Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jerome Bruner and the Power of Constructing Understanding

I read of the passing of the great education researcher and theorist, Jerome Bruner, in the New York Times on Thursday. No less a luminary than Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences fame, called Bruner, "the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey." Before Bruner, educational psychology was dominated by Behaviorism, the theory, most prominently expounded by B.F. Skinner, that learning was a matter of stimulus and response. In the classroom this theory translated into lots of instruction focused on rote learning and external rewards (like grades). Bruner showed how this theory underestimated the human capacity for learning. He posited the cognitive theory of learning where learners "construct" meaning and understanding through a dynamic interaction with the texts, the instruction, and the environment.

Bruner's studies led to a more enlightened view of children as learners and teachers as facilitators of learning, the constructivist theory. It is this theory that has come to dominate teaching and learning ever since, although vestiges of Behaviorism remain, as can be seen in the periodic "back to basics" movements that education goes through and by the still pervasive use of spelling lists and vocabulary exercises.

In my own teaching, I think that Bruner has had the greatest impact on the use of writing as a mode of learning. Bruner argued that human beings learn in three ways - enactively, iconically, and symbolically. In other words by doing, by seeing and storing images, and through the use of language (symbols). Writing integrates all three of these ways of learning and so provides a powerful reinforcement for all learning. When we write we are enacting through the movement of the hand across paper or keyboard, we see the product and visualize the words in front of us, and we use the symbols of language (words) to craft our message. When we write, we integrate all the ways that we can learn.

In my classroom, writing to learn takes many forms. Here are three that I believe are rooted in Bruner's constructivist theory of learning.

Quick Writes

Quick writes are brief (2-3 minute) written responses to prompts from the teacher that may happen before, during or after an assigned reading or a lecture. Before reading (or lecture) the prompt seeks to have students activate background knowledge and make predictions. During reading (or lecture) the prompt asks the student to rethink their original predictions and add information that they have learned since the reading began. After reading (or lecture), the quick write asks for a brief summary of the student's understanding.

Suppose, for example, you were reading about what makes manatees a threatened species. Your three prompts might look like this:

  • Before reading - Today we will read about a threatened mammal called the manatee. What do you know about the manatee and why do you think it might be threatened?
  • During Reading - Now that we have read some of the passage on manatees, go back and read what you wrote and add any information you can about manatees and why they are threatened.
  • After reading- Briefly summarize the reasons that manatees are a threatened species.
Quick writes may be used in any combination - either before, during and after as above or just before and after, or just after as you determine what will be effective for a particular lesson.

Reader Response Journal

The reader response journal allows students to construct meaning based on what they have read or what has been read aloud to them. Students record their personal reactions, feelings, emotions, ideas, connections and reflections on what they have heard, read or experienced. The written response literally assists the student in constructing meaning from the text. Writing, and thinking about that writing, is the connective tissue between experience and understanding. Reader response leads children to deeper understanding of text, with teacher scaffolding of course.

The response journal is fairly easy to implement, but we should not assume that students will know how to respond to text automatically. The teacher should model the activity for the students by constructing responses in front of the them and then displaying these models in the room as anchor charts for helping the students with their own responses. Students should be guided to retell, respond and react to what they have read. Retelling what happened, responding with their feelings about what was read, and reacting to the events, characters and situations they encounter. You can read more on response journals here.

The I-Search

The I-Search, originally proposed by Ken Macrorie (1998), is a research paper that is focused on what a student is interested in and already very knowledgeable about. In writng an I-Search Paper the student focuses on four aspects of research:
  • What do I already know about the topic?
  • What do I want to learn about the topic?
  • How do I carry out my research?
  • What did I learn?
The I-Search is uniquely constructionist because it proceeds from deep studnet knowledge and interest, toward greater learning and understanding. It also observes many of the conventions of colleg level research work such as a literature search, a research question, a procedure and a discussion of findings. If you would like to implement the I-Search paper in your classrooms, you will find excellent step-by-step instructions from teacher Scott Filkins here. While Filkins lesson focuses on grades 8-12, I have used the I-Search successfully in grades 3-7 as well.

American education has lost one of its greatest thinkers. One way to honor his work and his memory is through providing students with instruction built on his profound insights into the way children learn.