Tuesday, January 06, 2009

On Knowing - Jerome Bruner

My tattered and much read copy of Jerome Bruner's stimulating book of essays, compiled in 1965, gives expression to the 'creative cunning of the left hand' and outlines the conditions to develop creativity - the 'art' of knowing and discovering. Every time I read it my understanding deepens - this deepening of consciousness through education is the theme of the book. Some essays are still beyond me.

The themes Jerome Bruner covers in his book concern the process of knowing, how knowing is shaped and how it in turn gives form to language science, literature and art. The symbolism of the left hand is that of the dreamer - the right that of the practical doer.The areas of hunches and intuition, Bruner writes, has been all too often overwhelmed by an 'imposed fetish of objectivity'...'The lock step of learning theory in this country has been broken, though it is still the standard village dance'. Today we still have those ( usually politicians) who wish to test for learning ignoring, according to Bruner, that 'it is difficult to catch and record, no less understand, the swift flight of man's mind operating at its best.'

'There is something antic about creating, although the enterprise be serious', he writes.

Creativity Bruner defines is 'an act that produces effective surprise' although surprise, he says, is not easily defined, and once expressed often have a quality of obviousness about them ; representing connections that before were unsuspected.

Conditions for creativity require that the learner stand back from reality and to be 'prepared to take his journey without maps' driven by a deep need, or passion, to understand something. The 'wild flood of ideas' need to be tamed, and in the process, the thing being created takes over and compels the learner to finish. The learner, Bruner writes, is 'dominated' to complete the task.

The heart of creativity ,Bruner writes, are the questions, 'Who am I , where do I belong, and of what am I capable?' And, quoting William James, he writes, 'How do I know what I am until I feel what I do? This is why action is required to develop a positive identity; we 'either create or stagnate'. As William James says, 'we are remoulded constantly by experience', or as Bruner writes, there is 'a quest for identity'; an 'increased demand for significance in life'.

Bruner makes many references to the writings of John Dewey. Education is a process that cannot be separated from what it is that one seeks to teach. 'It is' Bruner writes, ' the study of the nature of knowing'. Education must be about providing the opportunities to discover the 'special power' of whatever one chooses to teach - art , science , music, maths or poetry.

Learner are attracted, through their curiosity, to begin the 'knowing process'. Teachers, Bruner advises, ought to 'practice the art of intellectual temptation'.

Personal excellence is what a learner discovers for himself. It comes from the teachers 'faith in permitting the student to put things together for himself'. But, says Bruner, discovery, like surprise, favours the well prepared mind'.'Discovery whether by a schoolboy...or by a scientist cultivating the growing edge of his field' is a means of transformation in a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence.

Preparing this searching 'mind' is the role of the learning culture the teacher creates. In the right climate students 'are armed with the expectancy' and persistence to find patterns. The students are 'learning how to go about the very task of learning'. This is in contrast to to those students who are 'seekers after the right way' able only to 'give back what is expected of them'. There is a big difference 'between learning about and discovering'.The behaviour that leads to discovery is not random - it is 'directed, selective and persistent'. Such learners experience success and failure as information - 'on the right track or on the wrong one.' Success delivers growing confidence and mastery - what Bruner calls the 'art of inquiry'; 'inquiry as a way of life'.

This disposition to inquire is gained in the process of doing something that 'smells right'. 'It is my hunch' says Bruner, 'that it is only through the effort of discovery that one learns the working heuristics of discovery; the more one has practice, the more likely one ( develops)... a style of problem solving or inquiry that serves for any kind of task'. Practice in figuring things out can only be gained by 'engaging in inquiry'.

Students who can mediate their own learning, and commit such learning to memory, are most successful when the learning resonates with their own interests.Such students , by reflecting on their experiences learn to see patterns. 'Learning to simplify', says Bruner, 'is to climb on your own shoulders to be able to look down at what you have just done - and then to represent it to yourself.'

The good teacher is one who provide opportunities that 'cry for representation'. ' How can I know what I think until I represent what I do'. Students, Bruner recommends, ought to be encourage 'a going back over experiences, a listening to oneself'. And, continues, that the 'art of teaching' is to encourage such reflective behaviour so as to help students make sense of any experience so as to avoid mechanical learning.By imposing premature formalism we prevent the child from realizing the own learning and run the risk of turning students off learning.

