50th Anniversary Celebration of Jerome Bruners The Process of Education

Last Wednesday, April 27th, New York University held a special event to celebrate the work of University Professor Jerome Bruner. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark publication, The Process of Education. Panel discussions between leading researchers who worked with Bruner in the 1960s and notable authors and academics working in education today, provided the audience with a sense of the legacy of Bruner’s work, along with ideas of how we might yet see it realized 50 years later.


When the book was released in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, completely changing the course of the Space Race. Whereas the U.S. thought it was miles ahead of the rest of the world in innovative thinking and the development of advanced technology, watching the first satellite launched into space by the Russians sent people into doubt about American superiority – and most of all, about the American school system. The government looked at the accomplishments of other countries and conjectured that schools were doing, to quote Mr. Bruner, “a lousy job” of teaching science. The United States began investing large amounts of money into programs that would produce more engineers and scientists. Committees were formed with scientists, policy makers and psychologists to examine how science was being taught and what was specifically in the curriculum… sound familiar yet?

Luckily for all of us in the generations that followed, Jerome Bruner was part of one of these committees to improve education, and out of their “egghead” conversations, The Process of Education was born. That moment in history is still thought of today as the start of “The Cognitive Revolution,” the point of a major paradigm shift in educational thought and practice. The Process of Education was full of many ideas that were considered controversial at the time, but have since proven empirical in our understanding of how people learn.

Bruner encouraged educators to help teach children how to think rather than what to think. So if a child wants to know where clouds or rain come from, a teacher should encourage him or her to look to the skies and question, predict, and test to find answers. In short, if you want to teach science effectively, have the child be a scientist. His work also emphasized people’s individual perceptions of learning, claiming that how children view a subject should effect how it is taught to them. Because of all of these methods centered around, “putting the learner first,” The Process of Education is credited with bringing the child back into education.

Which brings up poignant questions for those of us working in education in 2011: Where do children stand in their learning today? Do we put the learner first? Are we teaching kids in terms of how they understand the world? In one of the panel discussions of the night, “Education in the U.S. Today,” Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College reminded the audience that, “generations are defined by the aspirations they hold for education.” What are ours?

Much like the atmosphere described by events of the early 1960s, we’re currently at a point in the US where we feel concerned about our school systems and how our children’s education levels compare to the rest of the world. Our government has poured money into educational reform, placed a major emphasis on STEM learning (science, mathematics, engineering and technology), and encouraged us to “Race to the Top.” States are being granted funding to improve their schools if their educational systems align with criteria determined by such initiatives, but amidst individual efforts, it’s difficult to tell whether we getting any closer to solving our problems as a nation. Roy Pea of Stanford University claimed that one of the things we’ve lost over the last 50 years is momentum: “The sense of inevitability in a national coming together to solve these problems in Process has still not been fulfilled.”

So by the end of this discussion of the last 50 years, many panelists called for Jerome Bruner’s dreams and ideas to finally become a reality. Over time, we’ve seen revolutions in education come out of major world events, but when asked if we’re now at a place where we can make changes without something happening to threaten us all, Pea spoke for many in the room by saying, “we do not need another Sputnik, but instead will rise to the challenge because we can and should.”

I’ll end in the same way this exciting night did, with some final advice from the 95-year-old Bruner on changing our process of education: “We have a long way to go… my urging is to be as impatient as possible.”


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