Discovery Learning (Jerome Bruner – 1961)

To the foundation of constructive learning theory established by Piaget, Jerome Bruner contributed important ideas regarding (a)  modes of representation, (b) the importance of teaching and learning “optimal structure” (J. S. Bruner, 1966b, p. 41), (c) the spiral curriculum, and (d) learning through acts of discovery in order to rearrange and transform what is learned “in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to additional new insights” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 22).

Just as Piaget viewed development as progressing from the physical sensorimotor experience of the child which results in learned action-schemes, to representative schema which facilitate mental operations, Bruner also distinguished between three modes of representation or systems of processing in both the physical (i.e., action) and mental (i.e., imagery and language) realms. In Bruner’s (1964) view, growth necessitates and is facilitated by manageable representation of “recurrent features” of the “complex environments in which [we] live” (p. 1):

Two matters will concern us. The first has to do with the techniques or technologies that aid growing human beings to represent in a manageable way the recurrent features of the complex environments in which they live. It is fruitful, I think, to distinguish three systems of processing information by which human beings construct models of their world: through action, through imagery, and through language. A second concern is with integration, the means whereby acts are organized into higher-order ensembles, making possible the use of larger and larger units of information for the solution of particular problems. (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 1)

Bruner referred to these three systems of processing as enactive, iconic, and symbolic, and defined them as follows (J. S. Bruner, 1964):

  1. Enactive representation – “By enactive representation I mean a mode of representing past events through appropriate motor response” (p. 2).
  2. Iconic representation – “Iconic representation summarizes events by the selective organization of percepts and of images, by the spatial, temporal, and qualitative structures of the perceptual field and their transformed images” (p. 2).
  3. Symbolic representation – “A symbolic system represents things by design features that include remoteness and arbitrariness. A word neither points directly to its referent here and now, nor does it resemble it as a picture” (p. 2).

As an example of the three modes, Bruner cited an experiment reported by Emerson in 1931 in which children were told to place a ring on a peg board, copying the position of a ring placed on an identical board by the experimenter. Children ranging from 3 to 12 were the subjects of the experiment. Their boards were placed in a variety of orientations relative to the experimenter’s board. The results of the experiment showed that older children performed better than younger children, but that the younger children could do about as well as the oldest as long as he did not have to change his body position to place his ring. The more the younger children had to turn, the more difficult the task. Bruner interpreted these results in terms of his three modes of representation, calling attention to the ability of the older children to use iconic or symbolic representation to mediate the loss of context experienced in reorienting one’s body:

The younger children could do about as well as the oldest so long as they did not have to change their own position vis-à-vis the experimenter’s board. The more they had to turn, the more difficult the task. They were clearly depending upon their bodily orientation toward the experimenter’s board to guide them. When this orientation is disturbed by having to turn, they lose the position on the board. Older children succeed even when they must turn, either by the use of imagery that is invariant across bodily displacements, or, later, by specifying column and row of the experimenter’s ring and carrying the symbolized self-instruction back to their own board. It is a limited world, the world of enactive representation. (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 3)

Bruner’s modes of representation provide an explanation of cognitive growth;  that it proceeds in sequence from learned action patterns, to images that stand for events, and finally to a symbol system:

We have said that cognitive growth consists in part in the development of systems of representation as means for dealing with information. The growing child begins with a strong reliance on learned action patterns to represent the world around him. In time, there is added to this technology a means for simultanizing regularities in experience into images that stand for events in the way that pictures do. And to this is finally added a technology of translating experience into a symbol system that can be operated upon by rules of transformation that greatly increase the possible range of problem solving. (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 11)

Although the young child begins only with the capacity for representation through action, then later imagery, then finally language, it is not Bruner’s position that the first two forms of representation are not abandoned once language is available, for even “in ordinary adult learning a certain amount of motoric skill and practice seem to be a necessary precondition for the development of a simultaneous image to represent the sequence of acts involved” (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 3).

