constructivist-video.gifBruner’s learning theories evolved from his research during the 1940s and 1950s on the ways people use categories to construct concepts and create mental models of the world. His studies noted the significance of students' active participation in learning, placing him in the camp of constructivism, a cognitive development theory that transcript.gifcontends that learning is “an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge” (Constructivist Theory).

Following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, Americans became concerned process-book.gifabout their country’s educational competitiveness, especially in the areas of math and science. In 1959, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation invited Bruner to chair a 10-day conference of 34 scientists, psychologists, educators, and other scholars to discuss science curriculum at Woods Hole, MA. The conference emphasized active learning and discovery, rather than the passive consumption of knowledge (Bruner, “The Process of Education Revisited” 18). It heightened the interest of U.S. educators in the theories of Jean Piaget. And it resulted in the publication of The Process of Education, Bruner’s 1960 book, which has been hailed as a seminal, revolutionary classic. Translated into 19 languages, the book sparked curriculum reform and guided policy formation throughout the 1960s. Bruner’s ideas about categories, the theoretical principles outlined in The Process of Education, and his later work are described below.



Bruner believed that the process of learning involved organizing the world around us into mental categories invented by the learner. Every category, its name, the items in it, and their shared features compose a concept, a cognitive structure that helps people hold information in an abstract form and use it to think with (Pritchard 4).

When we encounter something new, we place it into a mental category or we make a new category for it, a process similar to Piaget's assimilation. “To categorize is to render discriminably different things equivalent, to group the objects and events and people around us into classes, and to respond to them in pullquote-category.gifterms of their class membership rather than their uniqueness” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin 1).

Categories help people:

  • Reduce the complexity of their environment
  • Identify objects in the world
  • Reduce the need for constant learning
  • Provide direction for activity
  • Order and relate classes of events rather than deal with individual events (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin 12-13)

Cognitive development is evident in our ability to understand categories and discern the particular attributes that distinguish one category from another.


Learning Modes

People move through three stages of cognitive development in the way the mind is used to translate experiences into a model of the world (Bruner, "Toward a Theory of Instruction" 44-45).

  1. Enactive: During earliest childhood, learning occurs through movement or action (as when babies learn to walk or a child learns to ride a bike).
  2. Iconic: During middle childhood, learning occurs through images or icons that represent or summarize objects or events (as when children draw pictures of their families or a summer vacation).
  3. Symbolic: During adolescence, learning occurs through abstract symbols (as when students are able to represent mathematical functions using equations or understand metaphorical language such as “Too many cooks spoil the broth”).


As children develop, they tend to rely more dominantly on sybmolic learning. But even during the symbolic stage, all three modes continue to remain available and can be highly developed. Professional athletes and musicians, for example, are highly skilled enactive learners, while great artists employ finely tuned iconic skills.



Economy & Power

To effectively address these modes, educators must make instruction both economical and powerful:
  • Economy: Deals with the number of items that must be held in mind and processed to achieve comprehension. Fewer items, means fewer processing steps, resulting in greater economy. In the chart below, presenting the various travel routes on a list requires the user to organize, process, and memorize seven items. But coding the cities alphabetically and laying them out on a diagram increases economy by providing the same information at a glance (Bruner, "Toward a Theory of Instruction" 46-7).

  • Power: Deals with the degree to which a learner is stimulated to make connections between topics that seem separate. “The only possible way in which individual knowledge can keep proportional pace with the surge of available knowledge is through a grasp of the relatedness of knowledge” (Bruner, “On Knowing” 108). Because it makes explicit the connections among separate topics (in this case, theorists), the following chart is an example of a way to represent knowledge with power.


Economy and power tend to go hand in hand such that “it is rare for a powerful structuring technique in any field to be uneconomical” (Bruner, “Toward a Theory of Instruction” 48).



Instructional plans must consider four key themes:

  1. Readiness: A predisposition toward learning. This predisposition results from curiosity brought on by uncertainty and ambiguity. “Readiness … is a function not so much of maturation as it is our intentions and our skill at translating ideas in the language and concepts of the age level we are teaching” (Bruner, “On Knowing” 108).pullquote-process.gif
  2. Structure: The key concepts and organizing principles that form the core of the field of study. When students learn the structure of a subject, and not simply memorize facts about it, they can begin to incorporate new information into that structure and see relationships between and among bodies of knowledge. Bruner claimed, “Knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it” (qtd. in Gardner 92). “Any idea or problem or body of knowledge can be presented in a form simple enough so that any particular learner can understand it in a recognizable form” (Bruner, “Toward a Theory of Instruction” 44). Effective methods of structuring knowledge result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing manipulation of information (Constructivist Theory).
  3. Sequence: The order in which material is presented. The best sequence to promote learning depends on “a variety of factors, including past learning, stage of development, nature of the material, and individual differences (Bruner, “Toward a Theory of Instruction” 49). But it is likely that the optimum sequence moves from economical to complex and follows the stages of cognitive development: enactive to iconic to symbolic.
  4. Motives: Types and timing of rewards and punishments. “Mental life moves from a state of outer-directedness, in which … reinforcement [is] crucial, to a state of inner-directedness, in which the growth and maintenance of mastery become central and dominant” (Bruner, “On Knowing” p. 92). Effective reinforcement comes at a time when the student can use it, e.g., after a period of trial and error when the student is comparing the results of his attempt to the desired goal. Reinforcement before this time may not be understood or remembered, while reinforcement after this time may arrive too late to guide future choices.

Later Work

From the mid 1970s through today, Bruner’s work has moved in new directions, leading him to criticize aspects of the cognitive revolution, which he saw as “an unwarranted reduction of human thought to a set of computational routines” (Gardner 93). Theorists of the 1960s, he believed, focused too strongly on internal cognitive processes to the exclusion of social influences, such as poverty and racism. “It was taken for granted that students lived in some sort of educational vacuum, untroubled by the ills and problems of the culture of large,” he said (qtd. in Gardner 93).

Instead, Bruner’s later work has been based on cultural psychology, which addresses the influence of an individual’s historical background and culture. In The Culture of Education (1996), Bruner notes that “human mental activity is neither solo nor conducted unassisted, even when it goes on ‘inside the head’” (qtd. in Smith). Accordingly, in the last 30 years, Bruner has investigated such interpersonal psychological issues as infants’ use of language, scaffolding to transfer knowledge from adults to children, the use of stories and myths to deal with reality, and the role of storytelling in the legal process.

Through his body of work, which spans nearly 70 years and has encompassed both cognitive and cultural views of learning, Bruner has been a role model for his own assertion that “There are many ways to learn and many was of encouraging different forms of learning with different ends in view” (“Models of the Learner” 5).