9.4 Jerome Bruner’s Theory of Development: Discovery Learning & Representation

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch9 Knowledge Processes & Models

This lesson explores Jerome Bruner’s theory of development, his three modes of representation, and his beliefs on learning, language, and discovery. It will also differentiate Bruner’s views of learning compared to Jean Piaget’s views.

Jerome Bruner and Education

Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner felt the goal of education should be intellectual development, as opposed to rote memorization of facts.

This lesson will discuss Bruner’s theory of development and his three modes of representation. We will also explore his beliefs on learning, language, and discovery and differentiate his views from those of Jean Piaget.

Bruner held the following beliefs regarding learning and education:

  • He believed curriculum should foster the development of problem-solving skills through the processes of inquiry and discovery.
  • He believed that subject matter should be represented in terms of the child’s way of viewing the world.
  • That curriculum should be designed so that the mastery of skills leads to the mastery of still more powerful ones.
  • He also advocated teaching by organizing concepts and learning by discovery.
  • Finally, he believed culture should shape notions through which people organize their views of themselves and others and the world in which they live.

Three Stages of Representation

Jerome Bruner identified three stages of cognitive representation.

  1. Enactive, which is the representation of knowledge through actions.
  2. Iconic, which is the visual summarization of images.
  3. Symbolic representation, which is the use of words and other symbols to describe experiences.

The enactive stage appears first. This stage involves the encoding and storage of information. There is a direct manipulation of objects without any internal representation of the objects.

For example, a baby shakes a rattle and hears a noise. The baby has directly manipulated the rattle and the outcome was a pleasurable sound. In the future, the baby may shake his hand, even if there is no rattle, expecting his hand to produce the rattling sounds. The baby does not have an internal representation of the rattle and, therefore, does not understand that it needs the rattle in order to produce the sound.

The iconic stage appears from one to six years old. This stage involves an internal representation of external objects visually in the form of a mental image or icon. For example, a child drawing an image of a tree or thinking of an image of a tree would be representative of this stage.

The symbolic stage, from seven years and up, is when information is stored in the form of a code or symbol such as language. Each symbol has a fixed relation to something it represents. For example, the word ‘dog’ is a symbolic representation for a single class of animal. Symbols, unlike mental images or memorized actions, can be classified and organized. In this stage, most information is stored as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems.

Bruner believed that all learning occurs through the stages we just discussed. Bruner also believed that learning should begin with direct manipulation of objects. For example, in math education, Bruner promoted the use of algebra tiles, coins, and other items that could be manipulated.

After a learner has the opportunity to directly manipulate the objects, they should be encouraged to construct visual representations, such as drawing a shape or a diagram.

Finally, a learner understands the symbols associated with what they represent. For example, a student in math understands that the plus sign ( + ) means to add two numbers together and the minus sign ( – ) means to subtract.

Discovery Learning

The concept of discovery learning implies that a learner constructs his or her own knowledge for themselves by discovering as opposed to being told about something.

According to Bruner, the teacher should facilitate the learning process by developing lessons that provide the learner with information they need without organizing it for them.

This idea of discovery learning is often referred to as constructivism, which emphasizes the active role of the learner in building understanding and making sense of information.

Bruner vs. Piaget

Bruner wasn’t the only cognitive psychologist with ideas about learning. Jean Piaget and Bruner held common beliefs about learning, but disagreed on several points.

Bruner and Piaget agreed that children are born ready to learn. They both thought that children have a natural curiosity. They also both agreed that children are active learners and that cognitive development entails the use of symbols.

Bruner and Piaget disagreed on the following:

  • Bruner believed development is a continuous process, not a series of stages.
  • Bruner also believed development of language is a cause and not a consequence of cognitive development.
  • Bruner also believed you didn’t have to wait for a child to be ready, and you could speed-up cognitive development.
  • Bruner thought that adults and knowledgeable peers played a major role in the cognitive development of a learner.
  • Bruner did not believe symbolic thought replaced earlier modes of representation.

Lesson Summary

Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, created a theory of development based upon the idea that the goal of education should be intellectual development. In this theory, he identified three modes of representation. Enactive is the stage that involves direct manipulation of objects without an internal representation. Iconic is the stage in which there is an internal representation of external objects in the form of a mental image or picture. Finally, symbolic is the stage where information is stored in the form of a symbol, such as language.

Bruner felt the teacher should encourage discovery learning by allowing the student to construct knowledge for him or herself. The role of instruction was to guide and provide enough information for understanding, but not too much that would stifle the child’s own construction of knowledge.

Bruner and Jean Piaget agreed on several components of learning, including the fact that children are born as ready and active learners. They disagreed, however, on several critical components of learning. Bruner believed development does not consist of discrete stages but is a continuous process. He also believed language is a cause and not a consequence of learning. He believed that more knowledgeable people play a major role in the cognitive development of a learner and that you could speed-up the learning process.

Learning Outcomes

Upon completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Jerome Bruner’s three modes of representation
  • Identify the goal of education and the role of the teacher according to Bruner
  • Explain the points that Bruner and Jean Piaget both agreed and disagreed on
9.5 Positioning Approaches: Dual Coding Theory
9.3 Mental Imagery: Process & Model