Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Modern Learning Environments (MLEs) - pedagogy from Jerome Bruner




Jerome Bruner 
1916-2016

Pedagogy for  21stC flexible learning environments

Jerome Bruner has a always  been a favourite of mine. I have previously written a blog about one of his bis books that  I have read several times ( because one reading is not enough to  fully comprehend - some essays are still beyond me)


Bruner's ideas are in opposition to the standardized direction being imposed on our schools but are surely the essence of what a modern learning environment is all about?

'Towards a Theory of Instruction' 

is the book, first published 1969, I want to share today..


'The will to learn is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its reward in its own exercise. The will to learn becomes
a "problem" only under specialized circumstances like those of school......what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning - curiosity, a desire for competence, aspiration to emulate a model, and a deep-sensed commitment to the web of social reciprocity.'
.

Bruner's concern has been with how these energies may be cultivated in support of school learning. The book's theme is dual: how children learn, and how they can be helped to learn - how than be brought to the fullest realization of their capacities.

Developing this sense of a learning community, Bruner believes, is somehow overlooked but it is surely the challenge of a modern learning environment.


Children get interested in waht they get good at
Bruner spent his early research  studying the nature of learning blocks - students whose behavior 'is designed to defend against entry into the problem'. A problem that is still with us today. We all tend to avoid activities that we feel we can't do. Bruner was also concerned how successful individuals 'reach their high water mark'. One thought he shares is that much of what is to be learnt  is 'wordlessness'- for an example  learning a sport, skiing or riding a bike. Such things are learnt by experience if a desire to achieve such things is important.

Children', he writes, ' are born into a culture and formed by it', an idea that has both negative and positive consequences. Consider why, after years of 'education' many students still leave with a dislike of mathematics and writing.. What kind of culture would need to be established to ensure all students develop a positive attitudes to two such important areas. This goes well beyond simplistic National Standards ideas that negates a rich curriculum

Creating a learning community for all is a challenge for those teaching in a modern learning environment. Such an environment might look nothing like a traditional school. Such a community would not include  current ability grouping  and obsessive testing.

Bruner writes by the age of three  'the child has become a paragon of sensory distractablliity. He is the victim of vividness...a creature of the moment'. How to help children learn to focus and extend their curiosity is a 'process that goes on throughout childhood' and the language and the arts provide the means to deepen knowledge, ' dialogue can lead people to discover things of great depth and wisdom'. and later  'notation of one sort or another surely becomes enormously important whether bu models, pictures, words or mathematical symbols' He comments 'we know too little about the use of the notebook, the sketch, the outline, i reflective work.

Modern learning environments need to provide motivational challenges ( through provocative displays?) and need to consider how students should record their questions, ideas and procedures. maybe in learning journals?

The learning environment need to help students get over distractability and to focus on the task i
Currently sidelined
n hand
.. One thought ( from my own experience) is to help students 'slow the pace of their work' as many students have a mindset that first finished is best.; developing this reflective approach allows adults to come alongside the learner to provide the necessary help leading to, what Bruner says, 'translating experiences into more powerful systems of notation and ordering' - 'the patient pursuit of the possible'. Every domain has skills to learn and acquiring these Bruner writes  'through the subtle interaction of parent and child'.

The spiral curriculum

It was Bruner who introduced the idea of the 'spiral curriculum' but in this book he makes the point that learning is not about gradual accretion but more' a staircase with sharp riders, more a mater of spurts and rests'. First sages in learning are mainly manipulative - learning how to do something, but with age and experience it becomes more reflective and explainable through language - the high point for this is between five and seven.

This process cant be rushed and students having time to perceptually experience things is important and rushing students only leads to students beginning to feel they can't cope. This would point to the need for personalized help or learning 'quickly becomes out of reach'.

Teaching is more about providing opportunities rather than measuring achievement; a modern learning environment is all about providing the opportunities to learn.

Bruner writes powerfully about 'the power of learning' which comes from mastery of a task. Such mastery leads to the power to 'go on to to something that is out of reach'. 'The principle emphasis in education should be placed on skills - skills in handling, in seeing and imagining and in This relates well to the 'seeking, using and developing ones own knowledge' of the New Zealand Curriculum.
A flexible learning environment


Visual education

Visual education, how people analyse and sort their environment, Bruner thinks is very important, 'I do not think we have begun the to scratch the surface of training in visualization - whether related to the arts, to science, or simply to the pleasures of viewing our environment more richly. Sounds so much like the work of pioneer New Zealand teacher Elwyn Richardson.

