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Constructivist Theory (Jerome Bruner)



A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.

Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effective sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.

In his more recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990, 1996) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning as well as the practice of law.


Bruner's constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (especially Piaget ). The ideas outlined in Bruner (1960) originated from a conference focused on science and math learning. Bruner illustrated his theory in the context of mathematics and social science programs for young children (see Bruner, 1973). The original development of the framework for reasoning processes is described in Bruner, Goodnow & Austin (1951). Bruner (1983) focuses on language learning in young children.

Note that Constructivism is a very broad conceptual framework in philosophy and science and Bruner's theory represents one particular perspective. For an overview of other Constructivist frameworks, see http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/constructivism.html.


This example is taken from Bruner (1973):

"The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file or in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table , so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed mutiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized."


1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).

3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1973). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1983). Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J., Goodnow, J., & Austin, A. (1956). A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.

More about Bruner can be found at: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm http://www.psy.pdx.edu/PsiCafe/KeyTheorists/Bruner.htm

Genetic Epistemology (J. Piaget)


Over a period of six decades, Jean Piaget conducted a program of naturalistic research that has profoundly affected our understanding of child development. Piaget called his general theoretical framework "genetic epistemology" because he was primarily interested in how knowledge developed in human organisms. Piaget had a background in both Biology and Philosophy and concepts from both these disciplines influences his theories and research of child development.

The concept of cognitive structure is central to his theory. Cognitive structures are patterns of physical or mental action that underlie specific acts of intelligence and correspond to stages of child development (see Schemas). There are four primary cognitive structures (i.e., development stages) according to Piaget: sensorimotor, preoperations, concrete operations, and formal operations. In the sensorimotor stage (0-2 years), intelligence takes the form of motor actions. Intelligence in the preoperation period (3-7 years) is intutive in nature. The cognitive structure during the concrete operational stage (8-11 years) is logical but depends upon concrete referents. In the final stage of formal operations (12-15 years), thinking involves abstractions.

Cognitive structures change through the processes of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events in terms of existing cognitive structure whereas accommodation refers to changing the cognitive structure to make sense of the environment. Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accommodation. In this sense, Piaget's theory is similar in nature to other constructivist perspectives of learning (e.g., Bruner, Vygotsky).

While the stages of cognitive development identified by Piaget are associated with characteristic age spans, they vary for every individual. Furthermore, each stage has many detailed structural forms. For example, the concrete operational period has more than forty distinct structures covering classification and relations, spatial relationships, time, movement, chance, number, conservation and measurement. Similar detailed analysis of intellectual functions is provided by theories of intelligence such as Guilford, Gardner, and Sternberg.


Piaget explored the implications of his theory to all aspects of cognition, intelligence and moral development. Many of Piaget's experiments were focused on the development of mathematical and logical concepts. The theory has been applied extensively to teaching practice and curriculum design in elementary education (e.g., Bybee & Sund, 1982; Wadsworth, 1978). Piaget's ideas have been very influential on others, such as Seymour Papert (see computers).


Applying Piaget's theory results in specific recommendations for a given stage of cognitive development. For example, with children in the sensorimotor stage, teachers should try to provide a rich and stimulating environment with ample objects to play with. On the other hand, with children in the concrete operational stage, learning activities should involve problems of classification, ordering, location, conservation using concrete objects.


1. Children will provide different explanations of reality at different stages of cognitive development.

2. Cognitive development is facilitated by providing activities or situations that engage learners and require adaptation (i.e., assimilation and accomodation).

3. Learning materials and activities should involve the appropriate level of motor or mental operations for a child of given age; avoid asking students to perform tasks that are beyond their currrent cognitive capabilities.

4. Use teaching methods that actively involve students and present challenges.


Brainerd, C. (1978). Piaget's Theory of Intelligence. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bybee, R.W. & Sund, R.B. (1982). Piaget for Educators (2nd Ed). Columbus, OH: Charles Merrill.

Flavell, J. H. (1963). The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Gallagher, J.M. & Reid, D.K. (1981). The Learning Theory of Piaget and Inhelder. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Piaget, J. (1929). The Child's Conception of the World. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Piaget, J. (1932). The Moral Judgement of the Child. NY: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Piaget, J. (1969). The Mechanisms of Perception. London: Rutledge & Kegan Paul.

Paiget, J. (1970). The Science of Education amd the Psychology of the Child. NY: Grossman.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. NY: Basic Books.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1973). Memory and intelligence. NY: Basic Books.

Wadsworth, B. (1978). Piaget for the Classroom Teacher. NY: Longman.

For information about current activities relating to Piaget, see the Jean Piaget Society or Piaget Archive web sites.