In The Process of Education (1960) Bruner published a set of views that grew out of a ten-day conference of thirty-five scientists, scholars, and educators, convened by the National Academy of Sciences through its Education Committee to discuss how education in science might be improved (pp. vii – xvi). The book is written around four themes (introduced in pp. 11-16):

  1. The role of structure in learning – “The teaching and learning of structure, rather than simply the mastery of facts and techniques, is at the center of the problem of transfer” (p. 12)
  2. Readiness for learning – “Our schools may be wasting precious years by postponing the teaching of many important subjects on the ground that they are too difficult…the foundations of any subject may be taught to anybody at any age in some form” (p. 12)
  3. The nature of intuition – “The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion—these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work, whatever his line of work” (pp. 13-14)
  4. The desire to learn and how it may be stimulated – “Ideally, interest in the material to be learned is the best stimulus to learning, rather than such external goals as grades or later competitive advantage” (p. 14)

The first three of Bruner’s themes are premised by his conviction that the intellectual activity of the child is no different in kind than the intellectual activity of a scientist working at the frontier of knowledge, but only in degree:

Intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third-grade classroom. What a scientist does at his desk or in his laboratory, what a literary critic does in reading a poem, are of the same order as what anybody else does when he is engaged in like activities—if he is to achieve understanding. The difference is in degree, not in kind. The schoolboy learning physics is a physicist, and it is easier for him to learn physics behaving like a physicist than doing something else. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 14)

Bruner believed that “teaching should be geared to the teaching of fundamental ideas in whatever subject is being taught”[1] (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 18). He referred to this as learning structure, the learning of which “should not only take us somewhere; it should allow us later to go further more easily” (p. 17). Structure provides the framework for a given subject. To learn the structure of a subject is to understand it “in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully,” or “to learn how things are related” (p. 7). Bruner made four general claims in support of teaching fundamental structure as the primary and initial goal of a curriculum:

  1. “Understanding fundamentals makes a subject more comprehensible” (p. 23).
  2. “Unless detail is placed into a structured pattern, it is rapidly forgotten” (p. 24).
  3. “An understanding of fundamental principles and ideas appears to be the main road to adequate ‘transfer of training’” (p. 25).
  4. By constantly reexamining material taught in elementary and secondary schools for its fundamental character, one is able to narrow the gap between “advanced” knowledge and “elementary” knowledge (p. 26).[2]

Consistent with his basic premise that the intellectual activity of the child is no different in kind from the intellectual activity of a scientist, only different in degree (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 14), Bruner believed there is no reason to wait until the child is ‘ready’ (i.e. through cognitive maturation) before introducing certain topics which would otherwise not be accessible to him:

We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. It is a bold hypothesis and an essential one in thinking about the nature of a curriculum. No evidence exists to contradict it; considerable evidence is being amassed that supports it. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 33)

As an example he described “statistical manipulation and computation” as “only tools to be used after intuitive understanding has been established” (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 46). He also explained that intuitive understanding, as well as attitudes and approaches, is something that can be taught in the earlier grades:

It may well be that there are certain general attitudes or approaches toward science or literature that can be taught in the earlier grades that would have considerable relevance for later learning. The attitude that things are connected and not isolated is a case in point. One can indeed imagine kindergarten games designed to make children more actively alert to how things affect or are connected with each other—a kind of introduction to the idea of multiple determination of events in the physical and social world.  (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 27)

The enabling characteristic of knowledge that lends utility to Bruner’s notion of spiral curriculum is that it is, in fact, the basic and simple ideas that underlie all that is complex:

Though the proposition may seem startling at first, its intent is to underscore an essential point often overlooked in the planning of curricula. It is that the basic ideas that lie at the heart of all science and mathematics and the basic themes that give form to life and literature are as simple as they are powerful. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, pp. 12-13)

