Jerome Bruner: Biography, Cognitive Theory, Contributions, Works

Jerome Bruner  (1915 – 2016) was an American psychologist and professor who studied in depth cognitive phenomena such as perception, memory and learning, especially in children and young people. He is considered one of the fathers of cognitive psychology, and his contributions had a great influence on the American educational system.

Bruner obtained a doctorate in psychology from the prestigious Harvard University in 1941, to which he returned to serve as a professor after serving in the United States Army as an expert in the psychology of warfare. Between 1960 and 1972 he directed the Center for Cognitive Studies of this university; and later he moved to Oxford to practice as a professor of experimental psychology.

At first, Bruner’s studies focused on introducing Piaget’s theories about the stages of development in children in the school environment. In his book  The Process of Education (1960), he argued that a child can be taught about any subject no matter what stage of development he is in, as long as it is presented in an appropriate way.

According to Jerome Bruner, all children have great natural curiosity, and are driven to become skilled and master different tasks. However, when the challenges are too difficult, they get bored and lose interest in learning. Therefore, the task of teachers is to design challenges that are challenging enough, but not impossible to complete.

During his career as a psychologist, Jerome Bruner wrote many books. Of all of them, the best known is the already mentioned  The process of education ; but published many others. Some of the most famous are  A study of thought  (1956),  Towards a theory of instruction (1966),  The relevance of education  (1971),  Communication as language  (1982) and  The culture of education  (1996).


Early years

Jerome Seymour Bruner was born on October 1, 1915. He was the son of two Polish immigrants, Herman and Rose Bruner. When he was born, he had a very severe vision problem that practically made him blind; But luckily, during his first years of life, he underwent two cataract operations that allowed him to solve this difficulty.

During his childhood, Jerome Bruner attended various public schools. Later, he earned his degree in psychology from Duke University, and then went to the prestigious Harvard School for a doctorate, which was awarded to him in 1941.

When World War II broke out, Jerome Bruner had to serve in the military in the War Psychology Division under General Eisenhower. However, his military career was short-lived, and after the conflict ended he returned to Harvard University to serve as a professor for the first time.

Beginnings as a researcher

When Bruner first entered the field of psychology professionally, it was totally torn between behaviorism (which focused on the study of learning) and perceptual analysis (which was totally subjective and mentalistic).

At Harvard University itself, the mainstream was psychophysics, who believed that psychology should focus on the study of the senses, and how they react to different stimuli. From the beginning, Bruner opposed this view of psychology, creating a theory of perception that became known as the “New View.”

This theory defended that perception is not something that happens immediately, but that it occurs as a consequence of the processing of information and the unconscious selection of the stimuli we receive. From this point on, Bruner became interested in how people interpret the world, rather than just their automatic reactions.

Soon, Bruner left the field of perception and entered the field of cognition; that is, he began to study the way we think. At this time he published  A Study of Thought (1956), a book he wrote with Jacqueline Goodnow and George Austin. In it he explored the different mechanisms that we use to reason, and the way in which we categorize the phenomena that occur around us.

Center for Cognitive Studies

Very soon, Jerome Bruner began collaborating with his partner George Miller, with whom he began to investigate the way in which people create conceptual models and the way in which they encode information based on them. Thus, in 1960 the two scientists created the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard.

The premise of his research there was that psychology should focus on understanding cognitive processes; that is, the way in which we acquire, store and work with information. This center soon became one of the most important in the field of psychology.

Education jobs

Although he made numerous contributions to the field of academic psychology, Jerome Bruner’s best known works are probably those related to education. Many of these studies were done during his time running the Center for Cognitive Studies.

In terms of education, this researcher believed that the human species had taken charge of its own evolution by changing its environment through technology. Therefore, our survival depends on knowing how to pass on our knowledge about this technology and how to create it. Because of this, for this author education was an area of ​​the greatest importance at the social level.

In 1959, Bruner was asked to lead a group from the National Academy of Sciences to change the educational curriculum in the United States. From this meeting came  The Process of Education , a book that became a best – seller and ended up being translated into 19 languages.

In this work, and therefore in his suggestions for the new American curriculum, Bruner relied on three main ideas: understanding the workings of the mind as the main mechanism for solving problems, the influence of Piaget’s developmental theory, and the importance of understanding how an idea or discipline works internally.

Last years

Bruner’s work in education led him to develop in new areas of research and work. For example, he created a training called “Man: A Study Course.” This publicly funded project was the subject of much criticism as it opposed many of the more conservative values ​​and traditions of American culture.

In 1972 the Center for Cognitive Studies was closed, and Bruner moved to the UK to serve as a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. During his time there, he began researching early childhood cognitive development. Later, he returned to the United States when he was offered a teaching position at the New School for Social Research in New York, in 1981.

During the following years, Bruner continued to research and publish numerous books and works. Some of the most important publications of his later time were  Real Minds, Possible Worlds , from 1986; and  Acts of Meaning , a series of lectures published in book form in 1990.

Jerome Bruner passed away in 2016, having published numerous works and greatly altered the direction in which psychology as a science was headed in the 20th century. To this day, he is considered one of the 30 most important psychologists of the entire last century.

Cognitive theory


One of the fields in which Jerome Bruner excelled was in that of cognitive psychology. This author is traditionally considered one of the first promoters of this trend within the United States. His works in this area began within the realm of perception and sensations, although later they expanded to other related topics.