All this Bruner says argues for a 'spiral curriculum' where 'ideas can be revisited later with greater precision and power until students achieve the reward of mastery'.'Any subject can be taught to anybody pf any age in some form that is honest' Bruner had written earlier.

Bruner argues for depth over coverage and that content ought to be selected by 'whether is is worth knowing based on whether the knowledge gives a sense of delight and whether it bestows intellectual travel beyond the information given'.'Useful knowledge', he says, 'will look after itself' and argues that schools should 'focus on delight and travel' and that 'we should opt for depth and continuity in our teaching'. Learning that travels should give the learner 'the sense of experiencing of going from a primitive and weak grasp of some subject..(to a ) more refined and powerful grasp.. ( so the learner) can see how far he has come and by what means'. And where to next.

Delight, he says, comes from the pleasure of recognising links, or connections, to previous learning particularly of the major themes that underpin all human learning.

Bruner agrees with John Dewey who saw education a a 'process of living and not a preparation for future living'...' the true centre is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities'. Learning, according to Dewey , ought to be active not passive. Dewey had great faith not only in the individuals capacity to grow but in society's capacity to shape man in its own best image. Dewey was writing in the 1890s - a time of sterility and rigidity in formal schooling.

Bruner reminds us that a 'excess of virtue is vice' as Dewey was unfortunately misinterpreted by his followers.Education has not only transmit the knowledge and values of the culture but also must also seek to develop the 'individuals capacity to go beyond the cultural ways .. to innovate..to create'. 'Each man' , writes Bruner, 'must be his own artist, his own scientist, his own historian, his own navigator'.

This paradox provides school with a creative tension to this day; 'one size fits all' in contrast to the ideals of 'personalised learning. 'Education' Bruner writes,' must, then, be not only a process that transmits culture but one that provides alternative views of the world and strengthens the will to explore them'. According to Dewey, education must begin with 'insights into the child's capacities, experiences, interests, habits' 'It is sentimentalism', says Bruner , to restrict learning to children's interests. Interests, he says, can be created and stimulated and provoked.

Schools are special communities where students are challenged 'leap into new and unimagined realms of experience' so as to 'open new perspectives'.

The 'yeast of education', writes Bruner, is the idea of excellence, and that it comprises as many forms as there are individuals'. 'The school', he continues, 'must have as one of its principle functions the nurturing of images of excellence'. Each subject areas provides organizing concepts to provide opportunities to develop excellence. But, he reminds us, teachers must ensure students grasp connections between subjects to develop the 'unity of learning'.

What should be taught turns our to be what is worth knowing, he writes and his suggestions echo the strands, or 'big ideas' of our current Learning Areas. Whatever is introduced needs to include the inquiry tools essential to the unlocking any new experience and to 'develop the informed powers of mind and a sense of potency in action'.

The goal of eduction is both disciplined understanding, and the process of learning to tackle confusion ; both product and process. If students are to have a general idea of how and where thing fit the first round of experience should be relate to the reality of the child life. 'In as far as possible , a method of instruction should have the objective of leading the child to discover for himself' The virtue of such an approach is that the 'child will make what he learns his own' and it also provides the 'reward of the power of disciplined inquiry'

'There is no difference in kind between the man at the frontier and the young student at his own frontier, each attempting too understand.Let the education process be life itself as fully as we can make it ' Bruner writes.

Bruner's book is a challenge to us all see students as 'knowers'. As we face up to a range of interconnected problems to sustain the very world we live in. We need an education system designed to develop the creativity and learning power of all students; individuals who 'feel they are living at the full limit of what is possible'.

Our current school system has a long way to go to developing the creative potential of all students so as to achieve Bruner's vision.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful review of what must be a fascinating book. And it shows that nothing is really new. The so called 'best practices' of current researchers are only catching up with what creative educators have always known. 'Next practice' is creative practice.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant book. Brilliant man. Good to see both being talked about again.
Very welcome re-focus.
Thank-you. - Josie

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Josie and anon.

Jerome Bruner builds on the ideas of John Dewey. I can only think of a few names in the same league - Howard Gardner, Elliot Eisner, David Perkins and Guy Claxton to name a few.

I must think of a few others! Any ideas?

And most of what they write has been put into action by creative teachers over the decades without knowledge of them.

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