August 15, 2014

Bruner's The Process of Education

4 out of 5 stars


Title: The Process of Education

Size: 97 pages (Octavo)

Publisher: Harvard University Press(1976)

ISBN: 0674710010

At a Glance

The Book

After an introductory chapter, the book touches on four major themes. These themes are: (1) the role of structure in learning and how it may be made central in teaching, (2) readiness of learning, (3) the nature of intuition and (4) the material to be learned in the best stimulus to learning.

Each of the first three themes has a designated chapter (chapters 2 to 4) and they revolve around the notion that “the intellectual activity, anywhere, is the same”. The fourth theme is broken into two chapters; chapter 5 discusses the motives for learning; and chapter 6 provides aids to teaching..

According to Encyclopædia Britannica "[this] much-translated book The Process of Education (1960) was a powerful stimulus to the curriculum-reform movement of the period".

The Author

Jerome S. Bruner (1915 - ) is an American psychologist and educator whose work on perception, learning, memory, and other aspects of cognition in young children has, along with the related work of Jean Piaget, influenced the American educational system. (Encyclopædia Britannica).

What I think of the Book

This book is very well organizaed and presented. The arguemtns it offers are (for the most part of it) compelling. THis makes the book an enjoyable read that flows very gently and rewards the reader. Bruner has hugely influenced the education sector preaching his modern ideas, in this book you will be resented with ideas such as:

  • Students need to learn the structure of the subject, not just master the fact and techniques. This is the hardest of all tasks for the teacher, according to Bruner.
  • Reassessing the significance of ‘readiness’ for the student, in other words not relying on any ‘proven formula’ or doing things in the ‘right order’. This idea clearly challenged Piaget’s theory about children passing through fixed stages of capacity and readiness to receive. So, where Piaget calls for standardization, Bruner calls for personalization. In this sense Bruner is a visionary.
  • Children should want to learn for the sake of learning itself, neither for good marks nor for passing the exams and the curriculum should reflect this.
  • The spiral curriculum concept where each subject or skill area is revisited at intervals, at a more sophisticated level each time

Reading thie book is great way get to know Bruner and consider his theory.

The book also offers a historical account of an important era of education transformation.

Editorial Review

Ranks as one of the most important and influential works on education. (Fortune)
“[A] gem of a book.” (Paul Goodman, The New York Herald Tribune)
A seminal work…on learning theory, readiness, structure, intuitive and analytical thinking, which grew out of the Woods Hole conference of 1959 on curriculum reform (of which Dr. Bruner was chairman). (Los Angeles Times)

What I took from the Book

The nature of intellectual activity

Bruner argues that intellectual activities (including learning) are all the same

The intellectual activity, anywhere, is the same (p. 14)

and that the differences between them are subtle and are essentially in degree not in kind. To better understand what Bruner means by that consider the example of a chemist in his laboratory and a novelist at his desk. Both are engaging is intellectual activities hat are essentially the same; they are both trying to understand the basic parts of their subjects and appreciate the relationship between those parts. The consequence of this proposition is enormous, for example, if you apply this at a school level, you will have to conclude that the intellectual activity of the child student is the same (at every level) with that of the scientist and the novelist. In fact, Bruner declares that when he says “the schoolboy learning physics is physicist” (p. 14)

Problems will begins to rise when you combine this point of view with the suggestion of abridging or boiling down whatever the subject you are trying to teach so students at every level can grasp the subject, ultimately and inevitably leading to adopting the lowest common denominator amongst the pool of your children who come in all shapes and sizes. I mean just look at the current “No Child Left Behind” policy and act, which I regard as a natural progression of adopting Bruner’s school of though.

Readiness for learning

Any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any age of development (p. 33)

Bruner suggest this hypothesis which is at least contested and at most controversial. Although I have always been a fan of simplifying and repacking for the masses (for example Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that shared the same philosophy), but I don’t think that every topic can be treated as such and definitely not to an “effective” standard as Bruner claims. The problem is that there is a certain level of abstraction that all people will not be able to grasp at some stage, some will even never be able to do so. What’s amazing to me the fact that Bruner acknowledges this, yet he argues that is still possible to teach our children any concept effectively! Here’s what Bruner says in page 35 “Because of this fundamental lack the child cannot understand certain fundamental ideas that lie at the basis of mathematic and physics”.

The goal of education

Burner argues that the goal of education is creating general understanding about structures (structures of studied subjects). He also believes that schools should in fact contribute to the emotional and social development of the students. Helping to create members of the society who is able to fulfil their platonic functions as members of a family in their communities (remember the role of education in Plato’s Republic).

Still, I am critical

For Bruner learning should be designed to produce a general understanding of the structure of a subject matter, and what he means by a ‘structure of a subject’ is to recognise the relationships among the subject’s elements (p.7). that’s why he says: to learn structure, in short, is to learn how things are related.

And this is the problem I have with Burner’s school of thought; a fundamental difference in the perception of the goal on education, why we educate our children? Why we seek to learn? Why is education important?. It seems that for him, education is more functional and even mechanical.

What I mean by functional is that education is aimed at understanding a subject, so the value of education lies within the ‘external’ subject we are learning about. ‘External’ to us, the students and the teachers. I personally, think education has an intrinsic value on its own. An inherent benefit in learning regardless of the subject.

What I mean by mechanical is the notion that by disassembling an object we somehow get a grasp over it, like a mechanical watch. But I think that not all subjects can be learnt this way.

Is it recommended?
Well it depends, for graduate students interested in curriculum this is an absolute must-read (maybe even a prerequisite), the same thing goes for those interested in the history of education. But that's about it; the general reader might find interesting thoughts and still valid arguemnts but nothing else. Some ideas put forth by this book are now dated. So it is not quite recommended to the casual reader.

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