Social cognitive theories of jean piaget and jerome bruner
By Roger T. Williams
Japanese schools have traditionally used solely behaviorist methods of teaching. Many
institutions still use these techniques. With modernization of society, educational methods and
techniques must also modernize. Moreover, there is recently much concern about keeping
modern Japanese students interested in studying and classroom instructio .
With this in
we must think about methods of instruction that are theoretically based, but stimulating and
even exciting for the students. This paper introduces, compares, and contrasts the theories of
two great psychologists and theorists in the area of social cognition? Jean Piaget and Jerome
Bruner. Included is a discussion of major influences to their theories. While these theories may
seem dated to psychologists who study learning, they are only recently being greatly explored
in the fields of educational psychology and instructional desig .
Behaviorism ?????Social Cognition ??????Constructivism ????
Cognitive theory is a somewhat complex idea and proposes that development in human beings
is a function of an interaction with their environment and personal experiences (Meece, 1997).
However, cognitive theorists place emphasis on things that are not so tangible. West,
& Wolff (1991, p. 5), clarify this by saying that “cognitive theorists emphasize internal
processes and knowledge representations which are impossible to observe directly, but which
Although development is crucially linked with education, it has often been taken for granted
unk, 2000). With this in mind, the sciences of cognitive psychology and pedagogy have
fielded some great minds that have conducted considerable and worthwhile research in the area
of cognitive development. Their collective goal has been to make a solid link between
development and learnin .
This paper will discuss the theories of two great cognitive theorists?Jean Piaget and Jerome
Bruner. It will be important for the reader to understand their theories in the context in which
they developed. This will be tied with a discussion of major influences that they each had and
how these influences affected the outcome of their theories. Finally, this author will compare
and contrast the theories and point out where they are both similar and different.
Jean Piaget (
1896 198 )
Jean Piaget was the son of a university professor of ancient literature at the University of
Neuchatel, his hometown in Switzerland. Jean grew up very interested in studying about many
things. At the age of 11, he wrote an intellectually stimulating paper about the albino s
This was considered to be the start of a brilliant scientific career made of over sixty books and
several hundred articles (
His adult research interests moved from natural science at the University of Neuchatel, where
he received his Ph.D., to psychoanalysis at the University of Zurich, to studies in intelligence
at Ecole de la rue de la Grange-aux-Belles in France. This was a boys' institution created by
Alfred Binet (Smith, 2000). This post in France can be seen as the beginning of his studies
about intelligence and how children's minds grow. Here Piaget departed from the standard
intelligence testing styles and their simple true/false or yes/no pattern. Instead, he interviewed
the students and used psychiatric questioning techniques. In other words, he began his research
in how children learned and reasoned (Boere ,
The next step in Piaget's career was to go back to Geneva and the .
J - .
one cannot deny that the births of his own children were major influences on his s
According to Dr. Boeree (1999), “They immediately became the focus of intense observation
by Piaget and his wife.” And from the mid-1
920 s, Piaget became the Chair for a various
university departments and colleges, many of them simultaneously, and focused more and
more on his theory of cognitive development.
Piaget theorized that cognitive development depended on four factors?biological maturation,
experience with the physical environment, experience with the social environment and equili-
bration. The first 3 are self-explanatory and the fourth is what brings them all together. Equi-
libration is the biological drive to produce an optimal state of equilibrium between cognitive
structures and the environment (D
Piaget further theorized that there are four stages of cognitive development. He claimed that
we can also roughly estimate the age at which people pass through these stages. There has been
much written about each of these stages, but this author will simply describe each stage briefly?
The sensorimotor stage usually occurs between the ages of 1.5 to 2 years of age. In this
stage of development, “children's actions are spontaneous and represent an attempt to
understand the world,” according to Schunk (2000). One can note that this stage is usually
the quickest to get through. This is because it represents a rapid recognition of basic knowledge
that children must acquire in order to simply exist. They make concrete connections with things
The baby bottle is for
the rattle is for making
and so o .
This leads to the Preoperational stage, usually occurring between the ages of 2 to 7 years
old. In this stage, children remain primarily focused on the present, but can begin to perceive
the past and the future. They cannot easily think in more than one dimension. So, 10 cookies
on the table in front of them might seem like a larger amount than 10 cookies in a box. They
also have problems distinguishing between fantasy and real-life. However, they start to realize
that some people think differently than they do themselves (S
The next stage is the concrete operational stage and occurs usually between the ages of 7 and
11. This term is marked by formal
Children develop socially and l
Reversibility in thinking allows them to develop skills needed to understand mathematics and
other complex operations. In this stage, people start to draw on experiences, and not just
to gain knowledge (
Piaget's final stage is formal operations and is from around the age of 11 on into adul
Thought is no longer simply on tangibles. At this stage, people can think of abstract ideas and
compare reality to the ideal. People can make up their minds about something based on their
own feelings (
Jerome Bruner (1915-)
Bruner is a modern theorist who was born and raised in the US. He received his
undergraduate degree in psychology from Duke University and went on to Harvard to finish his
post-graduate work, including his Ph.D. in 1941. Ornaghi & Groppo (1998) outline major
influences leading up to the development of his cognitive
Between 1939 and 1945, Bruner studied about public opinion and propaganda. This includ-
ed service in the US Army Intelligence Corps, where he worked as a propaganda officer.
Between 1946 and 1950, he was exposed to European theories of learning. This includes
Gestalt theory. This is when we start to see his constructivist views taking shape in Bruner's
according to Ornaghi & Groppo (1998).
