Thinking About Jerome Bruner Again

This is an extended version of a previous post.

In describing education as a social invention, Jerome Bruner observed, “each generation must define afresh the nature, direction, and aims of education to assure [that] freedom and rationality can be attained for a future generation” (1966, 22). He went on to detail how new discoveries in human growth and development lead to advances in learning theory and pedagogy and how changes in society change society‘s expectations of educators. While Bruner’s decades- old observation and his reasoning continue to describe factors necessitating the reform of education in the 21st century, the current state of education is far more complicated than Bruner could predict, and the work of refreshing curriculum and instruction for the current generation of learners is increasingly multifaceted and complex because of discoveries in the cognitive sciences and advances in information technologies that were unimagined a few decades ago.

In the 21st century, cognitive science—a field that was in its infancy in the 1960‘s when Bruner wrote the quote that begins the preceding paragraph—is a robust and active field that uses many new technologies to contribute new understandings of how the brain works at an accelerating rate. There is an emerging literature that translates the discoveries made by cognitive scientists into recommendations for creating brain-friendly classrooms, but those are not being implemented in a systemic manner. Globalization and the displacement of the industrial age society by the information age society, which was quickly displaced by the conceptual age society, have changed the skills, literacies, and knowledge that are necessary for work and play now compared to those necessary for previous generations. 

In locations where computers, laptops, the Internet, handhelds, and related devices have penetrated into the consumer market, information and computer technology (ICT) has become a transparent part of life making it difficult to perceive its strong sociocultural influences. From inside one of those cultures, we hardly recognize the extent to which ICT changes how businesses buy and sell, performers entertain, audiences are entertained, citizens engage in political discourse, workers work, governments govern, bullies bully, romances begin (and end), and friends and families stay in touch. Conspicuously absent from this list is how educators educate. 

The Jerome Bruner quotation about the need to refresh education was written more than 10 years before personal computers became part of the consumer economy. Soon after computers entered the consumer market, they entered the education market and ostensibly became a factor influencing how educators refresh their practices. In the decades since computers arrived in schools books and periodicals (enough to fill libraries) have been written, careers have been built around, and billions of dollars have been spent on efforts to transform curriculum and instruction so that teaching and learning in our society‘s classrooms reflects the economic, political, and social realities of our ICT-rich culture. At this point, early in the second decade of the 21st century, we must conclude these efforts have largely been unsuccessful. In most classrooms, the pedagogy developed by and for 20th century society is common despite the arrival of 21st century digital technologies. It appears the refreshing of education Bruner claimed accompanies each generation has skipped the current generation. 

Some individuals and groups will characterize my conclusion that classrooms have been unchanged by ICT as uninformed, and they will be able to point to initiatives in local schools through which classrooms have been transformed by digital technologies. The success of these initiatives is laudable, the leaders and practitioners responsible for these are worthy of the praise they receive, and they are deserving of the continued support of their communities. 

Those initiatives are the exception rather than the rule, which explains why those stories continue to be newsworthy.


Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.