Essay on Cognitive Psychology: Analysis of Bruner’s Impact on Education

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During the first two decades of the twentieth century, psychology was a discipline seeking respect. (Karlins and Andrews 1972) Literally meaning ‘the study of the psyche (soul),’ it was largely a subjective discipline without a focus since science has yet to acknowledge the existence of a psyche. (Rank 1930) The one possible candidate, discovered by Harold Saxton Burr and his colleagues in the 1930s (Burr 1944, 1952, 1972; Burr and Lane 1935; Burr and Northrop 1935, 1939) has not been accepted or acknowledged. (Becker and Selden 1985) Freud and Jung gave new life to psychology with the advent of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytical theory predominated in psychology until the late 1940s and early 1950s when developing new theories took hold, particularly theories of behavioral and cognitive psychology.

One of the giants in the developing theories that took hold between the 1950s and 1970s was Jerome Seymour Bruner. Born in 1915, he began his college education at Duke and went on to become a prominent theorist and proponent of cognitive psychology. Many of his ideas dealt with issues related to education. Some credit him with reviving issues of the mind in psychology.

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Bruner was born during the heyday of Freud, Jung and psychoanalytical theory. He was influenced by individuals like Jean Piaget, L. S. Vygotsky, Benjamin Bloom and B. F. Skinner. Bruner may have leaned towards the behaviorist view at one point, but as his career progressed, he began to embrace the cognitive view more and more. (Malm, 1993) Bruner disagreed with Skinner’s ideas of operant conditioning, concepts that helped bring about the dichotomy between behavioral and cognitive psychology but he didn’t feel that the Pavlov’s ideas could explain behavior adequately (1927) and he disagreed with Gardiner’s idea of multiple intelligences (Lyle 2000) which proposed that people display different levels of different intelligences resulting in unique “cognitive profiles.” (Gardner, 1983)

By the 1940s, he had begun work on perception in children (Bruner and Goodman, 1947). In his studies, Bruner found that the economic environment of children (and students) affected their perception. Yet, cognitive changes occur as a function of age as well. The thought processes change as children grow. Therefore, he eventually came to the opinion that behavioral concepts and cognitive concepts overlap. There was data to support both views.

Differences between Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology and the Limits of the Scientific Paradigm with respect to Cognitive Psychology

Behaviorists do not acknowledge that belief, desire and similar internal mental states exist. Behavioral psychologists like J. B. Watson (1913) believe that all actions, whether mental or physical, constitute behaviors. Behavioral psychology is founded on ideas from Pavlov’s studies of classical conditioning and conditioned reflexes. (Pavlov, 1927) Watson rejected any ideas of a role for introspection in behavior and determined to limit psychology to the experimental approach such as Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning. Strict behaviorists believe that psychology can be studied and understood without reference to internal states or mentality. More radical views of behavior like those of B. F. Skinner (1945) accept some internal states and states of mind and accept that they can be treated in a scientific manner without resorting to dualism, the idea that the mind and the brain are separate but interacting ‘things’. No matter which view was correct, these views had significant bearing of education and learning.

Bruner struggled with the ideas of behavioral psychology even when they began to predominate in psychology. He believed that some human behaviors could be explained beyond Pavlov’s ideas of conditioned reflexes. (1927) This belief led to the eventual divergence between behavioral and cognitive psychology and revived the age old mind-brain debate.

Cognitive psychology looks at the internal mental processes. Cognitive psychologists accept the scientific method, reject introspection and acknowledge that internal mental states exist. Some feel that accepting the empirical method and the existence of internal mental states is a contradiction because of the difficulty in objectively measuring the internal mental states. Cognitive psychologists feel that people solve situations through insight, awareness and heuristic rules and acknowledge that internal mental states exist. Behaviorists dismiss such states. Cognitive psychologists believe that problem solving involves algorithms that lead to solutions even though the solutions may not be guaranteed. Jean Piaget was one of the leading proponents of cognitive psychology and a positive influence on Bruner’s ideas. Although he may have leaned towards the behaviorist view at one time and struggled with it for a while, he saw flaws in the cognitive approach as well. Bruner eventually came to the opinion that approaching cognitive psychology using the natural scientific paradigm has limitations. He more or less presented a challenge to cognitive psychology and admitted that there are limits to the scientific paradigm made it impossible for that cognitive psychology to address some aspects of human life. He ultimately came to believe that the ideas of behavioral and cognitive psychology were not mutually exclusive, i.e., that there were situations and data to support both the behaviorist and cognitive views. (Bruner 1966) Cognitive and behavioral factors interact even though psychologists seem to prefer championing one view or the other. As we will see, these ideas have bearing on education and how we learn.


