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Constructivist Theory

(J. Bruner)


A major theme in the theoretical framework of Bruner is that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, an d makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structure (i.e., schema, mental models) provides meaning and organization to experiences and allows the individual to "go beyond the information given".

As far as instruction is concerned, the instructor should try and encourage students to discover principles by themselves. The instructor and student should engage in an active dialog (i.e., socratic learning). The task of the instructor is to translate i nformation to be learned into a format appropriate to the learner's current state of understanding. Curriculum should be organized in a spiral manner so that the student continually builds upon what they have already learned.

Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects: (1) predisposition towards learning, (2) the ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner, (3) the most effec tive sequences in which to present material, and (4) the nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.

In his more recent work, Bruner (1986, 1990) has expanded his theoretical framework to encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning.

Scope/Application: Bruner's constructivist theory is a general framework for instruction based upon the study of cognition. Much of the theory is linked to child development research (especially Piaget ). The ideas outlined in Bruner (1960) origina ted from a conference focused on science and math learning. Bruner illustrated his theory in the context of mathematics and social science programs for young children (see Bruner, 1973). The original development of the framework for reasoning processes is described in Bruner, Goodnow & Austin (1951). Bruner (1983) focuses on language learning in young children.


This example is taken from Bruner (1973):

"The concept of prime numbers appears to be more readily grasped when the child, through construction, discovers that certain handfuls of beans cannot be laid out in completed rows and columns. Such quantities have either to be laid out in a single file o r in an incomplete row-column design in which there is always one extra or one too few to fill the pattern. These patterns, the child learns, happen to be called prime. It is easy for the child to go from this step to the recognition that a multiple table , so called, is a record sheet of quantities in completed mutiple rows and columns. Here is factoring, multiplication and primes in a construction that can be visualized."


1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).

3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).


Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1973). Going Beyond the Information Given. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1983). Child's Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J., Goodnow, J., & Austin, A. (1956). A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley.