Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education


Harvard University Press 1962, 97 pp.


      This book is the result of the Woods Hole Conference of September 1959, "some thirty-five scientists, scholars, and educators to discuss how education in science might be improved in our primary and secondary schools."  The ten day meeting was the idea of the Purdue University physicist Randall Whaley, at the time Director of the Education Office of the National Academy of Sciences, who also handled the financing and physical arrangements for the National Academy. (Whaley returned to Purdue as Associate Dean of Science not long after the conference.)


      Bruner explains that, unlike any of the curriculum projects being initiated during that time, "... the intention [of the Woods Hole conference] was not to institute a crash program, but rather to examine the fundamental processes involved in imparting to young students a sense of the substance and method of science."  Nor was it intended that the results be used to recruit or better educate future scientists in particular, but to outline a philosophy for science education for all literate persons.


      Mathematician members included a good sampling of those who were in the process of producing what would soon be called "The New Math": Allendoerfer of Washington, Ed Begle of Yale's School Mathematics Study Group, David L. Page and Herbert E. Vaughan of the Illinois group ("UICSM"), and Paul Rosenbloom of the University of Minnesota's Minnemath project.  Also present were Jerrold Zacharias (of the high school physics project "PSSC") and three other physicists; the psychologists Bruner, Lee Cronbach, Robert M. Gagné, and seven others  (making ten in all!); two men in "cinematography" (one  from Eastman Kodak and one a professor); three in "education" (two of them professors and one in the Educational Testing Service at Princeton, the organization that creates the SAT exams for college entrants); five in biology; one in medicine; two in history; and one in classics.  Curiously, none was identified with chemistry as such, though chemistry in 1959 was already in the field with an innovative curriculum for the schools, analogous to Zacharias's PSSC for physics and the Beberman-Vaughn-Page UICSM project for mathematics.  It being 1959, there were no geologists.


      Bruner in his Preface refers to the "ferment" of the summer of 1959, and lists the sites where experimental new programs were being written and tested in mathematics, physics, biology, etc.  That all these projects involved making teaching films explained the presence of the cinematographers;  the presence of psychologists and educators needs no explanation, but Bruner thought it particularly valuable to have had the participation of the historians and the classicist, to provide a comparative perspective to the problem of teaching science.  The Woods Hole Conference was an all-star affair and longer than most.  Bruner explains how it operated, breaking into Five "work-groups", each with a problem roughly corresponding to one of the chapters of the present volume.  The plenary sessions listened to lectures from its own members explaining the various new scientific programs they were creating and debated the pedagogics and psychology of it all.  Even the famous B.L. Skinner (an invited speaker) demonstrated a "teaching machine", generating "heated debate" among the participants.


      This book represents Bruner's own summary of "the sense of the meeting", and also represents much subsequent correspondence between himself and the participants.  It might be that there was such a "sense"; disagreements, too, which Bruner also does not slight; but in the end, the book was written by Bruner. I do  not believe anyone later complained of being misrepresented in it.  Since Bruner never attributed any particular educational doctrine to any particular participant it would have been difficult to do so.


      The chapters are headed


1.  Introduction

2.  The importance of structure

3.  Readiness for learning

4.  Intuitive and analytic thinking

5.  Motives for learning

6.  Aids to teaching. 


      In the Introduction Bruner states that "[in] the past half-century...the scholars at the forefront of their disciplines, those who might be able to make the greatest contribution to the substantive reorganization of their fields, were not involved in the development of curricula for the elementary and secondary schools.  In consequence, school programs have often dealt inadequately or incorrectly with contemporary knowledge.. Now there appears to be a reversal of that trend..." (p.3) 


      He deplores the educational psychology dominant in America before 1940, which separated the "practical" from the theoretical and failed to recognize that "transfer of training" was in fact possible under proper educational conditions, and that "skills" were not totally distinct from "understanding".  Instead of behavioristic "responses", Bruner places "structure" at the heart of education:  give a child a sense of the structure of what he is taught and he will learn the responses for himself.  As example, Bruner cites the paradigm of "tropism" in biology as a frame for understanding disparate animal and plant behaviors; so in other fields as well (p.6ff), as for example mathematics with the notions of commutativity and distributivity, etc. as the basis for algebraic manipulations.


