Bruner Theory of Cognitive Development

Bruner (1966) was concerned with how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking. In his research on the cognitive

Learning Theory of Bruner

Bruner (1966) was concerned with how knowledge is represented and organized through different modes of thinking. In his research on the cognitive development of children, Jerome Bruner proposed three modes of representation:

Bruner Theory of Cognitive Development
  1. Enactive representation (action-based)
  2. Iconic representation (image-based)
  3. Symbolic representation (language-based)

Bruner's constructivist theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners. Bruner's work also suggests that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists. Modes of representation are the way in which information or knowledge are stored and encoded in memory.

1. Enactive (0-1 year)

The first kind of memory. This mode is used within the first year of life. Thinking is based entirely on physical actions, and infants learn by doing, rather than by internal representation. It involves encoding physical action based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as a muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle.

This mode continues later in many physical activities, such as learning to ride a bike. Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

2. Iconic (1-6 years)

Information is stored as sensory images (icons), usually visual ones, like pictures in the mind. For some, this is conscious; others say they don't experience it. This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany the verbal information.

Thinking is also based on the use of other mental images (icons), such as hearing, smell or touch.

3. Symbolic (7 years onwards)

This develops last. This is where information is stored in the form of a code or symbol, such as language. This mode is acquired around six to seven years-old. In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems, such as music.

Symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified, etc. so the user isn't constrained by actions or images.

Importance of Brunar development of Language

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts. Bruner argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the "here & now" concept. Bruner views the infant as an intelligent & active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.

Educational Implications

The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn). For Bruner (1961), 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. Specifically, education should also develop symbolic thinking in children.

In 1960 Bruner's text. The Process of Education was published. The main premise of Bruner's text was that students are active learners whe construct their own knowledge.


Bruner (1960) opposed Piaget's notion of readiness. He argued that schools waste time trying to match the complexity of subject material to a child's cognitive stage of development. This means students are held back by teachers as certain topics are deemed too difficult to understand and must be taught when the teacher believes the child has reached the appropriate stage of cognitive maturity.

The Spiral Curriculum

Bruner (1960) adopts a different view and believes a child (of any age) is capable of understanding complex information: 'We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.'

Bruner (1960) explained how this was possible through the concept of the spiral curriculum. This involved information being structured so that complex ideas can be taught at a simplified level first, and then re-visited at more complex levels later on.

Therefore, subjects would be taught at levels of gradually increasing difficultly (hence the spiral analogy). Ideally, teaching his way should learn to children being able to solve problems by themselves.

Discovery Learning

Bruner (1961) proposes that learners construct their own know ledge and do this by organizing and categorizing information using a coding system. Bruner believed that the most effective way to develop a coding system is to discover it rather than being told by the teacher. The concept of discovery learning implies that students construct their own knowledge for themselves.

The role of the teacher should not be to teach information by rote learning, but instead to facilitate the learning process. This means that a good teacher will design lessons that help students discover the relationship between bits of information. To do this a teacher must give students the information they need. but without organizing for them. The use of the spiral curriculum can and the process of discovery learning.

Similarities and Inequalities in the Cognitive Development Theory of Bruner and Piaget

Both Piaget and Bruner have made significant contributions to the field of cognitive development. There are some similarities and dissimilarities in the process of cognitive development of both of them which are as follows:


  1. The student learns on the basis of previous adaptations.
  2. The child naturally has curiosity about language.
  3. Children's cognitive structures develop over time.
  4. Children learn by actively participating in the learning processes.
  5. The final stage of cognitive development extends to the acquisition of symbols/signs/symbols and is given prominence.


S.No. Brunner Piaget
Bruner considers development to be a continuous process. Piaget considers development as a series of different stages.
Brunner considers language development to be an important factor in cognitive development. Piaget considers language development as a consequence of cognitive development.
According to Bruner, the speed of cognitive development can be increased. According to Piaget, cognitive development in children occurs at a self-paced level and maturity.
Bruner attaches importance to the participation of adults and peers with higher knowledge in the learning process. Piaget does not accept this.
According to Bruner, the representations of the previously adopted states of reflective thinking do not change. These change according to Piaget.
Bruner gives more importance to education in his theory. Piaget gives more importance to the environment in his theory.
According to Bruner's theory, there are three stages of development of the child. There are four stages in Piaget's theory.

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