prepared by Mary Beth DiPrima & Martha Hickson
Rutgers University School of Communication, Information & Library Studies
October 23, 2006


Born in 1915 in New York City, Jerome Bruner was a founder of cognitive psychology and one of the key figures in the cognitive revolution of the 1960s. His landmark 1960 book The Process of Education helped launch the era's educational-reform movement. In an essay on Bruner's career, psychologist and former Bruner student Howard Gardner noted, “Jerome Bruner has served a vital role in the educational discourse of our time: bringing to bear the latest thinking in psychology on the contemporary problems of the society; always on the lookout for the nagging problems and the most promising paths to their solution; zestfully open to new currents of thought” (94).
Indeed, at age 91 Bruner remains active today on the faculty of New York University.


  • A.B. Psychology, Duke University, 1937
  • A.M., 1939 Harvard
  • Ph.D., Harvard University, 1941


  • 1941-1944: U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, analysis of propaganda and public opinion
  • 1943-1944: Editor of Public Opinion Quarterly
  • 1952-1972: Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, research on perception, cognitive processes
  • 1959: Chaired National Academy of Science blue-ribbon study group of scientists, scholars and educators charged with examining the new science curriculum
  • 1961-1962: Cofounder & Director, Harvard University Center for Cognitive Studies, interdisciplinary research center devoted to study of cognition
  • 1972-1980: Watts Professor of Psychology, Oxford University, research on language acquisition
  • 1991-present: Research Professor Psychology and Senior Research Fellow in Law, New York University , studies ideas surrounding stories and the role of storytelling in the legal process

Key Publications

  • A Study of Thinking (1956)
  • The Process of Education (1960)
  • On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (1962)
  • Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966)
  • The Relevance of Education (1971)
  • Beyond the Information Given: Studies in Psychology of Knowing (1973)
  • The Culture of Education (1996)
  • Minding the Law: How Courts Rely on Storytelling, and How Their Stories Change the Way We Understand Law and Ourselves (2000)
  • Making Stories: Law, Literature, and Life (2002)



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 contends 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).



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.

Spiral Curriculum

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.



Discovery Learningpullquote-discovery.gif

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):
  • Case-based learning: Students learn vicariously through stories or vignettes pullquote-power.gif
  • Incidental learning: Students learn through fun, game-like activities, such as a game show or a crossword puzzle
  • Exploring: Students learn through an organized question-and-answer session with the instructor and other students
  • Reflection: By modeling the instructor or online system, students learn how to ask better questions
  • Simulation: 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
  • Intrinsic rewards: 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.
  • Conserving memory: Organizing knowledge around one’s own interests and cognitive structures, thereby increasing the likelihood that knowledge can be retrieved for later use

teacher-video.gifTeacher’s Role

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 transcript.gifto 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:pullquote-goodteacher.gif
  • 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


Student’s Role

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 student-video.gifrole in it” (“On Knowing” 83). Student behaviors in a discovery-learning classroom include:
  • Participating in the knowledge-getting process
  • Testing hypotheses
  • Interacting with the environment
  • Solving problems
  • Developing generalizations transcript.gif
  • 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:
  • Readers theater
  • Felt-board stories pullquote-librarian.gif
  • 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).

Read the following article (available in the Doc Sharing or Discussion sections of our online class) to learn more about the application of Bruner's theory in one aspect of library instruction:
  • Presno, Caroline. "Bruner's Three Forms of Representation Revisited: Action, Pictures and Words for Effective Computer Instruction." Journal of Instructional Psychology 24 (June 1997): 112-18. Wilson OmniFile Full Text Mega. H.W. Wilson. Rutgers U Lib., New Brunswick, NJ. 6 Oct. 2006 <>.


  • What learning mode do you prefer when learning new material? What learning mode do you usually address when teaching? Describe a unit of library instruction that could be adapted to encompass all three learning modes.



Bicknell-Holmes, Tracy, and Paul Seth Hoffman. “Elicit, Engage, Experience, Explore: Discovery Learning in Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review 28.4 (2000): 313-22. Library Literature and Information Science Full Text. H.W. Wilson. Rutgers U Lib., New Brunswick, NJ. 19 Oct. 2006 <>.

