Bruner's Theory of Cognitive Growth

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Bruner's Theory of Cognitive Growth

Cognitive development approaches should focus on:

  • How children process information
  • How the environment affects processing
  • How the transitions between stages occur

Learning is a creative process. The meaning of something comes to exist in the mind as a result of the culture it origins from.

Language is the most important cultural factor in a child's development as it enables symbolic representation.

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Three Modes of Representation (1966)

The Enactive Mode (0-2 years)

Knowledge is in the form of physical actions, for example. how to hold and shake a rattle. Later, this information could be used for other thibgs such as, how to swim. This is muscle memory.

The Iconic Mode (2-6 years)

Knowledge is stored in the form of images involving different senses, such as vision, smell and touch.

The Symbolic Stage (7+ years)

Things are thought about symbolically, this includes the use of numbers and letters. Language and thought becomes strongly linked. This allows us to manipulate concepts and ideas and think abstractly. Children use social interactions with family (eg.) as a way to understand accompanying language.

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Bruner and Kenney (1966)

Method: 9 plastic beakers were shown to children ages 3-7, they were arranged by size and width (tallest at the back, widest at the left). 

In the reproduction task (testing the iconic mode), the beaker arrangement was scrambled and the children had to put them back in their original arrangement.

In the transposition task (testing the symbolic mode), all the beakers were removed, except the bottom left one which was moved to the bottom right. The children had to complete the task so the original arrangement was flipped.


Reproduction task completetion: 60% (5years), 72% (6years) and 80% (7years)

Transposition task completetion: 0% (5years), 27% (6years) and 79% (7years)

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Bruner et al (1956) (Method and Results)

Bruner suggested people learn new concepts through a process of generating and refining hypotheses in the light of new evidence.

Method: Participants were presented with a display of 81 rectangular cards. On each card was printed a varying combination of four properities:

  • Number of images
  • Shape of images (cross, triangle, square, eg.)
  • The shading of image (plain, striped, black)
  • The number of borders around the image

Researchers pointed to one card in the display and told partipants what category it belonged to (a made up name was used, such as 'gif'). The participant then had to correctly identify which category the card belonged to.

Results: Strategies used by participants included successive scanning (participants tested one hypothesis at a time, until it was proven incorrect) and conservative focusing (participants ruled out classes of hypotheses by differing one attribute each time).

Conclusion: Conservative focusing particpants learnt the categories faster.

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Bruner et al (1956) (Variations and Evaluation)

Variations: When meaningful names were given to the categories, such as 'boy' or 'cat', participants took longer to complete the task. This suggests that prior semantics gave relevance to links that didn't exist.


Bruner used artificial stimuli to eliminate the effect of prior associations, this increased internal validity, but decreased external validity.

The artificial stimuli was in order to represent the underlying process of learning, but how often do we categorise things in the way the participants did? This reduces ecological validity.

The artifical categories lacked any coherence between attributes that would normally be grouped together. Is this true? Colour, shape and number are normal things to be categorised together.

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Bruner saw scaffolding as a tempory support system that makes constant adjustments in repsonse to the child's learning.

Support is reduced as the child's understanding grows.

The importance of social interactin is vital to the idea of scaffolding.

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Evaluation of Bruner's Theory of Cognitive Growth

Bruner's modes of representation are flexible, this has been proven in classroom situations and fits in with different learning styles, such as learning by doing, learning by watching, eg.

Bruner was largely responsible for bringing Vygotsky's work to the attention of the Western World. Scaffolding is widely used in teaching contexts, allowing Vygotsky's ZPD to be applied.

Bruner came up with spiral curriculum, which builds on the learner's existing knowledge and understanding to enable them to achieve the required learning outcomes.

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