School & District Management Obituary

Jerome S. Bruner, Pioneering Education Psychologist, Dies at 100

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 08, 2016 3 min read
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Jerome Seymour Bruner, one of the primary drivers of the “cognitive revolution” in psychology in the 1960s and an active scholar, died June 5. He was 100 years old.

“The main thing about teaching is, it opens up a wider range of possibility,” he said in a 2014 video interview for New York University. “You teach them about something in the past or present, but you hope it will have the good effect of leading them into the realm of possibility—that’s where intelligence lies.”

Bruner was born blind to Polish immigrants—first gaining sight through surgery as a toddler—and he came of age during the Great Depression, losing his father at age 12. Both the gaining of vision and the loss of his father influenced his thought on how the mind develops, he said in a 2013 American Psychological Association interview.

“That led me to think about ‘mind’ as not just about being aware of what exists, but mind in terms of possibility ... as a hypothesis generator,” he said.

Through his groundbreaking 1959 book, The Process of Education, and others, Bruner led a new focus on education through social interactions and the need to understand how both culture and content affect learning. He found much of his own public schooling “boring” and passionately argued against viewing children as “blank slates” to be filled with facts, as many behaviorist theories of learning held at the time.

“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,” wrote William E. DeLamater in an Education Week essay on Bruner’s The Process of Education. DeLamater was then a Virginia private school principal and the president of the education technology firm eReadia, LLC. He added later, “we can discern Bruner’s influence ... on a generation of parents that grew up believing that learning by doing is inherently right.”

Bruner graduated from Duke University in 1937 and earned a doctorate in psychology from Harvard in 1941.He co-founded and served as director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard, and also served on the faculty of Oxford University in England. He also served as a president of the American Psychological Association, which gave him a Distinguished Scientific Award. As an outgrowth of his belief that children can learn at any age, he became a key architect of the federal Head Start program for preschool education for children in poverty.

Bruner also won the American Educational Research Association’s award for distinguished contributions to research in education in 1985.

“He was a person of incredible brilliance matched by his humanity,” said Vivian L. Gadsden, a professor of child development and education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the current president of AERA. “His contributions to the study of cognitive, developmental, and educational psychology; language development; and education enlightened our way of thinking about learning and our way of thinking about and conducting research.”

Bruner became a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law in 1991, and continued as a research and adjunct professor up until his death, studying how law and legal practices can be understood through the lens of psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences.

In 2013, he was featured in the American Psychological Association’s “Inside the Psychologist’s Studio,” below:


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.