      In passing, Bruner refers to a theme which is not later pressed, and which is hardly mentioned today:  "The top quarter of public school students," he writes on page 10, from which we must draw intellectual leadership in the next generation, is perhaps the group most neglected by our schools in the recent past."  It is not clear whether the Woods Hole conference seriously addressed the implied political problem, that of admitting that some students can learn more than others; or the administrative problem, for which Bruner offers only vague suggestions concerning non-graded classrooms and enrichment.


      The Introduction goes on to introduce the themes of the following chapters, but notes some other generalities:  (p.14) "The three themes mentioned so far are all premised on a central conviction:  that intellectual activity anywhere is the same, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third grade classroom... The difference is in degree, not in kind."  This attitude will reappear, and is central to Bruner's contribution to educational theory, both during the "new Math" era and since.  He believes that students studying physics, for example, are hindered by (as is usual) having to master a "middle language" of the textbooks, rather than being given the opportunity to confront physics itself.  The point is a subtle one, taken up in some detail in Chapter 1, concerning "structure".  The same observation, that intellectual activity is the same thing at all levels, is usually cited as support for what Beberman called "discovery learning"; what is less commonly recognized is that it occurs not only in Bruner's refutation of the behaviorist rejection of the possibility of "transfer of training", but at the same time it became the foundation of the "spiral curriculum" recommendation, endorsed by so many educators in the years since this conference.


      Bruner notes much disagreement among the Woods Hole conferees on value of films, television, etc.  "Virtually all of the participants agreed that not teaching devices but teachers were the principal agents of instruction." (p.15)  How much help they can or should get from other devices is the subject of the last chapter of this book.


      Chapter 2, "The Importance of Structure", is the key to the educational philosophy of this book, of the Woods Hole Conference, and of the New Math.  From what I know of PSSC, Zacharias did not fully share these ideas, since as presented here, and as evidenced in SMSG, for example, the philosophy argued for the presentation of generalizations, i.e. the structures, in advance of the particulars.  In truth, it did not do so explicitly, for Bruner did not outline any particular curriculum in the book; but he did inferentially praise SMSG for exhibiting the laws of algebra as expressed in the field axioms, to serve as the basis for school algebra, rather than as something to be appreciated later on, after experience with, say, the factoring of polynomials.  This was the order of the typical "new math" textbook:  Set theory and logical structures to begin with, arithmetic and geometry later on. 


      Zacharias of course was no advocate of memorized meaningless formulas, but he distrusted abstractions in science teaching, and wanted everything in his own PSSC program to be firmly grounded in experiment.  Visible, tangible manifestations of truths were to precede the formulas and graphs, in Zacharias's estimation, but one gets no hint of this from Bruner's account.


      Zacharias (who was, by the way, a close personal friend of Bruner's) was a member of the "work group" concerned with the role of intuition in learning and teaching, and while his ideas presumably contributed to the Chapter 4, entitled Intuitive and Analytic Thinking, Bruner's account of the sense of the conference under that heading makes only the slightest mention of memory or the factual underpinnings of reason, whether intuitive or analytic.  Though he does consider the question under other headings, at this point he only goes this far:


      "The good intuiter may have been born with something special, but his effectiveness rests upon a solid knowledge of the subject, a familiarity that gives intuition something to work with.  Certainly there are some experiments on learning that indicate the importance of a high degree of mastery of materials in order to operate effectively with them intuitively."  (p.56)


      Faint praise indeed.  "Some" experiments?  That "indicate"?  The man in the street has been more positive than this for thousands of years, despite Dickens's mockery of "mastery of materials" as interpreted by Mr. Gradgrind, who valued nothing but "facts".  It appeared that the denigration of memory as the primary basis for learning has not yet run its course, but this was not really so at Wood's Hole. 


