When Jerome Bruner — the father of modern psychology of education — died on June 5, 2016, at the age of 100, nobody paid much attention in Pakistan. But, for educationists the world over, it was the closing of a long innings. With his death, an important chapter in the theory and practice of education came to an end. Bruner was one of the most important players in the game of education that came to be known as the ‘Cognitive Revolution’ (CR). The CR was a name for an intellectual movement in the 1950s that initiated the study of the cognitive sciences in education.
The purpose of this article is not to write an obituary of Bruner, but to discuss the context in which education was taken out of the closet of behaviourism of the early 20th century into the cauldron of interdisciplinary communication and research. A brief introduction to this movement may spark a rethinking of several foundational concepts in the philosophy of education in Pakistan, if there is any such thing at all in this country. A combination of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics was a response to behaviourism that was the predominant school in educational psychology for a number of decades.
Behaviourism was influenced by the Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and the American psychologist, B F Skinner (1904-1990). Interestingly, in its displacement too Russians and Americans played instrumental roles: Lev Vygotsky (1896-1936), Jerome Bruner (1915-2016) and Noam Chomsky (born, 1928).
Behaviourists had defined psychology as the science of behaviour and proposed that psychology could only become an objective science when it was based on scientific laws of behaviour in subjects. To them, the only objective measure available was recorded behaviour and since mental events were not publicly observable, they were discarded.
The field of cognitive psychology proposed that by studying successful functions of intelligence we might learn more about human mental processes. The CR brought back the mental concepts — thoughts, memories, goals, and emotions — into the realm of psychology. These concepts had been banned as unscientific by the behaviourists who had replaced them by association between stimuli and responses. Whereas Vygotsky and Bruner realised that such concepts had enormous potential for a science of mind. Bruner coauthored A Study of Thinking which analysed people as constructive problem-solvers as they mastered new concepts. In 1960, Bruner cofounded the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies, and by doing so institutionalised the CR and launched the cognitive sciences.
But, it did not come about abruptly in the 1950s. A look at the years leading up to the mid-20th century helps us understand the context in which this revolution took place. In the early 20th century, a number of competing psychological theories of mind had been developed. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical school and Gestalt psychology of the Berlin school were dominant in continental Europe. The pioneers of the CR rejected the psychoanalytical school as mostly pseudoscientific, though they also initially sought to build a theory of mind using the experimental techniques developed by behaviourists.
One major contribution of the cognitivists was their rejection of the central concept of behaviourism that the mind was blank slate. Linguist Noam Chomsky noted that people can produce and understand an infinite number of novel sentences thanks to an internalised grammar or set of rules, rather than having memorised a list of responses. This internal grammar, according to Chomsky, is not taught but children are equipped with a ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD), that instantiates a universal grammar. The CR roughly spanned twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 in which cognitive psychologists not only observed behaviour but also its relation to brain activity and models of the mind.
In 1959, Chomsky’s review of B F Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour was released which was an all-out attack on the concept of the blank slate. Skinner had proposed that language was learned through reinforcement in the behaviourist paradigm, whereas Chomsky argued against this flawed model and advocated that mind had an innate capacity for language. When Chomsky was fighting against Skinner, Bruner was being influenced by the work of Vygotsky whose earlier writings in Russian were now made available in English translations.
Bruner shared Vygotsky’s belief that a child’s social environment and social interactions were key elements of the learning process. Bruner’s Scaffolding theory in education borrowed heavily from Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). Scaffolding theory identifies the importance of providing students with enough support in the initial stages of learning a new subject. Bruner wanted to ensure that children aren’t left to their own devices to understand something and a support or scaffold was in place to support the construction of knowledge.
This support may be in the shape of a more advanced peer in a small group or by a teacher who temporarily supports but then removes the scaffold so that the child is able to build knowledge on her own. This theory resulted in a new model called ‘constructivism’ that makes students active in the learning process. Based on experiential learning, constructivism allows learners to better process their newfound knowledge and skills that are built on past knowledge using their own reasoning in the learning process.
Bruner’s idea of a constructivist approach led to the development of the ‘spiral curriculum’ that involves students building on their existing knowledge. This type of curriculum found a concrete shape in an American humanities teaching programme called Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) which became popular in America and Britain in the 1970s. This was based on the idea that a concept might be taught repeatedly within a curriculum like a spiral, each level being more complex than the first; enabling the child to absorb more complex ideas easily.
MACOS revolved around the concept of ‘the chain of life’ or a ‘lifeline’ i.e. the entire history of living thing. The course started with a simple lifespan and then moved on to the more complex life forms, introducing concepts such as nurturing, and the differences between innate behaviour and learned behaviour were introduced. The best part of the curriculum was its stress upon learning particular skills within the teaching process, not upon the significance of the content. The learning included the asking of questions, discussing, and reaching conclusions based upon evidence and argument.
Even in America this course was criticised for its emphasis on questioning aspects of life such as belief and morality. Christian fundamentalist groups targeted MACOS curriculum for its attempts to promote scientific literacy by advocating evolution, and the Republican government under the Nixon administration bowed to the negative pressure and downsized the funding for this curriculum.
Bruner was not cowed and continued publishing works on perceptual organisation, cognition, and learning theory; kept fighting against the deliberate mind-blindness of his opponents, by emphasising the importance of strategies and mental representations in the real-world phenomena. He proposed a three-tiered system of teaching: action-based (enactive), image-based (iconic), and language-based (symbolic).
For us in Pakistan, Bruner’s ideas can be helpful in many ways, as we encounter a near breakdown of our education system when it fails to nurture good learners and responsible citizens. We learn from Bruner that learning should be an active process in which learners should be able to construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current knowledge. That calls for a curriculum in which the learners select and transform information, construct hypothesis, and make decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so.
If our curriculum developers and education mangers learn to understand that cognitive structures i.e. mental models provide meaning and organisation to experiences, they will allow the individual learners to go beyond the information given. The instructors should be taught to encourage students to discover principles by themselves and both learners and teachers engage in an active dialogue.
Probably it is wrong to suggest that Bruner was the sole pioneer of this method; educationists from Socrates to John Dewey have used questioning as the preferred mode of teaching and learning. The contribution that Bruner made was his stress upon translating information to be learned into a format appropriate to learner’s understanding; the concept of spiral was entirely Bruner’s in which he outlined four major aspects of learning: one, predisposition towards learning; two, structured knowledge; three, effective sequencing; and four, internal motivation as reward.
The last point that we can learn from Bruner is his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning and the respect for law as a primary ingredient of learning. Since there is a renewed talk about yet another ‘education policy’ for Pakistan as advocated by our minister of religious affairs and the federal minister for education — who are more interested in enhancing religious elements in syllabus — may one request that it is about time we handed over education policy making to those who are familiar with education theory and practice rather than dilettantes who keep experimenting with education and in the process have presented a warped system of education.