According to Bruner, perception and sensation are active processes, in which the mind of the person mediates. This idea is opposed to the traditional vision of both phenomena, which from behaviorism were seen as automatic and equal for all people.

One of the first studies by Jerome Bruner on this subject was known as  Value and necessity as organizational factors in perception , which he published in 1947. In it, he studied the evaluations that children of different social classes made of wooden discs with the size of different American currencies.

This experiment showed that the need of children from a more humble social class led them to value discs to a greater extent, in addition to perceiving them as larger than they really were. On the contrary, those who came from wealthy families were able to see them more objectively.

This study and others like it formed the basis for what would later become known as Bruner’s cognitivist theory.

Cognitivist theory

The basis of Jerome Bruner’s cognitive ideas is the concept that people are not passive subjects of the information we receive from the outside. On the contrary, we build all our knowledge based on our previous ideas, our way of understanding the world, our personality and a series of other basic aspects.

On the other hand, Bruner defended the idea that human beings try to create categories of information, in which we classify everything that happens to us and all the elements that we find around us. In this way, we perceive what happens to us based on these categories, which are dynamically modified.

According to cognitivist theory, the categories that we create over time help us to make predictions about what surrounds us, make decisions based on the inputs we receive, and understand reality in the best possible way. This theory is based largely on computation, which was in its infancy at the time Bruner lived.

Categorization tools

On the other hand, the process of categorizing what surrounds us is essential to create new knowledge. This is done through two different tools: concept formation, and concept acquisition.

Concept formation is more typical of the early stages of a person’s development. When used, the person creates a new category, and tries to discover what objects, items, or situations might fit within it. In this way, the patterns present in them are analyzed, in order to find a way to organize them in a coherent way.

On the contrary, in the acquisition of concepts the person no longer tries to create new categories, but tries to add the new elements with which he meets those that he had previously formed in his mind. Through this process, the person is increasingly refining their categories and thus understanding the world with increasing complexity.

Learning theory

Starting in 1967, Bruner became interested in the way in which children develop their mental capacities, and the way in which they acquire new knowledge. During the decades that followed, she created a unified theory of learning, which was highly influential in the formation of the official curriculum in the United States and had considerable weight in the education of other countries as well.

In the traditional view of education, the teacher is considered to be the most important figure in the learning process. Its function is to transmit information, which students have to memorize after receiving it passively. Bruner realized that this way of doing things did not fit with what he had discovered about the workings of the human mind.

Because of this, this psychologist created a new theory of learning in which students are the protagonists rather than a passive element. Thus, within a classroom, children have to actively construct their own knowledge, generating their own schemes and categories, and adding new ideas to what they already knew previously through their own actions.

One of the most important parts of this theory is the idea that the previous structures in the student’s mind are going to determine to a large extent what he can and cannot learn. Due to this, the teacher has to act as a mediator, and help students to build new mental schemes that serve them in the educational context.

Learning by discovery

One of Jerome Bruner’s best known theories is that of discovery learning. The basic idea behind it is that children learn not passively as previously believed, but as active agents. Your main way of acquiring new information is to relate to your environment and try to understand it.

In this way, Bruner defended the need to promote independence, exploration and curiosity in children. Her pedagogical approach sought to improve skills such as written and verbal expression, reasoning, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, and logical and creative thinking.

This theory runs counter to the traditional view of education, in which students have to limit themselves to passively absorb knowledge that comes to them from outside. Therefore, on a practical level, an educational system based on discovery learning would be totally different from the one that currently exists.

Although Bruner’s ideas were never implemented globally as he would have liked, today there are some experimental centers that put his theories on discovery learning into practice.

Other contributions

Although his contributions as a promoter of cognitive psychology in the United States and as the creator of a new vision of learning were the most important of his career, the truth is that Jerome Bruner worked in many different fields throughout his entire career. professional life.

For example, in the 1980s Bruner was working on an idea known as the “theory of the narrative construction of reality.” This is based on the concept that there are two ways of thinking, a paradigmatic and a narrative.

While the paradigmatic way of thinking serves to classify and categorize, the narrative is used to interpret the events of daily life in the form of narratives. According to this theory, the main objective of psychology should be to understand these narratives and the way in which we understand what happens to us on a daily basis.

On the other hand, Bruner also spent the last years of his life conducting research on the relationship between psychology and legal practice. In this way, he became one of the pioneers of judicial psychology, a field that is gaining momentum today.


During his long career as a psychologist and researcher, Jerome Bruner wrote a large number of books, works, and essays. Some of the most important are the following:

–  A study of thought  (1956).

–  The process of education  (1960).

–  Towards a theory of instruction (1966).

–  Children speak: learning to use language  (1983).

–  Real minds, possible worlds  (1985).

–  Acts of meaning  (1990).

–  The culture of education  (1996).


  1. “Jerome Bruner” in: Famous Psychologists. Retrieved on: November 04, 2019 from Famous Psychologists:
  2. “Learning theories according to Bruner” in: Online Psychology. Retrieved on: November 04, 2019 from Online Psychology:
  3. “Jerome Bruner: biography of the promoter of the cognitive revolution” in: Psychology and Mind. Retrieved on: November 04, 2019 from Psychology and Mind:
  4. “Jerome Bruner” in: Britannica. Retrieved on: November 04, 2019 from Britannica:
  5. “Jerome Bruner” in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: November 04, 2019 from Wikipedia:

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *