Learning theories in practice/Jerome Bruner

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Perhaps being born blind is what allowed Jerome Bruner to foster such great passion for the unseen aspects of knowledge. As educators, we too enter the field quite blindly. It is not until we are fully immersed in the experience that we may truly begin to appreciate education for what it is, what it was, and what it should be. Not until then are we able to appreciate the ideas proposed by the great learning theorists who before only existed in text. To understand these theories and the concepts within on paper is a much different matter than applying it in the classroom for the benefit of the learner. It is the duty of educators to interpret and apply valuable learning theories in a manner conducive to building knowledge that is both a solid foundation for future learning and able to be practically applied in current situations. Jerome Bruner's thoughts on learning and education work well to achieve these goals. Anyone who has actually read any of Bruner's work will agree that he has a tendency to be repetitive and wordy, using the same examples in several selections - only changing one or two words to meet his needs- and devoting more time to introducing his topic than actually discussing the topic at hand. Despite the redundancy, his theories are rather applicable to learning on all levels. He writes in a comprehensible, conversational tone, and offers valuable information somewhere within a sea of personal anecdotes and obscure examples. It is in navigating those waters that some valuable tenets of his theories and the way to apply them appropriately in the classroom are lost to many. The focus here lies in exploring those obscure waters. Bruner’s concepts of scaffolding and a spiral curriculum gained great popularity early on. Most educators apply the concepts in the classroom whether or not they realize from whom it came. When it comes to learning theory, he is an eternal optimist with major influence in both cognitivism and constructivism (Wragg, 2004). Jerome Bruner offered many valuable ideas to the field of education that have infinite benefit in the classroom. The focus here lies in going beyond the popular and exposing educators to Bruner’s lesser known, but directly applicable, ideas about learning and development and how these ideas can foster growth for each child in the classroom.

Tickle, Stutter, and Stunt: Language Acquisition in Babies and Children[edit | edit source]

My undergraduate studies focused on psychology and sociology – two areas full of interesting, yet sometimes unbelievable, tidbits of information. I would often share this information with my father (a self-thought expert in any field). One finding I shared included the results of a study in which a group of psychologists postulated that tickling a baby’s feet caused stuttering and that baby talk stunts linguistic growth. My father’s response involved turning to my six month old nephew and declaring in an aristocratic voice, “Good morning, Grandson. How do you do on this fine day?” Hardly necessary, but on the right path. How exactly should we speak to our children to ensure proper development? In a world based on perception, the ability to speak well correlates directly to intelligence. Bruner answers the question of how we can directly influence positive language acquisition in babies and children. The use of language to organize thoughts begins early on in life. Unlike Chomsky, Bruner (1983) denies a complete, innate language system and instead asserts that the mother takes a vital stance in language acquisition. (Although Bruner identifies the mother’s role in language acquisition, I assume that he understands either parent can play an essential part.) In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Bruner (1986) speaks of the inspiration of Lev Vygotsky in his theory of language acquisition. He supposes that language acquisition provides the first example of working within a zone of proximal development. The mother follows a specific speech pattern with four distinct types of statements which he labels: vocative (“Look at this.”), query (“What’s that?”), label (“It’s a ducky.”), and confirmation (“That’s right.”). Each time the mother receives an acceptable response, she raises her expectations. The child is accomplishing several tasks: categorizing objects, organizing thoughts, and building linguistic skills. Bruner (1983) specifies that the mother “fine-tunes speech by raising the level of complexity to match that of the child” (p. 61). Baby talk keeps the child engaged, but it must increasingly develop into models of appropriate, grammatically correct speech as the child matures. After all, who enjoys speaking to an adult that still refers to the office aquarium as ‘the fishy’s house’? Bruner believes that language is an integral part of cognitive development (Ellis, 2005). A mature and extensive lexicon suggests deeper levels of intelligence.

