Jerome Bruner’s Constructivist theory of Learning And cognitive development

Bruner’s Ideas

  • Like Ausubel (and other cognitive psychologists), Bruner sees the learner as an active agent; emphasising the importance of existing schemata in guiding learning.
  • Bruner argues that students should discern for themselves the structure of subject content – discovering the links and relationships between different facts, concepts and theories (rather than the teacher simply telling them).
  • Bruner (1966) hypothesized that the usual course of intellectual development moves through three stages: enactive, iconic, and symbolic, in that order. However, unlike Piaget’s stages, Bruner did not contend that these stages were necessarily age-dependent, or invariant.
  • Piaget and, to an extent, Ausubel, contended that the child must be ready, or made ready, for the subject matter. But Bruner contends just the opposite. According to his theory, the fundamental principles of any subject can be taught at any age, provided the material is converted to a form (and stage) appropriate to the child.
  • The notion of a “spiral curriculum” embodies Bruner’s ideas by “spiraling” through similar topics at every age, but consistent with the child’s stage of thought.
  • The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).
  • Cognitive growth involves an interaction between basic human capabilities and “culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities.”
  • These culturally invented technologies include not just obvious things such as computers and television, but also more abstract notions such as the way a culture categorizes phenomena, and language itself.
  • Bruner would likely agree with Vygotsky that language serves to mediate between environmental stimuli and the individual’s response.

Three Modes of Representation

Modes of representation are how information or knowledge is stored and encoded in memory.

Rather than neat age-related stages (like Piaget), the modes of representation are integrated and only loosely sequential as they “translate” into each other.

Bruner (1966) was concerned with how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking (or representation).

In his research on the cognitive development of children,  Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representation:

    1. Enactive representation (action-based)
    2. Iconic representation (image-based)
    3. Symbolic representation (language-based)

Bruner’s constructivist theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners.

Bruner’s work also suggests that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists.

Enactive Mode (0-1 year)

In the enactive mode, knowledge is stored primarily in the form of motor responses. This mode is used within the first year of life (corresponding with Piaget’s sensorimotor stage).

Thinking is based entirely on physical actions, and infants learn by doing, rather than by internal representation (or thinking).

It involves encoding physical action-based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle.

And this is not just limited to children. Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

This mode continues later in many physical activities, such as learning to ride a bike.

Iconic Mode (1-6 years)

Information is stored as sensory images (icons), usually visual ones, like pictures in the mind. For some, this is conscious; others say they don’t experience it.

This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany the verbal information.

Thinking is also based on using other mental images (icons), such as hearing, smell or touch.

Symbolic Mode (7 years onwards)

This develops last. In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as language, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems.

This mode is acquired around six to seven years old (corresponding to Piaget’s concrete operational stage).

In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or other symbol systems, such as music.

Symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified, etc. so the user isn’t constrained by actions or images (which have a fixed relation to that which they represent).

According to Bruner’s taxonomy, these differ from icons in that symbols are “arbitrary.” For example, the word “beauty” is an arbitrary designation for the idea of beauty in that the word itself is no more inherently beautiful than any other word.

The Importance of Language

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts.

Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the “here & now” concept.

Bruner views the infant as an intelligent & active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.

Educational Implications

The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).

For Bruner (1961), the purpose of education is not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate a child’s thinking and problem-solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations. Specifically, education should also develop symbolic thinking in children.

In 1960 Bruner’s text, The Process of Education was published. The main premise of Bruner’s text was that students are active learners who construct their own knowledge.


Bruner (1960) opposed Piaget’s notion of readiness . He argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child’s cognitive stage of development.

This means students are held back by teachers as certain topics are deemed too difficult to understand and must be taught when the teacher believes the child has reached the appropriate stage of cognitive maturity.

The Spiral Curriculum

Bruner (1960) adopts a different view and believes a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information:

“We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” (p. 33)

Bruner (1960) explained how this was possible through the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on.

The underlying principle in this is that the student should review particular concepts at over and over again during their educative experience; each time building and their understanding and requiring more sophisticated cognitive strategies (and thus increase the sophistication of their understanding).

Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally, teaching his way should lead to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

Bruner argues that, as children age, they are capable of increasingly complex modes of representation (basically, ways of thinking) – and the spiral curriculum should be sensitive to this development;

  • Initially, children learn better using an enactive mode of representation (i.e. they learn better through “doing things” such as physical and manual tasks) – for instance, the concept of addition might be first taught by asking the child to combine piles of beads and counting the results.
  • As they grow older – and more familiar with subject content – pupils become more confident in using an iconic mode of representation; they are able to perform tasks by imagining concrete pictures in their heads. To continue the above example; as the child becomes more confident with addition, they should be able to imagine the beads in order to complete additions (without physically needing to manipulate the piles).
  • Finally, students become capable of more abstract, symbolic modes of representation; without the need for either physical manipulation or mental imagery. Consequently, at this point, the student should have little problem with completing a series of written calculations; of numbers which are higher than is possible by “imagining beads”.

Discovery Learning

Bruner (1960) developed the concept of Discovery Learning – arguing that students should “not be presented with the subject matter in its final form, but rather are required to organize it themselves…[requiring them] to discover for themselves relationships that exist among items of information”.

Bruner (1961) proposes that learners construct their own knowledge and do this by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system.

Bruner believed that the most effective way to develop a coding system is to discover it rather than being told by the teacher.