     Memory for isolated facts is not the same as memory.   Who could argue against the following, from Bruner's Chapter 2:  After granting that "transfer of training" from one narrow set of skills to another is unlikely, he writes,


      "The continuity of learning that is produced by the second type of transfer, transfer of principles, is dependent upon mastery of the structure of the subject matter, as structure was described in the preceding chapter.  That is to say, in order for a person to be able to recognize the applicability or inapplicability of an idea to a new situation and to broaden his learning thereby, he must have clearly in mind the general nature of the phenomenon with which he is dealing.  The more fundamental or basic is the idea he has learned, almost by definition, the greater will be its breadth of applicability to new problems.  Indeed, this is almost a tautology, for what is meant by 'fundamental' in this sense is precisely that an idea has wide as well as powerful applicability." (p.18)


      It is not often in this book that Bruner confronts the question of how one can expect such "wide", "powerful" and "fundamental" lessons to be taught at all, in a nation-wide, democratic system of public schools, but here Bruner immediately continues thus:


      "The first and most obvious problem is how to construct curricula that can be taught by ordinary teachers to ordinary students and that at the same time reflects clearly the basic or underlying principles of various fields of inquiry... The experience of the past several years has taught at least one important lesson about the design of a curriculum that is true to the underlying structure of its subject matter.  It is that the best minds in any particular discipline must be put to work on the task."


      And it appeared in 1959 that the best minds were doing just that: Bruner cites the SMSG and PSSC.  Yet he warns that curriculum alone cannot entirely solve the pedagogical problem.  How shall we instill the necessary attitudes in the students, attitudes which are as much a part of understanding as the facts and structures?


      "Just what it takes to bring off such teaching is something on which a great deal of research is needed, but it would seem that an important ingredient is a sense of excitement about discovery -discovery of regularities of previously unrecognized relations and similarities between ideas, with a resulting sense of self-confidence in one's abilities."


      Bruner finds hope here, too:


      "It is particularly the Committee on School Mathematics and the Arithmetic Project of the University of Illinois that have emphasized the importance of discovery as an aid to teaching.  They have been active in devising methods that permit a student to discover for himself the generalization that lies behind a particular mathematical operation, and they contrast this approach with the 'method of assertion and proof' in which the generalization is first stated by the teacher and the class asked to proceed through the proof.  It has also been pointed out by the Illinois group that the method of discovery would be too time-consuming for presenting all of what a student must cover in mathematics.  The proper balance between the two is anything but plain..."


      (An afterthought from forty years later:  The proper balance has not yet been found.  Perhaps it does not exist.)


      The memory Bruner celebrates is therefore a memory for structure.  (p.24) "Perhaps the most basic thing that can be said about human memory, after a century of intensive research, is that unless detail is placed into a structured pattern, it is rapidly forgotten.  Detailed material is conserved in memory by the use of simplified ways of representing it."  And he cites the formula s = (1/2)gt2 as such a device, since it replaces memorization of "a handbook of distances, times, and gravitational constants".  (Typically for Bruner, he follows this example with an analogous one from the study of literature, that to recall the attitude of the narrator in Lord Jim one does not need to memorize the precise words Marlowe used.)  "A good theory is the vehicle not only for understanding a phenomenon now but also for remembering it tomorrow." (p.25) Again, "Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical..." (p.31)  And finally, as psychologist in his own right, and not a summarizer of a conference, "Organizing facts in terms of principles and ideas from which they may be inferred is the only known way of reducing the quick rate of loss of human memory." (p.32)


      Since the first and last quotations in the preceding paragraph are roughly the same statement, and since it is stated in similar terms many times throughout this short book, it is plain that to Bruner the matter of structure is the key to the new developments in pedagogy and curriculum he and his conference were both celebrating and urging for the future.  There were other matters, of course. Chapter 3, Readiness for Learning, contains what is probably Bruner's most famous dictum:


      "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)  Every phrase in this statement requires explanation, of course, and it tends to become more or less tautological when sufficiently dissected; yet it has been the foundation for much subsequent theorizing and many subsequent educational experiments; and it and its sequels have been cited in support of every imaginable educational practice, and in denigration as well.