A fundamental issue distinguishing behavioral and cognitive psychology is the fundamental issue of psychology and the neurosciences: Does the mind exist separate from the brain? Although the generally accepted view of neurosciences and psychology is, ‘No’, the actual resolution of this issue remains in question. The available data actually suggests strongly that the mind and the brain are separate but interacting ‘things’, but psychologists and scientists in general find that view distasteful and don’t acknowledge it even though the evidence to support it is large and growing. (Burr 1944, 1952, 1972; Burr and Lane 1935; Burr and Northrop 1935, 1939; Becker and Selden 1985) That evidence (some cited here but not reviewed) will not be reviewed here because it would diverge from the focus of this report. We are only interested in how the issue impinges upon cognitive psychology and widens the gulf between cognitive and behavioral psychology.

Bruner realized that there may be an interaction between perception (physical processes of the body) and the mental processes (abstract processes of the mind) and felt that the scientific problem was to determine how mental functions and perception interacted. (Bruner, 1947) Perception or “perceptual dynamics” were in the realm of behavioral psychology while the mental processes were in the realm of cognitive psychology. Bruner felt that perceptual phenomena could be measured. (Bruner and Goodman, 1947) He also believed that when students recognize their cognitive and intellectual mastery of skills, they will receive an intrinsic reward. Their resultant advancement will increase their confidence. (Bruner 1966) His belief that perceptual processes could be measured was not the real issue that divides behavioral and cognitive psychologists. The problem was and remains measuring mental processes without subjectivity. The work of Burr et al. (Burr 1944, 1952, 1972; Burr and Lane 1935; Burr and Northrop 1935, 1939) cited at the end of this report dealt directly with that issue and resolved it, but fell out of favor largely because results of some of their studies lead directly to the conclusion that the mind and the brain are separate but interacting things. Researchers did not and do not like that idea. Burr and his colleagues managed to measure psychological states directly without subjectivity and to determine psychiatric states objectively without subjective conclusions. That work, though still pursued in some circles, is largely ignored today despite its significance.

Bruner’s Impact on Education

Bruner’s studies and concepts dealt with education, had significance in education and had educational value. He felt that although psychologists influence the goals of education, they should not determine those goals (Bruner 1966) and he believed that education should self-evaluate to determine if it is meeting its needs and goals. If not, then the needed change should be introduced immediately whenever necessary, but only change for the better.

Gardner, another researcher, introduced the idea of multiple intelligences. Gardner concluded that schools should move away from uniform educational programs and move towards programs that center on the individual. In other words, education should be tailored to meet the needs of each student. Bruner did not agree with this idea. Furthermore, Gardner’s concepts were not based on empirical data. While there may be some evidence to support Gardner’s view that individuals have a wider capacity to learn than the behaviorist view (that intelligence is inherited and set at birth) acknowledges, that does not necessarily argue in support of the view that individuals would learn more if our educational systems were tailored to meet the needs of each student. Just the impracticality of such an approach would be an impediment.

Bruner came to develop a philosophy that learning developed in three stages or modes. This idea is referred to as “Discovery Learning” or “The Discovery Learning Model.” The stages are referred to as 1) an enactive stage followed by 2) an iconic stage followed by 3 a symbolic stage. During the initial stage, children manipulate their environment to learn. In the next stage, vision and visualization play a greater role. Individuals learn to use images. In the final stage, individuals use language and concepts. By this model, the teacher serves as a model for students during the process of discovery. In situations of discovery learning, prior knowledge and experience are used to learn. Bruner views it as a means to acquire information and solve problems by discovering information. (Bruner 1961) Ultimately, the discovery learning process will be of more value in learning than the knowledge learned.

Discovery Learning has critics too. Kaufman (1961) feels that discovery learning is inadequate for students with special needs and Fuchs et al (2008) found that direct instruction should anticipate that students won’t understand everything and thus, it should be followed up with further instruction

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that Bruner made significant contributions to psychology and can be viewed as a leading figure in the field of cognitive psychology. Although he may have briefly leaned towards concepts of behavioral psychology, he struggled with those ideas and became mostly a proponent of the cognitive approach to psychology. Even so, he concluded that there are flaws in both views and that there is data to support both views. Much of his work has bearing on learning and education. He proposed the idea of “Discovery Learning” and applied his views to methods to improve education. Bruner felt that education curricula should undergo an ongoing self evaluation and that any needed changes should be implemented immediately upon being uncovered, but only changes that were clearly for the better should be implemented.


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