The concept of discovery learning implies that students construct their own knowledge for themselves (also known as a constructivist approach).

The result is an extremely active form of learning, in which the students are always engaged in tasks, finding patterns or solving puzzles – and in which they constantly need to exercise their existing schemata, reorganizing and amending these concepts to address the challenges of the task.

The role of the teacher should not be to teach information by rote learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that a good teacher will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between bits of information.

To do this a teacher must give students the information they need, but without organizing for them. The use of the spiral curriculum can aid the process of discovery learning.

For example, in teaching a particular concept, the teacher should present the set of instances that will best help learners develop an appropriate model of the concept. The teacher should also model the inquiry process. Bruner would likely not contend that all learning should be through discovery. For example, it seems pointless to have children “discover” the names of the U.S. Presidents, or important dates in history.

Bruner’s theory is probably clearest when illustrated with practical examples. The instinctive response of a teacher to the task of helping a primary-school child understand the concept of odd and even numbers, for instance, would be to explain the difference to them.

However, Bruner would argue that understanding of this concept would be much more genuine if the child discovered the difference for themselves; for instance, by playing a game in which they had to share various numbers of beads fairly between themselves and their friend.

Discovery is not just an instructional technique, but an important learning outcome in itself. Schools should help learners develop their own ability to find the “recurrent regularities” in their environment.

Bruner would likely not contend that all learning should be through discovery. For example, it seems pointless to have children “discover” the names of the U.S. Presidents, or important dates in history.


On the surface, Bruner’s emphasis on the learner discovering subject content for themselves seemingly absolves the teacher of a great deal of work.

In practice, however, his model requires the teacher to be actively involved in lessons; providing cognitive scaffolding which will facilitate learning on the part of the student.

On the one hand, this involves the selection and design of appropriate stimulus materials and activities which the student can understand and complete – however Bruner also advocates that the teacher should circulate the classroom and work with individual students, performing six core “functions” (Wood, Bruner and Ross: 1976):

  • Recruitment: ensuring that the student is interested in the task, and understands what is required of them.
  • Reducing degrees of freedom: helping the student make sense of the material by eliminating irrelevant directions and thus reducing the “trial and error” aspect of learning.
  • Direction Maintenance: ensuring that the learner is on-task and interest is maintained – often by breaking the ultimate aim of the task into “sub-aims” which are more readily understood and achieved.
  • Marking critical features: highlighting relevant concepts or processes and pointing out errors.
  • Frustration Control: stopping students from “giving up” on the task.
  • Demonstration: providing models for imitation or possible (partial solution).

In this context, Bruner’s model might be better described as guided discovery learning; as the teacher is vital in ensuring that the acquisition of new concepts and processes is successful.

Bruner and Vygotsky

Both Bruner and Vygotsky emphasize a child’s environment, especially the social environment, more than Piaget did. Both agree that adults should play an active role in assisting the child’s learning.

Bruner, like Vygotsky, emphasized the social nature of learning, citing that other people should help a child develop skills through the process of scaffolding.

“[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring” (Bruner, 1978, p. 19).

He was especially interested in the characteristics of people whom he considered to have achieved their potential as individuals.

The term scaffolding first appeared in the literature when Wood, Bruner, and Ross described how tutors” interacted with a preschooler to help them solve a block reconstruction problem (Wood et al., 1976).

The concept of scaffolding is very similar to Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development, and it’s not uncommon for the terms to be used interchangeably.

Scaffolding involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child with the aim of helping the child achieve a specific goal.

The purpose of the support is to allow the child to achieve higher levels of development by:

  • Simplifying the task or idea.
  • Motivating and encouraging the child.
  • Highlighting important task elements or errors.
  • Giving models that can be imitated.

Bruner and Piaget

There are similarities between Piaget and Bruner, but a significant difference is that Bruner’s modes are not related in terms of which presuppose the one that precedes it. While sometimes one mode may dominate in usage, they coexist.

Bruner states that the level of intellectual development determines the extent to which the child has been given appropriate instruction together with practice or experience.

So – the right way of presentation and explanation will enable a child to grasp a concept usually only understood by an adult. His theory stresses the role of education and the adult.

Although Bruner proposes stages of cognitive development, he doesn’t see them as representing different separate modes of thought at different points of development (like Piaget).

Instead, he sees a gradual development of cognitive skills and techniques into more integrated “adult” cognitive techniques.

Bruner views symbolic representation as crucial for cognitive development, and since language is our primary means of symbolizing the world, he attaches great importance to language in determining cognitive development.


  • Children are innately PRE-ADAPTED to learning
  • Children have a NATURAL CURIOSITY
  • Children’s COGNITIVE STRUCTURES develop over time
  • Children are ACTIVE participants in the learning process
  • Cognitive development entails the acquisition of SYMBOLS


  • Social factors, particularly language, were important for cognitive growth. These underpin the concept of ‘scaffolding’.
  • The development of LANGUAGE is a cause not a consequence of cognitive development
  • You can SPEED-UP cognitive development. You don’t have to wait for the child to be ready
  • The involvement of ADULTS and MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE PEERS makes a big difference
  • The involvement of ADULTS and MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE PEERS makes a big difference


Bruner, J. S. (1957). Going beyond the information given. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction, Cambridge, Mass.: Belkapp Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1973). The relevance of education. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J.M. Levelt (eds.) The Child’s Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.