Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner died on Thursday. My edu-geek is showing when I say I was saddened to hear this news. He was truly a giant in our field. NYT article on his passing.

I started teaching before I knew anything about teaching. I came to teaching from a liberal arts college where I received a rich education. I promptly tried to give that same education to middle schoolers. I forgive myself for that stupidity. It was 25 years ago. Despite my absurd practices, I decided I loved teaching and decided not to go to law school. Instead, in my third year teaching, I started my Master's degree.

Too often we hear teachers out of education programs wish they had less theory and more practical advice. I think new teachers are so busy surviving that theory goes out the window. When I started grad school, I had already survived my first three years. I was able to see how theory was helpful to practice. I learned pedagogy. An aside, we really need to rethink how we train teachers. We need something akin to a residency program, as doctors have. It would help us so much.) When I got to grad school, Skinner and Jerome Bruner were set up in contrast to each other.

I am bemused now by the young teacher that I was. I was totally a behaviorist. I didn't know/ hadn't known who Skinner was, but my model of education was based on rewards and rote learning and hard tests. In fact, I took pride in how challenging my tests were. Indeed, I even named my tests! That's right. I had a series of tests called, "Homicide", "Homicide II", "Suicide." I thought I was funny. Now I cringe.
Jerome Bruner

Reading Bruner showed me that I totally misunderstood how children learned. He showed me a cognitive theory of learning where learners "construct" meaning and understanding through a dynamic interaction with the texts, the instruction, and the environment. I've never been the same. I changed more between my third and fourth years of teaching than I changed in the rest of my career. I stopped giving grades altogether, I rarely gave tests, I tried to embrace a constructivist theory.

That's a long time ago now. But more than 20 years later, I think of constructivism often. I talk about schema theory far more than a normal person should. Ask my wife, when we go for walks I start talking about this stuff. I admit that I haven't really thought about Bruner himself- for a long time- if I ever did; I guess I thought he was already dead. Still, as I plan in-service training for teachers next week, his thinking will be guiding my thoughts probably more than anyone else I've read all these years later. How many other in-service programs this week will have Bruner's thoughts shaping the conversation? If the instructors are worth their salt, then almost all of them.

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