      The chapter is a short one.  It reviews the Piaget theses on the development of types of understanding in children, and cautions educators not to believe they are accomplishing what they cannot.  On the positive side, it suggests possibilities overlooked by many who think the child "too young" for serious matters. 


      "We might ask, as a criterion for any subject taught in primary school, whether, when fully developed, it is worth an adult's knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult.  If the answer to both questions is negative or ambiguous, then the material is cluttering the curriculum." (p.52)


      This introduces the doctrine of the spiral curriculum, that all topics -in some form -must be introduced at an early age, but cannot be exhausted at any age, and thus must be returned to in increasing depth.  The details are something else again, and Bruner therefore offers a multitude of topics for research.  Among these is the surprising suggestion of reward structures (grades, praise) as a teaching device.  Incentives are taken up again in Chapter 5, following the Chapter 4 excursion into the matter of intuitive versus analytic thinking.


      Scientists are as interested in the method by which they arrive at conclusions as psychologists and educators, and it is natural that a conference such as the one at Woods Hole would consider it.  But its relevance to teaching is problematic.  Intuition is not something that can be taught, it seems, yet it is of first importance in a scientist's work.  The subsidiary problem then arises, what can be taught, that will develop intuition in children?


      "The teacher who is willing to guess at answers to questions asked by the class and then subject his guesses to critical analysis may be more apt to build those habits into his students than would a teacher who analyzes everything for the class in advance." (p.62)  And, "Those concerned with the improvement of the teaching of mathematics often emphasize the importance of developing in the student an understanding of the structure or order of mathematics.  The same is true for physics.  Implicit in this emphasis, it appears, is the belief that such understanding of structure enables the student, among other things, to increase  his effectiveness in dealing intuitively with problems." (p.62,63)


      "It seems likely that effective intuitive thinking is fostered by the development of self confidence and courage in the student...  Such thinking, therefore, requires a willingness to make honest mistakes in the effort to solve problems. One who is insecure, who lacks confidence in himself, may be unwilling to run such risks." (p.65)


      Here the reward structure is crucial, for "...when the student sees the consequences of error as too grave and the consequences of success as too chancy, he will freeze into analytic procedures even though they may not be appropriate.  On these grounds one may wonder whether the present system of rewards and punishments as seen by pupils in school actually tend to inhibit the use of intuitive thinking.  The assignment of grades in school typically emphasizes the acquisition of factual knowledge, primarily because that is what is most easily evaluated..." (p.66)


      All of it true, though it is too narrowly construed as inhibiting intuitive thinking alone.  Everything that has payoff more distant than the next examination is hindered by concentration on that reward scheme alone, and even some of the best students are channeled into unproductive work thereby, while freedom from the usual rewards might have opened the world to them.  On the other hand, educators who have taken this lesson as implying that they should not give examinations, or compare one student with another, or with his previous state of progress, for fear of harming his self esteem or inhibiting his intuition, often end up with merely lazy or illiterate students.  Bruner's book does not really offer a solution to the problem of discipline, though he recognizes it fully, and can only recommend research.


      An earlier problem emerges in this connection as well:  "It requires a sensitive teacher to distinguish an intuitive mistake -- an interestingly wrong leap -- from a stupid or ignorant mistake, and it requires a teacher who can give approval and correction simultaneously to the intuitive student.  To know a subject so thoroughly that he can go easily beyond the textbook is a great deal to ask of a high school teacher." (p.68)


      When a teacher is not up to this challenge, and in the case of superior students he usually is not, the teacher has no way to recognize, let alone reward, such students, Bruner points out; and the loss to our best and brightest is irremediable.  Neither Bruner nor I see any way out of this.  We can hope for better teacher training, better teacher education, but can we realistically expect much on a national, democratic scale?  Even broaching the problem is politically suspect, more so today than in 1959.  It is not yet against the law, however, for parents to encourage their own children, praising that which most of the rest of the world cannot even recognize as praiseworthy.  And many do, and in this way the gap between the well-educated and the poorly educated widens despite the best efforts of our egalitarian educational structures, and the gap, insincerely construed by fearful  politicians as evidence of prejudice or inequality  in public education, generates social problems of its own.


      In this connection Bruner's crystal ball turns cloudy.  He also warns against the reliance on examinations for another reason, citing the effect of the famous Cambridge Mathematical Tripos as example:  He fears it will lead to a "full scale meritocracy" (p.77), in which "the late bloomer, the early rebel, the child from an educationally indifferent home... become victims of an often senseless irreversibility of decision."  And even if "examsmanship" (not Bruner's word) doesn't replace or stifle scholarship, he fears the scientific culture will become so attractive, scholarships and prizes given freely for science and not the humanities, that "literature, history, and the arts will... likely become the prerogative of a group whose family values rather than school values provide the principal support for the pursuit of these topics.  Good teachers in the nonscientific subjects will be harder to recruit, harder to attract into teaching... We can ill afford an alienated group of literary intellectuals who feel that advances in science, which they may fail to understand out of a sense of being shunned by the system of rewards for technical and scientific achievement, betoken the destruction of traditional culture." (p.79)


      Bruner's view that the trends of his time were accentuating the cleavage between C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" was certainly correct, but he didn't imagine that the humanities would take their revenge in quite the way they recently have done, with Black Studies and Women's Studies and new forms of literary and art criticism becoming themselves the "destruction of traditional culture", rather than themselves deploring it in the success of science.  The scientists (and mathematicians) have instead remained the mainstay of the traditional culture as Bruner understood it, while the branches of humanistic culture have been infected increasingly with anti-intellectual theorists calling themselves humanists and, more dangerously, critics of science itself. 


      That ignorance of science is one important cause of this development is certain, however, and Bruner was quite right to fear an educational system that early distinguished scientific excellence in a child and marked him off from the rest by training and socialization.  But while Bruner was perhaps right to fear such a development, this development did not in fact take place.  To the contrary, the leveling down of school education -in all subjects -has proceeded quite continuously in America since 1900, quite as if the decades of "New Math" and PSSC had never taken place.  Furthermore, this leveling down has been borrowed by most of Europe as well.  It is not because prizes were given to science  studies in the schools and universities that the division of "The  Two Cultures" has taken place, though in the adult world there is no denying the prestige that attaches to the sciences, especially  the biological sciences we look to for health and longevity.  The  problem of the two cultures may well be merely incurable.  Our  schools do not create a scientific elite -- far from it, they do their  best to bowdlerize science and mathematics, and to call the result  "equity" in education.  The scientific elite emerges willy-nilly,  and if America doesn't produce enough we import them from  China and India.


      Bruner's last chapter concerns "teaching aids" such as television and films.  He approves of them, of course, provided they teach something and are not mere gimmicks presenting the obvious in a showy way.  However, after warning of this, quite rightly, he concentrates on making a few just remarks on good teaching, by a teacher, to a live class.  Most important, he says, the teacher must be a model, showing the child why the subject should be learned.  If the teacher is ignorant, so will be the child; if the teacher is unenthusiastic, so will be the child.  If this is the only lasting lesson of the book it is sufficient.  Educational research hasn't really learned much more since this book was written.




 p.18  “The experience of the past several years has taught at least one important lesson about the design of a curriculum that is true to the underlying structure of its subject matter.  It is that the best minds in any particular discipline must be put to work on the task."


p.33  "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.39  "Experience has shown that it is worth the effort to provide the growing child with problems that tempt him into next stages of development."


p.70  "The quest, it seems to many of us, is to devise materials that will challenge the superior student while not destroying the confidence and will-to-learn of those who are less fortunate."


p.88  "It takes no elaborate research to know that communicating knowledge depends in enormous measure upon one's mastery of the knowledge to be communicated.


Ralph A. Raimi

Revised June 12, 2004