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The twentieth century was innovative in a multiplicity of fields, including psychology and education. The attempt to develop the understanding on how humans learn was a challenge upheld by a “huge and diverse cast of characters” (Harré, 2005: p7), with some so prolific that they didn’t only affect the classroom but “have left an enduring mark on our understanding of ourselves” (Harré, 2005: p7). For this essay, I will describe and reflect on the theories of Burrhus Fredrick Skinner and Jerome Bruner, particularly focusing on Operant Conditioning and Cognitive Learning and apply them to an educational setting.
Jerome Bruner (1915-2016) is renowned as one of the most significant and influential cognitive and constructivist theorists of the twentieth century and specifically developed “the study of the mental processes of thinking” (Harré, 2005: p49). His initial focus was the development of human cognition but psychology at Harvard, according to Bruner had become “centrifugal” (Bruner,1983: p252). In turn, this led Bruner to begin his exploration into child cognitive development, heightening the importance of categorization in learning as well as “challenge the old psychology in the latter years of the 20th century” (Harré, 2005: p.60)
Bruner was highly influential in educational thinking, especially after the release of his book “The Process of Education (1960)” that is now recognized as a classic. Himself and other cognitivist theorists such as Piaget were both interested in child development, and Bruner agreed with Piaget that biological organisation underlies cognitive development but queried whether age ranges were correct in his developmental stage theory and believed that “it paid insufficient attention to the role of social interaction” (Olson, 2005: p.25).
Similarly to Bruner, I do not believe that a child’s age always indicates their level of understanding. Limited description is offered of a child’s learning necessities, capability level, or motivational influences; all of which will have an impact on their understanding. I believe that this is a notion that still hasn’t been explored deeply enough and has a negative impact on our education today, as some students are still failing as the curriculum is generalised “the exam boards adopt common ways of working” (Ofqal,2017).
The Eminent Harvard Psychologist has contributed greatly towards psychology overall, but his works have been most recognized in education; he felt that it was substantial for a learner to attain the fundamental values of a subject – his theory generally expressed that learners develop new ideas and concepts based upon existing knowledge; correspondingly to Piaget, he used three phases to develop his theory on modes of representation (how a learner may think of an object).
Each mode is foremost at different stages of development, but all are present throughout the process. The first stage (1-18 months), was termed “inactive”. Thinking is utterly based on the child’s physical actions rather than their internal thinking. This mode is continuously seen in the later years, an example of that would be when a child is learning how to get dressed for school or ride a bike. The second mode begins to develop when a child reaches 18 months and was named “iconic”, and is mainly obtained via pictures or icons. These are mainly based on the five senses (hear, touch, smell, visualise). In an educational setting, diagrams and/or illustrations are often useful when introducing a new topic. The third stage, mainly reached at the age of 6 is “symbolic” and is primarily based on the use of symbols. Language also serves the purpose of regulation in this stage; as children develop, they shift from being external to being internal in cognitive processes. Using language as a symbol is essential to develop the capacity to think in abstract terms. Based on this three-stage notion, Bruner recommended using a combination of concrete, pictorial and then symbolic activities which will lead into more effective learning. This remains true even for adult learners.
The theory is conceptually useful in teaching, as it allows staff to engage with all learners regardless of their cognitive level. With a range of supplies (study materials, activities, and tools), a new topic can be taught easily as it can begin as a concrete representation, and eventually end as an abstract one. This also provides learners something they can return to if they come across any problems with the matter. A primary example would be to engross the learners to do physically create 3D shapes. The following exercise would be an illustration of a shape, and the names of the shapes would aurally be read out and explained by the tutor. Thirdly, the learners should discuss the concept of the lesson and discuss any findings. Not only is this a far more gradual and realistic way of learning, I believe it also encourages motivation; something Bruner felt strongly about “The act of grasping the meaning, significance or structure of a problem or a situation without explicit reliance on the analytic apparatus of one\’s craft” (Bruner, 1966: p.) For Bruner, the purpose of education is not to impart knowledge, but instead to facilitate a child’s thinking and problem solving skills which can then be transferred to a range of situations.
Bruner’s notions and concepts have been rejected and critiqued by other theorists. For example, Piaget trusts that patience is necessary to reach the stage where a child is ready, whereas Jerome Bruner believes that the speed of cognitive development process can be increased if necessary. Unlike Piaget who was “resistant to criticism, sticking to a fixed position in the face of theoretical objections and empirical refutations” (Harré, 2005: p57), Bruner was “unafraid of words like mind, and expectation, and perception, and meaning” (Miller, 2003: p.142). Bruner places a broader focus on his theory and attempts to be more open-minded and take a variety of studies into account