Practical Teaching Tips for Successful Language Acquisition[edit | edit source]

Someone decided once that it would be a good idea to let me teach young children. Prior to that experience, I had only taught language arts to teenagers and ‘tweens,’ but I took on the position of first grade teacher with hopeful optimism. I taught a self-contained, English as a Second Language class with a small number of inclusion students. (Inclusion students have a learning disability, physical disability, emotional disability, or a combination thereof, and special education status but learn in a classroom with regular education students.) The curriculum centered on a direct instruction reading program and primarily constructivist methods for teaching math. I entered that classroom not really knowing what to expect, but left with a far greater understanding of the power adults hold in shaping a child’s development. I noticed them acting like me, talking like me, and trying to write like me. In the classroom, you are the model for everything that a child does – everything. A large part of that is language development, especially in the English as a Second Language or Bilingual classroom. In order to promote successful language acquisition, I offer the following advice:

1. When correcting a child’s improper speech, simply follow their statement with the correct speech pattern. Children lack rules of syntax for spoken and written language. Hearing you say something the proper way provides an appropriate example that they can follow. Usually they will repeat the statement properly after listening to you. Never reprimand them in a harsh or negative tone. Doing so will only make them feel like they’ve done something wrong, and they will eventually stop trying.

2. Incorporate educational vocabulary into each lesson. Your instruction should be taught in understandable language, but incorporating vocabulary from the curriculum encourages the child to develop and impresses the boss. I taught first grade at a magnet school for engineering where all children grades K through four were expected to be learning soldiers. We all had a mission to impress the “visitors” (i.e. the people that give the school money). Part of that mission included my first graders explaining to whoever came into the classroom exactly what their learning objective entailed – using the correct terms for instruction. At first, I detested the idea, but ultimately I saw how it helped them both understand the concept and expand their vocabulary. “Cutesy” phrases abound in elementary education; however, relying solely on these in education is doing your students a disservice. For example, when I taught regrouping in addition and subtraction, we used a metaphor for instruction in which the numbers stood for people in houses. Sometimes there was no room in the house. Sometimes they had to borrow from the neighbors. All this worked well for making them understand, but at the end of the day, they could tell the “visitors” that they were using regrouping to solve addition and subtraction facts. Because they knew the exact skill they were learning, they could identify when they needed to use it again. This especially came in handy when they completed benchmark exams. When assessing students, from district wide benchmark exams to high stakes testing, a universal lexicon is used. These tests are centered on specific skills and the vocabulary related to those skills. You should prepare your students in a way that they could leave your classroom, leave the school, or even leave the state, and be able to accomplish the same learning objective. This is done by incorporating a common, advanced vocabulary into daily instruction. The exposure provides a solid foundation for scaffolding education.

3. Use “big” words in daily activities. Your students’ abilities to use context clues to figure words out might surprise you. Remember they model their speech after you, especially children who have no English speaking family at home. Give their jobs real-world names. For example, some jobs in my classroom included librarian, custodian, and sanitation expert (we used a lot of soap and Germ-X). An added bonus is the boost in self-esteem they get by feeling like they have an important position in the class. When disciplining using “big” words also makes them feel like responsible, mature students. Instead of good or bad, we either make smart decisions or poor decisions. Furthermore, when we have made a poor choice, we explain why that choice was poor. Although you may not realize it at the time, the words you choose to model and providing opportunities for verbal reflection directly impact their linguistic growth.

4. Speak softly, and carry a big… sticker book. Bruner has his own opinions about doing things for extrinsic rewards, but I am a firm believer that you can get a child to do anything for a sticker. Reward their linguistic achievements, and they will continue to work hard.

Let the Good Times Roll: The Purpose of Play[edit | edit source]