Biography: Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan was still a twenty-year old undergraduate at the University of Manitoba, in western Canada, in the dirty thirties, when he wrote in his diary that he would never become an academic. He was learning in spite of his professors, but he would become a professor of English in spite of himself. After Manitoba, graduate work at Cambridge University planted the seed for McLuhan’s eventual move toward media analysis. Looking back on both his own Cambridge years and the longer history of the institution, he reflected that a principal aim of the faculty could be summarized as the training of perception, a phrase that aptly summarizes his own aim throughout his career.

The shock that McLuhan experienced in his first teaching post propelled him toward media analysis. Though his students at the University of Wisconsin were his juniors by only five to eight years, he felt removed from them by a generation. He suspected that this had to do with ways of learning and set out to investigate it. The investigation led him back to lessons on the training of perception from his Cambridge professors, such as I. A. Richards (The Meaning of Meaning, Practical Criticism), and forward to discoveries from James Joyce, the symbolist poets, Ezra Pound; back to antiquity and the myth of Narcissus, forward to the mythic structure of modern Western culture dominated by electric technology.

Understanding Media, first published in 1964, focuses on the media effects that permeate society and culture, but McLuhan’s starting point is always the individual, because he defines media as technological extensions of the body. As a result, McLuhan often puts his inquiry and his conclusions in terms of the ratio between the physical senses (the extent to which we depend on them relative to each other) and the consequences of modifications to that ratio. This invariably entails a psychological dimension. Thus, the invention of the alphabet and the resulting intensification of the visual sense in the communication process gave sight priority over hearing, but the effect was so powerful that it went beyond communication through language to reshape literate society’s conception and use of space.

Understanding Media brought McLuhan to prominence in the same decade that celebrated flower power. San Francisco, the home of the summer of love, hosted the first McLuhan festival, featuring the man himself. The saying “God is dead” was much in vogue in the counterculture that quickly adopted McLuhan but missed the irony of giving a man of deep faith the status of an icon.

Spectacular sales of Understanding Media, in hardback and then in paperback editions, and the San Francisco symposium brought him a steady stream of invitations for speaking engagements. He addressed countless groups, ranging from the American Marketing Association and the Container Corporation of America to AT&T and IBM. In March 1967, NBC aired “This is Marshall McLuhan” in its Experiment in TV series. He played on his own famous saying, publishing The Medium is the Massage (coproduced with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel), even as he was signing contracts for Culture Is Our Business and From Cliché to Archetype (with Canadian poet Wilfred Watson) with publishers in New York. Dozens of universities awarded McLuhan honorary degrees and he secured a Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at Fordham University. At the University of Toronto’s Centre for Culture and Technology, where McLuhan was director, a steady stream of visitors arrived from around the world to absorb his lessons on media, or just to see him and be seen with him. Andy Warhol was scheduled to visit but did not show (when McLuhan finally met him some time later, he pronounced him a “rube”); John Lennon and Yoko Ono arrived unannounced. Understanding Media, which was eventually translated into more than twenty languages, overshadowed the only McLuhan book-length publication from the 1960s that took him back squarely to his roots as a professor of English literature, the two-volume Voices of Literature (edited in collaboration with Richard J. Schoeck). By the time the decade ended, he had collaborated with Canadian artist Harley Parker on Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting and once more with Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel on War and Peace in the Global Village. This popular paperback, exploding at every page with McLuhan’s observations juxtaposed to a visual chronicle of twentieth century happenings, bore the improbable subtitle, an inventory of some of the current spastic situations that could be eliminated by more feedforward. The book looks and feels light years away from the Cambridge University of the 1930s where McLuhan trained, but that was just where he had picked up the idea of feedforward—from his teacher I. A. Richards.

McLuhan wrote with no knowledge of galvanic skin response technology, terminal node controllers, or the Apple Newton. He might not have been able even to imagine what a biomouse is. But he pointed the way to understanding all of these, not in themselves, but in their relation to each other, to older technologies, and above all in relation to ourselves—our bodies, our physical senses, our psychic balance. When he published Understanding Media in 1964, he was disturbed about mankind’s shuffling toward the twenty-first century in the shackles of nineteenth century perceptions. He might be no less disturbed today. And he would continue to issue the challenge that confronts the reader at every page of his writings to cast off those shackles.

—by Terrence Gordon, July, 2002

W. Terrence Gordon is the author of the biography, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Gingko Press. ISBN: 1-58423-112-2

John Holt

The late John Holt was an author and educator well known among Homeschoolers. His methods and ideas about education live on today through books he has written and through the "Growing Without Schooling" magazine he founded.

The "Growing Without Schooling" magazine was established by John Holt in August of 1977; it is believed to be the world's first Homeschooling magazine. The magazine was directed at those who learned to acquire useful skills and make use of those skills in the working world without the process of formal schooling. Also, its purpose was to unite people with similar beliefs as a means of support and sharing information.