Power through mastery

Bruner sees the curriculum  as something 'that should involve the mastery of skills that in turn lead to the mastery of still more powerful ones, the establishment of self -reward sequences'. This, he believes, can be done in mathematics and science and also such things as poetry. This relates to Bruner's 'spiral curriculum' ; 'that there is an appropriate version of any skill or knowledge at whatever age one wishes to begin teaching'. This he writes is about 'deepening and enrichment of earlier understanding' and the reward of achievement and is the development development of personal style.
An earlier Bruner book

Amplifying learning power

An innovative learning environment is all about 'optimizing learning' - exploring the limits of each individual's learning; to amplify 'learning power'.. As for the teacher Bruner writes 'discovering how to make something comprehensible to the young is only a continuation of making something comprehensible to ourselves in the first place - that understanding and aiding others to understand are both of a piece'.

Powerful learning experiences

Bruner's advice ( applicable for those teaching in an innovative/flexible learning environment)  is to be explicit about the ';experiences which most effectively implant in the individual a predisposition towards learning'. And , he continues, that any structure to assist learning 'must be related to the status and gifts of the learner'. and that in any learning 'it is better to shift away from extrinsic rewards...to the intrinsic rewards in solving  a complex problem for oneself'.

The artistry of the teacher

Teachers working with students must never put at risk the learner's disposition to learn. This is rewarded by the 'degree to which a learner develops an independent skill, the degree to which he is confident of his ability to perform on his own'. Teachers must be aware of helping stunts explore A major condition he writes is the 'presence of some optimal level of uncertainty' stating that 'curiosity is a response to to uncertainty and ambiguity'. Once something is learned with the help of an instructor further experiences 'should be less risky or painful'
Bruner would agree
alternatives and exploration of alternatives 'requires something to get started, something to keep it going, and something to keep it from being random' This is the artistry of a teacher.

Successful learning requires 'a sense of the goal or task' ; that the task 'must be known in some approximate fashion' - once again relating to Brunei's 'spiral curriculum' and that such learning can be expressed in a variety of ways. through ;actions, words,. pictures and symbols.

Success based on improving on previous personal best efforts.

When it comes to learning anything Bruner writes 'there is no unique sequence for all learners' and that this 'will depend upon a variety of factors, including past learning, stage of development, nature of the material, and individual differences'.

Education must be about providing the opportunities to discover the 'special power' of whatever one chooses to teach - art , science , music, maths or poetry.

Learning a 'form of trial and error, means end testing, trial and check, hypothesis testing and so on' ( I  like the phrase 'enlightened trial and error') and learners need to be able to learn to assess his or her own progress and  be open to ask for help when required. Any instruction has  has to 'make the learner or problem self sufficient' and to avoid 'the learner becoming permanently dependent' on the tutor. If students remain dependent the will 'rely upon the perpetual presence of a teacher'.

A favourite Bruner quote is  'teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'.

The first task of a teacher 'is to gain and hold the child's interest and to lead  the learner to
Inquiry learning
problem solving activity.
'perhaps the greatest problem( for the teachers) is prevent oneself from becoming a perpetual source of information, interfering with the child's ability to take over the role of being his own corrector'. Teaching is a form of 'enlightened opportunism'. - a creative act.

Knowing is a process

Students need to be involved in creating their own curriculum  so that that they ''participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge.' .'We teach a subject ...to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge getting. Knowing is a process not a product'. Ideas that sound very modern, very 21st C  - the idea that knowledge is a 'doing word' - a verb. Very much in line with the intent of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

Intellectual substance - depth and passion

The substance of what is taught  provides the 'intellectual substance' and shapes the 'curiosity of of the student'. forming the 'intellectual power of those whom it serves'. 'We can make every effort at the outset to tell children where we hope to travel with them. Yet little understanding gets through. Much more useful get questions from the students themselves 'so that their own views can be brought into the open'. 'If we can activate a passion for bringing order into what has been studied, the task is well started.' The best approach is through mastering the art of getting and using information- learning what is involved in going beyond the information given',

Respect for student's thinking

Students need to be encouraged to 'pause and review in order to recognize the connections within what they have learned......for if we do nothing else , we should somehow give to children a respect for their own power of thinking, for their power to generate good questions, to come up with interesting informed guesses.'

