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Jerome Bruner and Discovery Learning

Jerome Bruner said that knowing is a process and so his work focused on the importance of understanding the structure of a subject being studied, the need for active learning as the basis for understanding, and the importance of reasoning in learning. Bruner believed that when learners are presented with perplexing situations they will want to figure out a solution. This belief was the basis for creating discovery learning activities.

Jerome Bruner's connection with the National Science Foundation curriculum development projects of the 1960s and 1970s was instrumental in formulating discovery approaches to science learning. Bruner believed that the goal of education should be intellectual development and that the science curriculum should foster the development of problem-solving skills through inquiry and discovery.

Discovery learning encourages students to actively use their intuition, imagination, and creativity. A discovery learning approach uses inductive reasoning by starting with the specific and moving to the general. For example, the teacher presents examples and the students work with the examples until they discover the interrelationships. Bruner believed that classroom learning should take place through inductive reasoning by using specific examples to formulate a general principle.

Bruner suggested that teachers can nurture inductive thinking by encouraging students to make guesses based on incomplete evidence and then to confirm or disprove the guesses systematically. To apply Bruner’s ideas in the classroom, teachers would present both examples and non-examples of concepts, help students see connections among concepts with questions, pose questions and allow students to find an answer, and encourage students to make intuitive guesses.

Some educators have argued that discovery learning is impractical. Critics believe that discovery learning is so inefficient and so difficult to organize successfully that other methods are preferable. Discovery projects are resource-intensive and require special materials and extensive preparations that do not always guarantee success. For discovery to take place, students must have basic knowledge about the problem and must know how to apply problem-solving strategies. This prerequisite knowledge is particularly true for low-ability students.

Some educators use the term “inquiry learning” interchangeably with “discovery learning.” One distinction made between the two approaches is that with discovery learning students are provided with data or information and are expected to determine the particular principle hidden in the lesson objective. With inquiry learning the goal is for students to develop their own strategies to manipulate and process information.

Recent books by Jerome Bruner include The Culture of Education (Harvard University Press, 1996) and Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, 1991).

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