Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

The Significance of Jerome Bruner

Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

The Significance of Jerome Bruner

Article excerpt

Nobel Laureate Lawrence Bragg explains the mysteries of radioactivity to a young audience at the Royal Institution in London. Jawaharlal Nehru addresses a packed meeting in the Oxford Union. Former President Oscar Arias opens an IB conference in Costa Rica. Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, thanks the Open University for the award of an honorary degree.

What do these occasions have in common? They are a selection from a list - and it is a very short list - of outstanding speeches that I have heard during my lifetime: the first as a school boy, the most recent just a few months ago. These inspiring presentations held me spellbound from start to finish and helped me to think differently.

But wait: I have forgotten one. In the 1970s, as a recently appointed Head of a comprehensive school, I was invited to a conference organized by the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University and there, for the first time, I heard Professor Jerome Bruner. It was a significant moment in the history of English education, the lull before the storm. Prime Minister James Callaghan had delivered his famous Ruskin College speech which triggered the increasing involvement (many would say interference) of successive UK governments in the daily business of education, a process that continues today.

So politics was in the Oxford air but Bruner, not long arrived from Harvard (by yacht - he had sailed across the Atlantic) wisely chose to ignore it and spoke instead about learning. It was a tour de force. He focused our attention on the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria and showed how their understanding and recognition of 'intelligence' was very different from our own. One especially valued manifestation, he told us, was the ability to keep a contentious meeting going, to avoid a confrontational breakdown, to encourage compromise and to work towards a mutually acceptable solution.

It had never occurred to me that such inter-personal skills had anything to do with intelligence but I was witnessing, of course, the early days in the development of multiple intelligences theory that culminated in the publication of Professor Howard Gardner's (Bruner's protégé) classic book Frames of Mind (1983).

Jerome Bruner is a cognitive psychologist, concerned with the processes of learning and, to use an old-fashioned word, instruction, the teacher's deliberate intervention in the learning process.

Instruction is, after all, an effort to assist or to shape growth... And a theory of instruction ... is in effect a theory of how growth and development are assisted by diverse means. (1968, p 1)

This is what makes his work so important for teachers since the nature of this intervention is - or should be - at the core of their professional expertise. How does a child's capacity to learn relate to the natural growth and development of its brain? How can a teacher best intervene to make learning less random, less chancy, more effective? How is planned instruction - we call it the curriculum - best designed, given our knowledge of the process of learning? How do we then confront the teacher's biggest challenge, the student who does not want to learn?

His approach to this last concern - the 'will to learn' as he calls it - shows Bruner at his most persuasive - relevant, research-oriented and reassuring - so let us examine it in a little more detail (1968, pp 113-128). He starts with the big picture:

The single most characteristic thing about human beings is that they learn. Learning is so deeply ingrained in man that it is almost involuntary... Other species begin their learning afresh each generation but man is born into a culture that has as one of its principal functions the conservation and transmission of past learning.

Then he looks at it from the student's rather different perspective:

The young human must regulate his learning and his attention by reference to external requirements. He must eschew what is vividly under his nose or what is dimly in a future that is often incomprehensible to him. …

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