Today’s contemporary theorists, developmental researchers, and educators benefit from the early social learning theories that sought to analyze the thinking and behavioral processes of children and adolescents. Social theorist Jean Piaget and social psychologist Jerome Bruner have made profound contributions to the study of young minds, including the various factors and considerations that come into play and shape intellectual development. Piaget and Bruner have similarities and differences in their theories on the development of children’s understanding and intelligence, which succeeding social constructivist theorists have used as jump-off points for their own studies. Both Piaget and Bruner are important figures whose theories in cognitive science have been widely utilized. Modern-day strategies for teaching & learning tend to be based on these early social learning theories, making them relevant material for study.
The Cognitive Development Theories of Piaget and Bruner
Cognitive development theory — the scientific and coherent manner with which the way people think and behave is explained, which in effect is the study of various factors that come into play in assessing the cognitive journey of children and adolescents – is rooted in some basic premises. The common thread running through most lines of reasoning of pioneer and modern-day theorists is that learning is crucial. A young learner’s thought processes generally undergo distinct stages of development from cradle to early childhood to adolescence. For this purpose, it is important to understand the key principles and theories laid out by Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner, two great minds who pioneered cognitive development theories which have been widely used by researchers and educators. While Piaget and Bruner have slight differences in theory and philosophy, their key concepts highlight that the human organism is one who can actively respond to various stimuli. The difference lies in their respective approaches.
Swiss theorist Jean Piaget posited that a young learner’s intellectual development is largely influenced by his active interaction with environmental factors. Basing his views on a careful, first-hand observation of children, Piaget presented “a vision of children as busy, motivated explorers whose thinking develops as they act directly on the environment” (Berk, 2002, p. 212). The knowledge or intelligence that is formed, or the manner with which learners make decisions or solve problems are obtained through experience. Learning or mental processes, in effect, change as human beings age. That is the nature of intelligence set forth by Piaget. During the early stages of a child’s development, certain information cannot be readily understood. The mind, he expressed, must wait for “certain points at which it `takes off’ and moves into completely new areas and capabilities” (Atherton, 2005, par. 3). No matter how perceptive or bright kids are, if they fall in the ages before 18 months (the sensori motor stage), 7 years (pre-operational stage) and 11 to 12 years (formal operational stage), they are still incapable of understanding things in certain ways (Atherton, 2005, par. 3). Nonetheless, Piaget laid down the theory that “cognitive development is a spontaneous process; children develop cognitive structures on their own through many processes including adaption, a process engaging accommodation and assimilation” (Bower, para. 6). The belief that learning must follow an active and spontaneous process is among the similarities in the cognitive learning theories of Piaget and Bruner. The latter is likewise in concurrence with Piaget in acknowledging that the modes or stages of instruction fall under developmental stages. Both theorists have noted that intellectual ability from cradle to adolescence developed in stages characterized by step-by-step changes. Both theorists likewise underscored that learners construct and assimilate knowledge through discovery.
The stark difference between Piaget and Bruner’s cognitive development theories is that Bruner believes that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (Smith, 2002) provided it is handed out in comprehensible bits. Schools and parents who believe in waiting until a young learner is ready to learn and assimilate concepts are therefore attuned to and applying the Piagetian concept. Bruner believed otherwise; for him, fundamental concepts can be taught to a child, regardless of age, for as long as the concepts are converted to an appropriate form. This is where Bruner’s socio-cognitive stages come in.
The stages of instruction, in Bruner’s viewpoint, which may be applied both to young learners and adults alike who are dealing with unfamiliar material, include: the enactive stage (from birth to aged three), whereby kids start to manipulate objects; the iconic stage (for three- to eight-year-old children), whereby children learn basic arithmetic and to visualize with the aid of pictures; and symbolic stage (aged eight years), which marks the time when children learn to figure out things or work with abstract concepts. Piaget differs slightly in this respect to Bruner. For Piaget, “the capacity for abstract thinking begins around 11. At the formal operational stage, the adolescent reasons much like a scientist” (Berk, 2002, p. 562).
Bruner’s stages of development from birth to adolescence overlaps a bit with the Piagetian concept, which presupposes that at the pre-operational thought, “the child’s mind is rapidly advancing to a new plane leading to the understanding of symbols (including images and words) and requiring a reorganization of thought from the previous sensori-motor period; this cannot be done all at once, and for some time during this period the child’s thinking is unsystematic and illogical” (Bower, para. 3). Bruner believed otherwise. For him, a child is inherently capable of comprehending and tackling information at different phases of development. “Bruner advocated that if students were allowed to pursue concepts on their own they would gain a better understanding” (Hollyman, para. 9) moreso if a certain material if of special interest to them.
While many people have embraced the Piagetian concepts of learning, there are others that have criticized it for undervaluing a child’s vast potential to learn, on one hand, while generalizing young adults’ capacity for logical reasoning, deductive reasoning and systematic planning. Bruner’s cognitive learning theory, on the other hand, tends to overlook the danger of heaping too much information on a child all at once, before that child is even “ready” for it. What modern-day educators and parents do accept about Bruner’s learning concept is that a child’s special interests can be the focal point or best stimulus to accumulating knowledge. Children or adolescents, or even adults will indeed be more inclined to solve problems and make decisions in free-flowing manner if they exhibit interest in certain materials for learning.
In any case, the social theorists laid out that education is a purposefully structured process determined by the learners’ developmental level.
Most pre-school learning institutions in the contemporary age adhere to the Piagetian concept of learning. Learners are provided with sensory-motor experiences that provide students ample opportunity to explore and learn concepts for themselves. Most secondary schools also employ Piagetian approach in the classroom, which has the teacher engaging students in active discourse or dialogue, encouraging them to progressively build their own knowledge base, rather than being spoonfed or ‘taught’ concepts in obligatory fashion. A music teacher who teaches a child to play the piano, for instance, follows the Piagetian approach when the child is encouraged to think for himself and continue practicing at home even without the teacher (Bower, para. 9).
Bruner’s influence on many school curriculums, likewise, cannot be discounted. The provision of study materials and tools can play a crucial role in helping develop cognitive learning abilities. A clear-cut illustration may be a teacher who sets out to teach kids about dinosaurs using all three modes of development laid out by Bruner. “Students could be asked to construct models of dinosaurs (enactive); they might watch a film about, or involving, dinosaurs (iconic); or they could consult reference texts and then discuss their findings (symbolic)” (Hollyman, para. 15). Some schools that seek to develop multiple intelligences, a concept developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, partly captures some of Bruner’s cognitive stages of development, at least as far as spatial intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence is concerned, but as Gardner opined, learning should go beyond that. As far as Piaget and Bruner are concerned, one similarity is the concept of learning as a social experience. Learning in groups is deemed a very useful approach adopted by many schools, because it spurs critical thinking and problem-solving at a suitable pace while cultivating the young learner’s interests.
Atherton, J. S. (2005) Learning and Teaching: Piaget’s developmental theory. Retrieved February 15, 2009, from http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/piaget.htm
Berk, L. (2002). Infants, children, and adolescents (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Bower, D. (n.d.). Jean Piaget’s theory of intellectual development: applications for music
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Hollyman, D. (n.d.). Jerome Bruner – A web overview
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Smith, M.K. (2002) ‘Jerome S. Bruner and the process of education’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved February 14, 2009, from