2.7 Jerome Bruner and Discovery Learning

Because of Jerome Bruner's connection with the National Science Foundation curriculum development project's of the 1960s and 1970s, his thinking had a powerful effect on approaches to science learning. Bruner believed that students learn best by discovery and that the learner is a problem solver who interacts with the environment testing hypotheses and developing generalizations. Bruner felt that the goal of education should be intellectual development, and that the science curriculum should foster the development of problem-solving skills through inquiry and discovery.

Bruner said that knowing is a process rather than the accumulated wisdom of science as presented in textbooks. To learn science concepts and to solve problems, students should be presented with perplexing (discrepant) situations. Guided by intrinsic motivation the learner in this situation will want to figure the solution out. This simple notion provides the framework for creating discovery learning activities.

Bruner described his theory as one of instruction rather than learning. His theory has four components as follows (Based on J.S. Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction (cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967):

Curiosity and Uncertainty. Bruner felt that experiences should be designed that will help the student be willing and able to learn. He called this the predisposition toward learning. Bruner believed that the desire to learn and to undertake problem solving could be activated by devising problem activities in which students would explore alternative solutions. The major condition for the exploration of alternatives was "the presence of some optimal level of uncertainty."This related directly to the student's curiosity to resolve uncertainty and ambiguity. According to this idea, the teacher would design discrepant event activities that would pique the students' curiosity. For example, the teacher might fill a glass with water and ask the students how many pennies they think can be put in the jar without any water spilling. Since most students think that only a few pennies can be put in the glass, their curiosity is aroused when the teacher is able to put between 25 - 50 pennies in before any water spills. This activity then leads to an exploration of displacement, surface tension, variables such as the size of the jar, how full the glass is, and so forth. In this activity the students would be encouraged to explore various alternatives to the the solution of the problem by conducting their own experiments with jars of water and pennies.

Structure of Knowledge. The second component of Bruner's theory refers to the structure of knowledge. Bruner expressed it by saying that the curriculum specialist and teacher "must specify the ways in which a body of knowledge should be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner." This idea became one of the important notions ascribed to Bruner. He explained it this way: "Any idea or problem or body of knowledge can be presented in a form simple enough so that any particular learner can understand it in a recognizable form."

According to Bruner, any domain of knowledge (physics, chemistry, biology, earth science) or problem or concept within that domain (law of gravitation, atomic structure, homeostasis, earthquake waves) can be represented in three ways or modes: by a set of actions (enactive representation), by a set of images or graphics that stand for the concept (iconic representation); and by a set of symbolic or logical statements (symbolic representation). The distinction among these three modes of representation can be made concretely in terms of a balance bean, which could be used to teach students about quadratic equations. A younger student can act on the principles of a balance bean, and can demonstrate this knowledge by moving back and forth on a see-saw. An older student can make or draw a model of the balance beam, hanging rings and showing how it is balanced. Finally, the balance beam can be described verbally (orally or written), or described mathematically by reference to the Law of Moments. The actions, images and symbols would vary from one concept or problem to another, but according to Bruner, knowledge can be represented in these three forms.

Sequencing. The third principle was the most effective sequences of instruction should be specified. According to Bruner, instruction should lead the learner through the content in order to increase the student's ability to "grasp, transform and transfer" what is learned. In general sequencing should move from enactive (hands-on, concrete), to iconic (visual), to symbolic (descriptions in words or mathematical symbols). However, this sequence will be dependent on the student's symbolic system and learning style. As we will see later, this principle of sequencing is common to theories developed by Piaget, as well as other cognitive psychologists.

Motivation. The last aspect of Bruner's theory is that the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments should be specified. Bruner suggests that movement from extrinsic rewards, such as teacher's praise, toward intrinsic rewards inherent in solving problems or understanding the concepts is desirable. To Bruner, learning depends upon knowledge of results when it can be used for correction. Feedback to the learner is critical to the development of knowledge. The teacher can provide a vital link to the learner in providing feedback at first, as well helping the learner develop techniques for obtaining feedback on his or her own.