedback and reinforcement
According to Bruner, “The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking a part in the formulation and at times may play the principal
role in it” (“On Knowing” 83). Student behaviors in a discovery-learning classroom include:
Participating in the knowledge-getting process
Interacting with the environment
Engaging in dialogue and collaborating with the teacher and other students
Creating products such as new ideas, solutions, processes, presentations, blogs, or research papers.
The School Library
Attention to Bruner's three modes of learning can be seen in many school library programs. In elementary schools, for example, teacher librarians use such enactive strategies as:
Having students insert shelf markers after they take a book
Iconic approaches at this level include:
Computer searching with visual catalogs (e.g., KidsClick!) that use pictures to represent search categories
Using signs and pictures to navigate in the library
Designing graphic organizers to guide information gathering
In middle school and high school, as students begin to employ the symbolic mode, librarians:
Introduce students to more complex resources that depend on reading ability
Help students construct search statements using Boolean operators based on mathematic principles
Teach students how to evaluate and compare research tools to select the best option for a given problem
Our challenge, though, is to offer instruction that incorporates all three learning modes even after students have begun to use symbolic thinking. We must balance lecture (symbolic mode) with demonstrations (iconic mode) and opportunities for students to conduct experiments by handling online and print materials (enactive mode).
Discovery learning demands such balance. And library instruction, during which students are generally engaged in a search about a new or unfamiliar topic, is naturally suited to it. Discovery learning in the library could engage students in:
Developing their own classification schemes
Analyzing unsuccessful searches and proposing new approaches
Performing the same search on multiple search engines, identifying the differences in result sets, and making inferences about how the search engine works
Journaling the research process to identify obstacles and propose ideas for overcoming them
Comparing web pages to determine the aspects that indicate the level of quality and reliability
Debating the merits of various search tools (e.g., Wikipedia vs. Grolier Online).
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