I am an active believer in finding teachable moments because learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Recess is a vital – yes vital – part of the school day for young children, and every child must have opportunities to play. I bring my tennis shoes to run relays with my class at recess and always demand color and pizzazz for work posted on my bulletin board. I can be that teacher because despite all my seemingly outrageous antics, my students produce scores that administrators like to see. I value good teaching methods and incorporate a variety of ideas into my instruction, but ultimately I believe that my students succeed because above all of that I offer them a safe, friendly, creative place to learn free from stress and problems that young minds need not worry about. Every educator should view his or her job as an opportunity to make someone (at any age) realize that learning is fun. A good teacher never uses writing as punishment, and play can promote both social and intellectual development. One way in which children acquire language and syntactic skill is through play (Collier, 1979). The formation of rules for games and the script formation that occurs in pretend activities allow children practice with the basic structure of spoken language in a creative, stress free environment. This type of environment proves most conducive to learning on all levels. Play serves several functions: socialization, therapy, and real-world practice of adult life (Bruner, 1983). When involved in play activities, children speak freely without grammatical rules or real-world restrictions. This form of open dialogue stimulates language development by encouraging creativity. The ability to create a sentence which will lead to the creation of more sentences is more important than the ability to name the grammatical elements (Bruner, 1960). Children should have unrestricted opportunities to “play around with thinking” without fear of correction (p. 95). Feelings of frustration emerge when an adult continuously judges and corrects their speech which may in turn stifle their development. Why try when nothing is ever right? Play in a learning task allows children to come up with creative solutions with less inhibition – inhibition that might normally emerge from feelings of frustration or inflexibility. Children enjoy freedom of play in the absence of adults who impose strict, logical rules. To a child, rules matter, but they do not necessarily have to make sense to outsiders. Adults should not “engineer children’s play,” and an adult’s duty lies in “shaping environments in which children can more fully and fairly play” (p. 64). Children maintain the “longest and richest sequences of play” when constructing something because they gain a sense of satisfaction from visual progress (p. 96). It is important to provide opportunities for hands-on activities and the use of manipulatives. Students must play an active role in the learning process for it to have meaning and direction. Bruner also suggests that children play longer in pairs than in groups or alone (p. 63). One is not enough, three is a crowd, but two is just right – perhaps Bruner supports a Goldilocks theory of play.

Practical Teaching Tips for Effective Play[edit | edit source]

A classroom should provide spaces and materials that foster creativity for children playing or working alone or in groups. Instead of focusing on individual assignments or group work, teachers should create partner activities. If children play more efficiently in pairs, I would venture to say that they work more efficiently this way as well. Partner work is one way to sustain a student’s interest in an activity because they are neither unmotivated working alone or disrupted by poor group dynamics. Following partner work with verbal or written reflection solidifies the knowledge gained. The teacher regulates activities by keeping students focused on meaningful conversations and providing reassurance. Allow your children opportunities to develop creativity. When feeling stuck for an idea, speak to your students. Sometimes they have awesome ideas that adults may never think of. My students’ methods for practicing spelling words come to mind. Both my middle school and elementary students would come up with the best ways to practice their spelling words, and they work! They use magnetic letters, erasable white boards, and, of course, friendly competition. Their games were simple, fair, and usually more effective than copying the week’s spelling list three times each. Your role in this situation becomes friendly referee, and you have one main task: keep everyone involved. Never allow a game in which someone loses because of a mistake. Let them come up with the rules and then base the game on points. Correct answers earn points, and incorrect answers earn neither points nor penalties. Game points are converted to bonus points on the spelling test. For example, the top scorer earns ten bonus points, and the low scorer earns one bonus point. This type of game play fosters creativity and has an educational focus.

Working in the Learning Factory: The Nature of Knowledge[edit | edit source]

The primary goal for all educators lies in teaching someone to learn how to think. When reading a short story from a text book, the focus should be on using context clues, making inferences, drawing conclusions, and making predictions. Characters, setting, and plot are merely devices the teacher may use to build higher-order thinking skills. My concern is not which Pevensie child stepped through the wardrobe and discovered Narnia first. It is how her actions affected the other children and predicting what action might follow. I am not dismissing the importance of the content of a specific subject area; instead I suggest using the content to build active minds. An emphasis on metacognition and personal reflection encourages active learning and intellectual development. Bruner (1960) suggests focusing on the structure of a subject rather than specific details. Understanding the structure of a subject indicates knowledge of how things are related. There exist two kinds of teaching (Bruner, 1962). In expository teaching, the student maintains a passive role while the instructor takes the lead in determining the method and pacing of instruction. In hypothetical teaching, the teacher and student work together. The second approach proves most effective for students regarding the acquisition and retention of knowledge. The ‘guide on the side’ constructivist method of teaching allows the student to take control of their learning and develop an interest in knowledge acquisition. Jerome Bruner lives his life in a constant search for knowledge. Since adolescence, he has demonstrated interested in not only learning about whatever he could find in his father’s Encyclopedia Britannica but also learning about how one comes to know anything at all – a self proclaimed “wandering intellectual” (Bruner, 1983, p. 7). He embraces both cognitivist and constructivist viewpoints depending on the subject at hand. Placing any of his ideas into distinct categories proves almost impossible, as his theory develops much like a spider web: interwoven, intricate threads held strong as one. So how does such a connoisseur of knowledge define the matter? In his work On Knowing, Bruner (1962) defines knowledge as a “model we construct to give meaning and structure to regularities in experience” (p. 120). The world constantly evolves, and one must adapt to the changing environment through the process of learning. Acquiring and adapting knowledge serves the purpose of making sense of the world. Past conceptions, once adequate and appropriate for the student’s perceived reality, become replaced by original conceptions that better fit the present mold. Bruner states that “to understand something is to give up some other way of conceiving it” (p. 123). In turn, the education system functions as a sort of learning factory in which one systematically and categorically processes thoughts to yield current, intelligent products.