Having first the benefit of exposure to basic constructs and principles—exposure which permits the establishment of an intuitive understanding, grounded in experience commensurate with his view of the world and how he interprets ideas—the child’s understanding can then be enlarged through a “continual deepening” that ushers in effective utility of the knowledge and understanding previously acquired:

To be in command of these basic ideas, to use them effectively, requires a continual deepening of one’s understanding of them that comes from learning to use them in progressively more complex forms[[3]]. It is only when such ideas are put in formalized terms as equations or elaborated verbal concepts that they are out of reach of the young child, if he has not first understood them intuitively and had a chance to try them out on his own. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 13)

Of important note in the above quote is Bruner’s point regarding the accessibility of ideas to children.  He elaborated this point by general hypothetical example, stating that the barrier to accessibility is not a result of the complexity of the ideas per se, but rather the formal language adults use to describe them:

Fourth-grade children can play absorbing games governed by the principles of topology and set theory, even discovering new “moves” or theorems. They can grasp the idea of tragedy and the basic human plights represented in myth. But they cannot put these ideas into formal language or manipulate them as grownups can. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 13)

Because of this, he recommended that “the early teaching of science, mathematics, social studies, and literature should be designed to teach these subjects with scrupulous intellectual honesty, but with an emphasis upon the intuitive grasp of ideas and upon the use of these basic ideas” (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 13). From this departure, the spiral curriculum then “turns back on itself at higher levels” (p. 13) and the curriculum “as it develops [revisits] these basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them” (p. 13).

One of the primary factors to consider in structuring the spiral curriculum is the child’s way of “viewing the world and explaining it to himself” (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 33) which changes as the child develops:

Research on the intellectual development of the child highlights the fact that at each stage of development the child has a characteristic way of viewing the world and explaining it to himself. The task of teaching a subject to a child at any particular age is one of representing the structure of that subject in terms of the child’s way of viewing things. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 33)

It may be that nothing is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 40)

In summary, an effective spiral curriculum (J.S. Bruner, 1960)

  1. Begins with the basic and simple ideas that underlie that which is more complex (pp. 12-13).
  2. Emphasizes the intuitive grasp of ideas and the use of those basic ideas in the early teaching of any subject (p. 46).
  3. Revisits the basic ideas repeatedly (p. 13).
  4. Enables continual deepening of understanding by facilitating the use of basic ideas in progressively more complex forms (p. 13).

Bruner is also known for his ideas on learning through discovery, which I have often heard spoken of in educational circles as if it is the complete essence of constructive learning theory. I have also observed that discovery learning has had considerable influence on today’s public education,[4] particularly in math education. Bruner’s definition of “discovery” was not restricted to “the act of finding out something that before was unknown to mankind, but rather [included] all forms of obtaining knowledge for oneself by the use of one’s own mind” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 22). He further stated that there are “powerful effects that come from permitting the student to put things together for himself, to be his own discoverer” (p. 22).

Bruner described discovery learning as taking place in the hypothetical rather than the expository mode. In the expository mode “decisions concerning the mode and pace and style of exposition are principally determined by the teacher as expositor; the student is listener” (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 23). In the hypothetical mode, on the other hand, “the teacher and student are in a more cooperative position” (p. 23) in which the student, at times, plays the principle role:

The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking a part in the formulation and at times may play the principle role in it. He will be aware of alternatives and may even have an “as if” attitude toward these and, as he receives information he may evaluate it as it comes.  (J. S. Bruner, 1961, p. 23)

The technique of discovery is also a factor in its effectiveness. Bruner (1961, p. 24-25) noted two alternatives: cumulative constructionism and episodic empiricism. Using the latter, the child “string[s] out hypotheses non-cumulatively one after the other” (p. 25) thereby flooding themselves with “disorganized information” (p. 25) and “soon become[s] discouraged and confused” (p. 25).  In contrast, the child who employs cumulative constructionism makes use of previously acquired information and uses it to determine subsequent inquiries. This child has “a certain cunning in his strategy of getting information” (p. 25) with the principle component of his strategy being “the recognition that the value of information is not simply in getting it but in being able to carry it” (p. 25),  and a “knowledge of how to organize questions in cycles, how to summarize things to himself, and the like” (p. 25). Cumulative constructionism constrains the nature of subsequent questions of investigation, connects previously acquired knowledge with new knowledge, and continually organizing the incoming flow of information:

