An American Classic at 40

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I still believe in the Jerome Bruner gospel, that we don't have to sacrifice the learner on the altar of content.

As we complete the list of important contributions to educational thought of the past century, I want to put in a good word for one little book, Jerome S. Bruner’s The Process of Education. Barely 100 pages long and almost 40 years old, the book lay at the heart of a brief, frenetic period of change in schools in the 1960s that produced the great curriculum projects in biology and physics, as well as the new math. Because I was an elementary and secondary school student during that decade, my experience of schools and learning was deeply influenced as a child by the curriculum reforms that grew out of the ideas articulated in this book.

Then later, when I first read the book as an idealistic English teacher in the 1970s, I was mesmerized by its central optimism about the nature of teaching. To posit that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development felt like the mother lode to me then, and it still does today. This deep intellectual egalitarianism stirred my passion to get in front of kids and help them engage with the central experiences and organizing ideas of my discipline. The premise that if we understand two things very, very well the nature of the learner and the structure of the academic discipline being taught kids can learn just about anything became the core of my mission as a young teacher.

That mission keeps me going to this day. I still believe the Bruner gospel, that we don’t have to sacrifice the learner on the altar of content. And that’s not because I don’t believe in outcomes. In fact, the outcomes of education were very much on the minds of the scientists and researchers who met at Woods Hole, Mass., in 1959, for the symposium that led Jerome Bruner to write the book. Structure was so important to Bruner precisely because the outcomes of education had such profound meaning in those grim decades of the Cold War. He and his colleagues were interested in the kind of lean, efficient learning that would help America catch up with the Soviet Union in the race into space, a proxy for world pre-eminence in science know-how. If American schoolchildren came to understand the central concepts of science and mathematics, they could organize the volumes of particularities or details in these disciplines more efficiently and productively. That, at least, was the outcomes based premise of Bruner’s work.

And even though Bruner candidly admitted in his preface to the 1977 edition of the book that it may well be that we may not so readily be able to find an axiomatic deep structure in politics, economics, and the humanities as in science and mathematics, I still found plenty of material to work with as an English teacher. Noam Chomsky on language and Northrop Frye on narrative became my gurus. What drove my work was the belief that ferreting out the core structure of knowledge in my discipline helped me give my students a framework for understanding it.

But something else about the book inspired me even more it energized me with a sense of the importance of the work of teachers. Bruner tells us that his ideas are all premised on a central conviction: Intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a 3rd grade classroom. What a heady suggestion! It put my teaching at the center of a continuum of human learning. Decisions that I made about how best to teach my subject were critical. I needed to deeply understand my subject, and at the same time deeply understand how to teach it to my students so they would carry it with them in the most useful framework when they left my class. This perspective only spurred my passion for teaching. I had much to learn, yet the best of that learning could be transmuted into excitement and solid progress for my students. I wonder how many teachers feel themselves to be at such an exciting crossroads of learning today?

I’m afraid that too few of us do. The vestiges of Jerome Bruner’s ideas are all around us, but the sense of excitement about them has been just about wrung out of the schoolhouse. If you look hard, you can find Bruner’s spiral curriculum reflected in some textbook series based on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards, or catch a glimpse of his idea that teachers need to know their subject matter well transmuted into attempts to define and standardize the competencies of teachers into a form that can be tested by exam. And an echo of Bruner’s belief in a vital connection between the university and the schoolhouse can be perceived in the current standards movement in the academic disciplines.

But the best of Bruner’s ideas seem to have moved out of the schoolhouse altogether. On a recent trip back home to Toledo, Ohio, I stopped with my family at the Center of Science and Industry, or cosi. It is at places like this, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, that you can see Jerome Bruner writ large. For Bruner, a critical relationship exists between how material is presented and how well the student is able to absorb it and apply it in fresh situations. Science centers look first at how the scientific issues and concepts can be presented in the most engaging way possible. They have to, because the only motivational force that they have to work with is the child’s own curiosity. And because they provide little in the way of a formal teaching faculty, science centers must also provide natural and instantaneous feedback loops for students to judge the outcomes of their efforts.

In fact, Toledo’s cosi reminded me of how much learning can take place without a teacher present when the environment is rich and intriguing enough. I could hardly drag my kids away, for example, from the automated 10-yard dash that gave them instant feedback on their performance. On each successive try, they made a little adjustment to improve performance taking off their sandals on the rubberized surface, changing their crouch, watching for the starting signal with their eyes rather than simply listening with their ears, timing their starts all because they had the right kind of challenge and the right sort of feedback loop to learn from. Ditto with the water area: The water tables and other activities were designed with high interest and instantaneous feedback in mind. Adults stood elbow to elbow with their children to design the sand dikes and diversion channels that helped them see the course the flowing water would cut through their designs. I think that Bruner would appreciate the kind of absorbed experimentation that learners at cosi thrive on.

We can discern Bruner's influence...on a generation of parents that grew up believing that learning by doing is inherently right.

Perhaps the popularity of cosi and the Exploratorium can be attributed to my generation’s fascination with this kind of learning for our children. I think Jerome Bruner would love the idea of a school as an Exploratorium. In fact, one could argue that making schools into exploratoriums is the thrust of his 1960 book. Peter B. Dow, one of Bruner’s students, has carried this very idea into action, promoting active partnerships between schools and science museums. We can discern Bruner’s influence in these efforts on a generation of parents that grew up believing that learning by doing is inherently right.

This is one of the things that strike me as particularly American about Bruner’s work. A fundamentally sound concept will have its impact in the marketplace of ideas, whether it is in vogue or not. Anyone working on the frontiers of knowledge in any era, in a school or a science center or a university, values the intellect exploring and pressing forward into fresh areas to create new formulations rather than simply repeat the old.

Give me the fertile workshop of ideas that Jerome Bruner wishes to promote for children, the results that come from tinkering and intuition, and confidence in the outcome of open-ended inquiry in our schools. This is the legacy of The Process of Education.

William E. DeLamater is the head of school at Alexandria Country Day School in Alexandria, Va.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Pages 39, 42

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as An American Classic at 40
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