Bruner writes 'it is more than a little troubling to me that so many of our students dislike the two major tools of thought - mathematics.... and language inn its written form, both of them devices for ordering thoughts about things and thoughts about thoughts'. Bruner hops that 'in the new era ahead we will ..make make these tools more lovable.' Something we have yet to achieve.

The will to learn.

'The single most characteristic thing about human being is that they learn' yet we still are faced with students who leave school feeling failures  with negative attitudes to wards learning. This cannot be their fault. As mentioned earlier we are conditioned by our environment.

'School demands an orderliness and neatness beyond what the child has known before; it requires restraint and immobility never asked of him before; and t often puts him in a spot where he does not know ...whether he is on the right track,' For many students this provides a challenge and for some anxiety..

The big question
In a school situation 'the will to learn' becomes important. Almost all students enter school  with 'intrinsic motives for learning ....one that does not depend upon reward that lies outside the activity it impels, Reward inheres in the the successful termination of that activity or even in the activity itself.'

'Little is known about how to help a child become master of his own attention, to sustain it over a long connected sequence'. One possibility is help the learner move 'from more surfacy forms of curiosity and attention, and then cultivating curiosity to more subtle and active expression'. By helping the students achieve beyond expectation provides 'astonishing results'.

The drive for competence

'Curiosity is only one of the intrinsic motives for learning. The drive to achieve competence is another'. Teachers can emphasize competence helping focus their energy 'when they get into a subject they like'. 'Unless there is some meaningful unity in what we are doing, and some ways of telling how well we are doing, we are not likely to strive to excel ourselves.' and Bruner adds 'everybody does not want to be competent in the same activities'.

We get interested in what we get good at'.

Once an activity has been 'approved' by the learner requires 'some meaningful structure to it if it requires skill that is a little bit beyond that now possessed by the person - that it be learned by the exercise of effort.'

This requires an 'ability to understand the the material' and the need  to understand  delving into 'a topic in some depth, of going somewhere in a subject. It is this that is the heart of competence motives, and surely our schools have not begun to tap this enormous reservoir of zest'.

'How can education  keeps alive  and nourish  a drive to competence? What sustains a sense of pleasure and achievement in mastering things for their own sake? This believes Bruner is 'an instinct for workmanship'.
Current standardization

Bruner is writing about 'creating a community of learners' a phrase echoing Elwyn Richardson who wrote that he 'wanted to create a community of scientists and artists '.

The problem, writes Bruner, is 'how to stimulate thought in school, how to personalise learning, and how to evaluate what one is doing.


'There is nothing more important in teaching ( any discipline)  than to provide the child the earliest opportunity to learn that way of thinking - the forms of connection, the attitude, hopes, joke, and frustrations that go with it.At the very first breathe, the young learner, we think, be given the chance to solve problems, to conjecture, to quarrel, as these are done at the heart of any discipline'.

'Children in school can quickly be led to such problem finding by encouragement and instruction.' 'Children, like adults, need reassurance that it is all right to entertain and express highly subjective ideas, to treat a task as a problem where you invent an answer rather than finding one out there'in a book', or today on the internet.

Valuing the student's 'voice'.

'We need to reestablish in the child's mind not only to have his own private ideas but to express them in the public setting of a classroom.'

One difficulty Bruner writes is that 'young children in school expend extraordinary time and effort figuring out what it is that the teacher wants - and usually coming to the conclusion that she or he
wants tidiness or remembering or doing things at a certain time in a certain way.'

Content and process  inseparable

Problem solving - problem finding.

One way to achieve stimulating problem solving is 'to train teachers to want it' and by providing 'them and their children with materials ...that permit legitimate problem solving'.Teachers can make or break learning by their attitudes

This requires the 'personalization of knowledge' ; knowledge that is related to the child's own experience. We need to value students feelings and preconception - their prior knowledge of the learning being undertaken.

Success for all students..

Teachers in modern learning environment is all 'about assisting the development of  (all) human beings so that they can use their potential powers to achieve a good lie and make an effective contribution to their society'.

This is something we have not achieved yet in New Zealand. but one thing is sure the answer is not narrowing the curriculum through National Standards and obsessive testing.


New Zealand was well on the way under Dr Beeby

One school I admire is New Science Tech School

Pioneer New Zealand teacher was ahead of his time!


Inspirational New Zealand schools well on the way


Taranaki teachers in the 70s and 80s implemented Bruner's ideas.


John Dewey - inspiration from the past.

Basing learning around student inquiry


What the Western World has forgotten about learning that Modern Learning EnvironmentS should implement

Pedagogy fro a MLE/ ILE /FLE



















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