Episodic empiricism is illustrated by information gathering that is unbound by prior constraints, that lacks connectivity, and that is deficient in organizational persistence. The opposite extreme is illustrated by an approach that is characterized by constraint sensitivity, by connective maneuvers, and by organized persistence. (1961, p. 25)

Bruner hypothesized that an emphasis on discovery in learning would have the positive result of leading students to become more effective learners:

I would urge now in the spirit of an hypothesis that emphasis upon discovery in learning has precisely the effect upon the learner of leading him to be a constructionist, to organize what he is encountering in a manner not only designed to discover regularity and relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have to be put. It is, if you will, a necessary condition for learning the variety of techniques of problem solving, of transforming information for better use, indeed for learning how to go about the task of learning. Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem solving. (1961, p. 26)

He also expressed a belief that such a practice would result in a shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and that what is learned will be more easily remembered:

To the degree that one is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than “learning about” it, to that degree will there be a tendency for the child to carry out his learning activities with the autonomy of self-reward or, more properly by reward that is discovery itself. (1961, p. 26)

The very attitudes and activities that characterize “figuring out” or “discovering” things for oneself also seems to have the effect of making material more readily an accessible in memory. (1961, p. 32)

Although Bruner had intended to present discovery as a guided process—directed toward some specific goal and a pre-determined set of criteria regarding what is to be discovered—as it often happens, what he said about discovery was taken far beyond its intended bounds. By the mid-1960s discovery teaching had come to imply “providing a rich environment for learning with an accompanying freedom for learners to set their own learning agenda” (Driscoll, 2000, p. 233) which resulted in “a surge of popularity for open, unstructured classrooms” (p. 233). Bruner himself did not support this detachment of context or the unguided application of discovery:

I had, some years before, published a paper entitled “The Act of Discovery” (Harvard Educational Review, 1961), which had been interpreted as the basis for a “school of pedagogy” by a certain number of educators. As so frequently happens, the concept of discovery, originally formulated to highlight the importance of self-direction and intentionality, had become detached from its context and made into an end in itself. Discovery was being treated by some educators as if it were valuable in and of itself, no matter what it was a discovery of or in whose service.  (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. xv)

Bruner (1971) also stated that he was “not quite sure” anymore that he understood what discovery is, that you would not expect each organism to “rediscover the totality of its culture,” and went so far as to refer to discovery as “the most inefficient technique possible for regaining what has been gathered [by the culture as a whole] over a long period of time” (pp. 68-69). In reference to language learning by the young child he said,[5]

Thus, within the culture the earliest form of learning essential to the person becoming human is not so much discovery as it is having a model. The constant provision of a model, the constant response to the individual’s response after response, back and forth between two people, constitute “invention” learning guided by an accessible model. (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. 69)

As Bruner re-evaluated his thinking about discovery, he decided that one could not reasonably conclude that discovery is a principal means of educating children, but continued to recognize a necessary discovery-like component in human learning:

If you want to talk about invention, perhaps the most primitive form of uniquely human learning is the invention of certain patterns that probably come out of deep-groove characteristics of the human nervous system, with a lot of shaping taking place on the part of an adult. Consequently, wherever you look, you cannot really come away with a strong general consensus that discovery is a principal means of educating the young. Yet, the one thing that is apparent is that there seems to be a necessary component in human learning that is like discovery, namely, the opportunity to go about exploring a situation. (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. 70)

He followed this up by redefining the important substrate of discovery learning which he had tried to articulate in The Act of Discovery (1961). In his new definition he articulated discovery teaching as a six part problem, the solution of which is aimed at “an approach to learning that allows the child not only to learn the material that is presented in a school setting, but to learn it in such a way that he can use the information in problem solving” (J. S. Bruner, 1971, p. 70). The six sub-problems of his new model are (J.S. Bruner, 1971)

1. Attitude

First is the attitude problem. How do you arrange learning in such a way that the child recognizes that when he has information he can go beyond it, that there is connectedness between the facts he has learned with other data and situations? He must have the attitude that he can use his head effectively to solve a problem, that when he has a little bit of information he can extrapolate information; and that he can interpolate when he has unconnected material. Basically, this is an attitudinal problem—something that will counteract inertness in that he will recognize the material that he has learned as an occasion for going beyond it. (p. 71)

2. Compatibility

Second is the compatibility problem. How do you get the child to approach new material that he is learning in such a fashion that he fits it into his own system of associations, subdivisions, categories, and frames of reference, in order that he can make it his own and thus be able to use the information in a fashion compatible with what he already knows? (p. 71)

3. Activation

Third involves getting the child activated so that he can experience his own capacity to solve problems and have enough success so that he can feel rewarded for the exercise of thinking. (p. 71)

4. Practice

Fourth is giving the child practice in the skills related to the use of information and problem solving…The great problem here is how do you give the child practice in the utilization of these skills—because it turns out that however often you may set forth general ideas, unless the student has an opportunity to use them he is not going to be very effective in their use. (pp. 71-72)

5. The “self-loop” problem

Fifth is a special kind of a problem that I want to speak of as “the self-loop problem.” The child, in learning in school settings, will frequently do kinds of things which he is not able to describe to himself. Psychologists see this all the time in new studies—children who are able to do many kinds of things, for example, to handle a balance mean quite adequately by putting rings on nails on both sides of a fulcrum and getting quite interesting balances, but are not able to say it to themselves and convert this fact into a compact notion which they could hold in mind. (pp. 71-72)

6. Capacity for handling information flow

The sixth problem involves the nature of our capacity for handling information flow manageably so that it can be used in problem solving. (p. 72)

In summary, as with virtually all of the other theories so far discussed, Bruner’s ideas of discovery learning were (a) presented in a piecemeal fashion with limited context, (b) interpreted beyond their intended scope, (c) generalized into a practitioners’ application, and (d) were later modified and subdued by their originator in favor of a new interpretation. However, as is also true of many of the other theories, the generalized educational practitioner’s application of the original ideas is of considerable influence in both the classroom and the design of instruction.


[1] Bruner described the challenges of teaching structure as: (a) “how to construct curricula that can be taught by ordinary teachers to ordinary students and that at the same time reflect clearly the basic or underlying principles of various fields of inquiry” (J. S. Bruner, 1960, p. 18),  (b) how to enlist the aid of subject matter experts (“to decide that the elementary ideas of algebra depend upon the fundamentals of the commutative, distributive, and associative laws, one must be a mathematician in a position to appreciate and understand the fundamentals of mathematics” (p. 19)), and (c) how to develop “an attitude toward learning and inquiry, toward guessing and hunches, toward the possibility of solving problems on one’s own” (p. 20) in a given field.

[2] The concern is the disconnect that can occur between what is learned in elementary school and what is learned in high school due, at least in part, to the changing nature of knowledge as developments in the field are made.

[3] cf. Reigeluth’s elaboration theory (C. M. Reigeluth, 1999).

[4] In fact, they are pervasive enough that it’s probably fair to say they dominate the general approach to teaching math in K-6 grades across the country. At least in my own experience in traveling to various school districts to conduct training and provide consulting, this has certainly been the case.

[5] Driscoll (2000, p. 230) cited the second half of this statement as evidence that Bruner was reemphasizing “that discovery is not haphazard.” I do not see it this way. In my own interpretation, Bruner is clearly stating that language learning is not facilitated by discovery, but by interaction with a model.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s