The magazine was based on John Holt's theory about how social changes came about. Social changes that remain, only do so at a slow pace because people can only change their lives and their thinking over a period of time. John Holt knew that his educational beliefs were in the minority, even though his ideas made so much sense. Actually, anyone who did not believe in compulsory education (formal schooling) was in the minority. To some, the idea that a child could learn without constant coercion and direction from an adult seemed ludicrous. Holt was aware that his cause would not make a shift in the way society viewed education, his goal was to help those who believed in learning freely to grow and prosper with support from like-minded people.

Some of John Holt's ideas were offensive to other educators. He was quite outspoken with his beliefs, such as how school children develop as a result of peer pressure in a school setting. He believed that the social life was full of cliques, bullying, competitiveness and many other behavioral problems children could come up with to seek status among their peers. This of course was his response when asked the age old question, "What about socialization?" when referring to education children at home. The social life in compulsory schools is one major reason why many parents choose to keep their children home; of course their are many other individual reasons why parents choose this route.

Pressure in general is another issue Holt believes affected a child's performance in school. He says, "There must be a limit to the tension we put children under. If we don't, they will set their own limits by not paying attention, fooling around or by saying unnecessarily that they don't get it." According to Holt, children should know ahead of time that the tension they feel can be stopped. When children feel more at ease and know that mistakes are acceptable, the stop worrying and start using their brains. So he believed that educators need to stop causing the children to be afraid and help them break the fearful thought pattern. A scared learner is a poor learner.

John Holt lived from 1923 - 1985 and left an admirable legacy behind. He believed that children who were provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment would learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it. Sound simple? It can be, but in his day that was considered radical thinking ... today it is called "child led learning" or "unschooling."

To find out more about John Holt you can choose from the ten books he wrote. You may want to start with the classic he wrote in the 1960s school reform movement called, "How Children Fail." In addition to his books, the "Growing Without Schooling" magazine has continued to be distributed even after his death.

Written by Dena Lambert

Chuck Thacker
Xerox Alto Designer Charles (Chuck) Thacker has spent almost 30 years in computing. Educated in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the university's Genie project in 1968. The project eventually became the Berkeley Computer Corporation, which developed the BCC 500 timesharing system. Thacker is a co-inventor of the Ethernet local area network, and contributed to many other projects, including the first laser printer and the Dorado, a high-performance ECL-technology personal workstation. He also designed and implemented the SIL CAD system.

Wes Clark
Back in the 1950s, computers were like castles on the hill—large, expensive, and very mysterious. Since most biomedical scientists could not afford their own computers, they often shared a central computer and sometimes waited a day or so to get the results. Today, of course, small computers are found in practically every laboratory in the country, where they have revolutionized biomedical science. Researchers now routinely use computers to analyze experimental results and to perform such esoteric functions as viewing three-dimensional (3-D) models of complex molecules and “touching” chromosomes and viruses in virtual reality. Early NCRR support proved instrumental in transforming computers into a useful tool for the biomedical scientist.

It all started in 1961 when Wesley Clark, an electrical engineer at Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), designed a small computer for a brain researcher at MIT. Clark wanted his computer to be easy to program, easy to communicate with while it was operating, and able to process biological signals directly. At the time, no computer came close to fulfilling these criteria. Clark also wanted his machine to be short enough to see over and affordable enough for the typical university laboratory.

In 1962, Clark and his colleague, Dr. Charles Molnar, built a working model of the computer, using existing electronic modules rather than building new circuits. They dubbed their creation LINC, partly as a bow to Lincoln Laboratory and partly as a pun alluding to how the user could link closely to the machine. LINC was about the size of a refrigerator and used recording tapes that were small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, another revolutionary concept for the time.

With $400,000 in seed money from NCRR—and similar sums contributed by the National Institute of Mental Health and NASA—Clark and Molnar launched a plan to offer free LINCs to biomedical scientists. In exchange, researchers had to spend a summer building their own computers in a learning workshop and then evaluating them in their laboratories. Eventually 12 LINCs were built at the workshop, and users quickly discovered that the computers enabled more rapid and efficient execution of experiments. Also, LINC allowed users to fine-tune ongoing experiments, reformulating hypotheses “on the fly” as data accumulated. The LINC development team eventually relocated to Washington University in St. Louis, where, with Dr. Jerome Cox, Jr., they established the Resource for Biomedical Computing, funded by NCRR from 1964 to 1997.

Dave Reed
Dr. David Reed's work focuses using digital technology to transform the design of technological, business, and social systems. His current explorations center on exploiting new information technologies that enable people to be more effective, including mobile computing; highly scalable wireless networking; group information sharing; pervasive networking; video media processing; and infrastructures for electronic commerce. Dr. Reed synthesizes research-level knowledge of computer science, software, protocol and data architecture, system modeling, electronics, and signal processing along with commercial experience in R&D management, economics, and technology-based strategy. David is an independent consultant on network systems, and is affiliated with the MIT Media Lab as a visiting scientist. He serves as strategy/technology advisor to a variety of companies. David was previously chief scientist at both Lotus Development Corporation and Software Arts, Inc., and a professor in MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science.