Practical Teaching Tips for Promoting Knowledge Acquisition[edit | edit source]

One way to build an interest in learning is through innovative and exciting anticipatory sets. This is the portion of the lesson in which the teacher gains the students’ attention by illuminating some aspect of the day’s lesson. Today’s fast paced, technological world has resulted in a need for visual stimulation. A method I like to use involves incorporating video or animation. Several websites exist with readymade videos and animations that will spark you students’ interests. The important thing to remember here is that the anticipatory set is just that – anticipatory. That means that your videos and animations should be short and to the point. Anything ten minutes or more and your students will lose focus on what they are about to learn. They will most likely go into the “free day” mode of thinking – exactly the opposite of what you intended by using the media in the first place. I suggest clips that last no more than five minutes. For example, when introducing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, I incorporate a short video clip detailing The Blitz occurring in London at the time of the Pevensie children’s evacuation. This short clip sets up the historical context in a shorter amount of time and with much greater detail than I could ever come up with on my own. Using multimedia in the classroom should always serve a purpose like this. The focus is on gaining interest, not giving the teacher five minutes to check messages. Remember a teacher serves as a model for learning every second of the school day. If you expect the students to watch and pay attention, then you must model that behavior as well. Another method for encouraging an interest in learning includes sharing your interests in learning with the students. What are your interests? How do you go about pursuing them? My students always know when I am in school because when I learn something interesting, I share it with them. In my experience, this practice has had the effect of making my students realize that learning can be enjoyable and interesting. Many students have low aspirations for a college education, and as educators we should do everything we can to encourage them to continue their education beyond high school.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better[edit | edit source]

I would like to conclude with what is perhaps Bruner’s most contested notion: the proposition that any subject “can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (Bruner, 1960). The idea is highly misinterpreted, and I will attempt to shed some light on the theory. Ultimately, an honest form just means that it is on the student’s intellectual level. Bruner does not intend to suggest that first graders will be solving algebraic functions or calculating the force of gravity. Instead, they might drop objects from the counter and make observations about how long it took the object to fall or if a heavier object fell faster. In both cases, the student is learning about gravity. The difference lies solely in the level of complexity. The theory goes back to the proposal that teachers should focus on the structure of the subject. The underlying structures of basic subjects can be “as simple as they are powerful” (p. 13). Ausubel suggests that there is a loss of “intellectual enthusiasm” as students progress through formal education (1962). Therefore, it is essential to engage students early and often to create active learners who value knowledge and education. Jerome Bruner proposes many significant theories about learning and the education system. His most beneficial ideas warrant discussion and application. I encourage educators to go beyond scaffolding and the spiral curriculum and recognize Bruner’s main interest: developing young minds with an avid interest in learning beyond the classroom and throughout life.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

• Ausubel, D. P. (1962, February). Can Children Learn Anything That Adults Can-And More Efficiently? The Elementary School Journal, 62(5), 270-272. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from JSTOR database.

• Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

• Bruner, J. S. (1983). In Search of Mind. New York: Harper & Row.

• Bruner, J. S. (1962). On Knowing. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

• Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of Education. New York: Vintage Books.

• Collier, R. G. (1979, November). Developing Language through Play. The Elementary School Journal, 80(2), 88-92. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from JSTOR database.

• Ellis, V. (2005, May 20). Opinion: The Classic Dilemma [Special section]. The Times Educational Supplement, (4635), 23. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from Lexis Nexis database.

• Wragg, T. (2004, August 6). Profile: An Icon of the Mind [Special section]. The Times Educational Supplement