Between 1950 and 1966 Bruner participated in what was called the “cognitive revolution.”
He was influenced by Piaget, Vygotsky and others. It was during this time that Bruner
published his well-known book, The Process of Education. In the same year, 1960, Bruner
co-founded and took the post of Director of the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies. Most of
his major literary works outlining his theory on cognitive development were published by the
end of 1966.
Bruner's (1964) theory clearly states, “The development of human intellectual functioning
from infancy to such perfection as it may reach is shaped by a series of technological advances
in the use of mind”
( . 1). These technological advances depend on increasing language
facility and exposure to systematic instruction (Bruner, 1966). Moreover, the cognitive
processes that are thoughts and beliefs balance what we get from outside stimuli and give us a
sense of balance (Schunk, 2000).
Bruner said that people represent knowledge in three ways and these emerge in developmental
iconic and symbolic (
Olver & G
Some people want to call these stages, but Bruner rejects them as stages and simply refers to
them as modes of learning (
skills. In this representation, people
manipulate objects. They learn to do things like drive a car or use a computer. Babies would
learn that a bottle is something that they suck on to get mi .
Iconic representation has to do with images and things that can be altered. For example, we
can imagine a bus station that is empty or a station that is crowded with many people. We
think about the differences in these two situations separa
Symbolic representation implies using symbols to change knowledge into a code. For exam-
ple, math variables or even advanced language skills are typical here. Bruner (1964) used the
example of how the word Philadelphia does not look at all like the city, yet we recognize it and
associate it with that city.
The term spiral curriculum is also associated with Bruner. This concept suggests that teachers
vary their instructional methods based on the developmental level of the students. Bruner is
well-known for his controversial proposition that any content can be taught in a meaningful
fashion to learners of almost any age, if the proper technique focusing on the target students'
developmental level is used. On top of this, instructors should revisit material that has been
previously learned in order to reinforce it and build upon it even more ( Sc
The most striking similarity between these two theories is that they are both constructivist in
nature. Bruning Schraw, & Ronning (1999) point out that “Constructivism is a psychological
and philosophical perspective contending that individuals form or construct much of what they
learn and understand.” Clearly, both of these theories require that students be active learners
and that they must construct knowledge by themselves.
Piaget's theory is constructivist because it forces children to utilize what they have acquired
from their interaction with the world and to then take those concepts and impose them onto the
world again in order to make sense of them (Byrnes, 1996). At the same time Bruner's theory
would be considered constructivist because it demands that learners assign meaningful stimuli to
everything based on the cognitive capabilities and experienced they have culled and gleaned
from the world (Schunk, 2000). Within all of this, both theorists expand on the importance
As far as designing instruction for students, both theorists demand that teachers clearly
understand what level or stage of learning students are at before they proceed with any designs
for instruction. They also both emphasize the importance of interaction with other human beings
and the environment. Still further, both theorists believed that instructors should be geared
toward letting students attain higher level thinking and actively construct knowle
This author found that one of the most striking differences between Piaget and Bruner on their
theories of development had to do with progression. Piaget felt, as previously described, that
human beings go through a 4-step cycle of change. He gave only approximate ages, but the
process itself is set and automatic. Bruner, on the other hand, did not believe in stages. He
merely defined different representations or modes of transference of knowledge, and the envi-
ronment played a supporting role to the internal capabilities of the learner (D
Piaget's concept of Equilibration was unique to his theory. The thought that a human being
would use assimilation and accommodation are Piaget's balancing processes that help children
make sense of something from their environment that they could not otherwise understand
unk, 2000). On the other hand, Bruner's concept of spiral curriculum was his balancing
process, especially the fact that he emphasized revisiting old topics. On top of this, the idea
of discovery learning was thought of by Bruner. This concept suggests that sometimes students
are not presented subject matter as a whole, but they are allowed to develop and learn from
pieces of it on their own (Driscol ,
In order to clearly understand some of the differences between Piaget and Bruner, a look at
examples of how to construct lessons is useful?To begin with, a follower of Piaget's thinking
might plan a lesson by including activities that require a core understanding of the concepts for a
basic understanding. An instructor would develop activities that would elicit concrete, factual
answers as well as true/false or yes/no answers. However, they would go beyond this and also
develop activities that would force students to think abstractly and develop ideas on their own
Conversely, a practitioner of Bruner's theory would first make sure that they knew what
students from that grade level had already been required to learn. In the lesson, the instructor
would then review what students had previously studied, trying to get the students to declare
what they can remember. The next step in the same lesson would be to build on what students
already know by adding new material. At the same time, every effort should be made to utilize
all of Bruner's modes of knowledge in course of the instruction (Schun ,
Both Piaget and Bruner are historic and monumental figures in the field of cognitive
They were both trained in psychology, but their theories are widely used in the field of educa-
tion. Piaget and
came from different times and geographic lo
Therefore, their influences were slightly different. It is also clear that Bruner was influenced
by Piaget, who came before him. LaFrancois (2000) states that “much of Bruner's work is
linked to Piaget.”
It is possible to differentiate between work by Piaget and Bruner and certainly each theorist
has his critics. The lasting similarity is that they both defined constructivist approaches to
education. This is the part of the root tenets of social cognitive the
According to B
Shaw, & Ronning (1999), “In Education, [cognitive psychology] is only now being fully
explored.” In other words, expansion on the ideas of theorists like Piaget and Bruner is the
future of education as we see it now.
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