Bruner, Jerome. “Models of the Learner.” Educational Researcher 14.6 (June-July 1985): 5-8. JSTOR. 6 Oct. 2006 <‌search>.

Bruner, Jerome S. On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1966.

- - -. The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1960.

- - -. “The Process of Education Revisited.” Phi Delta Kappan 53 (Sept. 1971): 18-21.

- - -. Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1966.

Bruner, Jerome S., Jacqueline J. Goodnow, and George A. Austin. A Study of Thinking. New York: Science Editions, 1967.

Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. 2004. Educational
Broadcasting Corp. 22 Oct. 2006 <

“Constructivist Theory (J. Bruner).” TIP: Theories. 6 Oct. 2006 <‌bruner.html>.

Gardner, Howard. “Jerome S. Bruner.” Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education. Ed. Joy A. Palmer. New York: Routledge, 2001. 90-96.

Hollyman, David. Jerome Bruner. Sept. 2000. 14 Oct. 2006 <‌vanunoo/‌Humannature/‌bruner.html>.

Presno, Caroline. “Bruner’s Three Forms of Representation Revisited: Action, Pictures and Words for Effective Computer Instruction.” Journal of Instructional Psychology 24 (June 1997): 112-18. Wilson OmniFile Full Text Mega. H.W. Wilson. Rutgers U Lib., New Brunswick, NJ. 6 Oct. 2006 <>.

Pritchard, Florence Fay. Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum with the Concept Attainment Model. ED379303. ERIC. EBSCO. North Hunterdon High School Lib., Annandale, NJ. 6 Oct. 2006 <>.

Smith, M. K. “Jerome Bruner and the Process of Education.” Infed. 28 Jan. 2005. 6 Oct. 2006 <‌thinkers/‌bruner.htm>.


Bruner with pipe. Photograph. Fondazione Sigma-Tau . 2006. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌personaggi/‌detail_by_id.asp?cognomepersonaggio=B&personaggi_id=15>.

Draw Dewey signs. Photograph. Palm Beach County Library System. 2006. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌images/‌SWC-Polo-Child-Coloring.jpg>.

Gardner, Jay. Hobbs Professor Howard Gardner. Photograph. HGSE News. 1 June 2004. Harvard Graduate School of Education. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌news/‌features/‌gardner06012004.html>.

Grennon Brooks. Photograph. Association of Suffolk County Supervisors for Educational Technologies. Spring 2006. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌admin/‌uploads/‌Image/‌Jack_Grennon.jpg>.

Jerome Bruner. Photograph. Jerome Bruner. Ed. Helen Barry. Massey University, New Zealand. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌assign2/‌HB/‌jbruner.html>.

Keep smiling. Photograph. Tobias Ott. iStockphoto. 22 Oct. 2006

Looking at pictures. Photograph. Butler Public Library. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌storytime_times.htm>.

Piaget. Photograph. The Jean Piaget Archives. 16 July 2002. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌piaget/‌Presentation/‌presentg.html>.

Playing with a book. Photograph. Babycare Direct. 22 Oct. 2006 <>.
The Process of Education book. Photograph. Harvard University Press. 2004. Barnes & Noble. 22 Oct. 2006 <>.

Reading for research. Photograph. Merion Mercy Academy. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌page.php?pid=6>.

Rogoff. Photograph. Currents Online. U California Santa Cruz. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌03-04/‌01-26/‌rogoff.html>.

Shelf marker. Photograph. The OLA Store. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌.../‌html/‌media/‌shelfelfmarker.gif>.

Spiral. Photograph. Blue Coil Spring. 2006. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌coil-over.htm>.

Tolman. Photograph. How Do You Think People Learn? Ed. Johanna L.H. Birkland. Syracuse University. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌~jlbirkla/‌kb/‌c_people.html>.

Vygotsky. Photograph. The Vygotsky Project. Dec. 2001. 22 Oct. 2006 <‌schmolze1/‌vygotsky/>.