Jerome Bruner On The Scaffolding Of Learning

By Saul Mcleod, PhD | published Dec 01, 2021

Bruner's Ideas

  • Like Ausubel (and other cognitive psychologists), Bruner sees the learner as an active agent; emphasising the importance of existing schemata in guiding learning.
  • Bruner argues that students should discern for themselves the structure of subject content - discovering the links and relationships between different facts, concepts and theories (rather than the teacher simply telling them).
  • Piaget and, to an extent, Ausubel, contended that the child must be ready, or made ready, for the subject matter. But Bruner contends just the opposite. According to his theory, the fundamental principles of any subject can be taught at any age, provided the material is converted to a form (and stage) appropriate to the child.
  • The notion of a "spiral curriculum" embodies Bruner's ideas by "spiraling" through similar topics at every age, but consistent with the child's stage of thought.
  • The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).
  • Cognitive growth involves an interaction between basic human capabilities and "culturally invented technologies that serve as amplifiers of these capabilities." These culturally invented technologies include not just obvious things such as computers and television, but also more abstract notions such as the way a culture categorizes phenomena, and language itself. Bruner would likely agree with Vygotsky that language serves to mediate between environmental stimuli and the individual's response.

Discovery Learning

Bruner (1960) developed the concept of Discovery Learning - arguing that student should “not be presented with subject matter in its final form, but rather are required to organise it themselves...[requiring them] to discover for themselves relationships that exist among items of information”.

The result is an extremely active form of learning, in which the students are always engaged in tasks, finding patterns or solving puzzles - and in which they constantly need to exercise their existing schemata, reorganising and ammending these concepts to address the challenges of the task.

For example, in teaching a particular concept, the teacher should present the set of instances that will best help learners develop an appropriate model of the concept. The teacher should also model the inquiry process. Bruner would likely not contend that all learning should be through discovery. For example, it seems pointless to have children "discover" the names of the U.S. Presidents, or important dates in history.

Bruner’s theory is probably clearest when illustrated with practical examples. The instinctive response of a teacher to the task of helping a primary-school child understand the concept of odd and even numbers, for instance, would be to explain the difference to them.

However, Bruner would argue that understanding of this concept would be much more genuine if the child discovered the difference for themselves; for instance, by playing a game in which they had share various numbers of beads fairly between themselves and their friend.

Discovery is not just an instructional technique, but an important learning outcome in itself. Schools should help learners develop their own ability to find the "recurrent regularities" in their environment.

Bruner would likely not contend that all learning should be through discovery. For example, it seems pointless to have children "discover" the names of the U.S. Presidents, or important dates in history.


On the surface, Bruner’s emphasis on the learner discovering subject content for themselves seemingly absolves the teacher of a great deal of work. In practice, however, his model requires the teacher to be actively involved in lessons; providing cognitive scaffolding which will facilitate learning on the part of the student.

On one hand, this involves the selection and design of appropriate stimulus materials and activities which the student can understand and complete - however Bruner also advocates that the teacher should circulate the classroom and work with individual students, performing six core “functions” (Wood, Bruner and Ross: 1976):

  • Recruitment: ensuring that the student is interested in the task, and understands what is required of them.
  • Reducing degrees of freedom: helping the student make sense of the material by eliminating irrelevant directions and thus reducing the “trial and error” aspect of learning.
  • Direction Maintenance: ensuring that the learner is on-task and interest is maintained - often by breaking the ultimate aim of the task into “sub-aims” which are more readily understood and achieved.
  • Marking critical features: highlighting relevant concepts or processes and pointing out errors.
  • Frustration Control: stopping students from “giving up” on the task.
  • Demonstration: providing models for immitation or possible (partial solution).

In the context, Bruner’s model might be better described as guided discovery learning; as the teacher is vital in ensuring that acquisition of new concepts and processes is successful.

The Spiral Curriculum

Bruner (1961) also argues that scaffolding needs to occur ina wider sense; and education should follow a spiral curriculum.

The underlying principle in this is that the student should revist particular concepts at over and over again during their educative experience; each time building and their understanding and requiring more sophisticated cognitive strategies (and thus increasingly the sophistication of their understanding).

Bruner argues that, as children age, they are capable of increasingly complex modes of representation (basically, ways of thinking) - and the spiral curriculum should be sensitive to this development;

  • Initially, children learn better using an enactive mode of representation (i.e. they learn better through “doing things” such as physical and manual tasks) - for instance, the concept of addition might be first taught by asking the child to combine piles of beads and counting the results.
  • As they grow older - and more familiar with subject content - pupils become more confident in using an iconic mode of representation; they are able to perform tasks by imagining concrete pictures in their heads. To continue the above example; as the child becomes more confident with addition, they should be able to imagine the beads in order to complete additions (without physically needing to manipulate the piles).
  • Finally, students become capable of more abstract, symbolic modes of representation; without the need for either physical manipulation or mental imagery. Consequently, at this point, the student should have little problem with completing a series of written calculations; of numbers which are higher than is possible by “imagining beads”.

Three Modes of Representation

Bruner (1966) hypothesized that the usual course of intellectual development moves through three stages: enactive, iconic, and symbolic, in that order. However, unlike Piaget's stages, Bruner did not contend that these stages were necessarily age-dependent, or invariant.

In the enactive stage, knowledge is stored primarily in the form of motor responses. And this is not just limited to children. 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.

In the iconic stage, knowledge is stored primarily in the form of visual images. This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany verbal information.

In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other symbol systems. According to Bruner's taxonomy, these differ from icons in that symbols are "arbitrary." (For example, the word "beauty" is an arbitrary designation for the idea of beauty in that the word itself is no more inherently beautiful than any other word.)

About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has recently worked as a psychology teaching assistant for The University of Manchester, Division of Neuroscience & Experimental Psychology

He previously worked for Wigan and Leigh College, where he was a psychology lecturer for ten years, primarily teaching A-level psychology and sociology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Mcleod, S. (2021, Dec 01). Jerome Bruner on the scaffolding of learning. Teacher Support Network.


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