Jerome Bruner's theory of development is based on the assumption that we learn best when we go from concrete to abstract in a three-step process. First, comes hands-on action, second learning with images and finally students transform what they've learned into language. Throughout this process, we revisit previously learned topics while teachers provide carefully structured guidance along the journey.
And it seems to work.
Here's an example-In 1980s, the Singaporean government decided to stop importing foreign textbooks and instead build the world's best math curriculum from scratch. Since then Singaporean students study fewer concepts with greater details following Bruner's guidelines. Before we understand how it changed Singaporean studies, let's go through each step of the theory with an example-
Step#1 First, we learn through real-world representation. This happens in hands-on experiences ideally with the real-world applications. To divide 4 by 2, students learn to cut a cake into 4 slices so each one can eat one now and take one home later.
Step#2 Second, is the iconic representation, students can now link our memories to the experiences of iconic pictures. Students are now asked to draw a cake that was cut into 4 pieces.
Step#3 Last comes the symbolic representation, students now use the images we internalized earlier and turn them into abstract language like mathematical symbols(÷)and equations(4÷2=2).
This last phase is also called the language representation because we are just learning the right words and symbols to express our thoughts. The actual math's knowledge was acquired much earlier through hands-on experiences.
Bruner advocated for the use of a spiral curriculum with continuous repetition of the same fundamental ideas. The curriculum comprises of 3 major characteristics: students revisit the same topic at regular intervals, the complexity of the topic increases every time, and the new learning has a relationship with the previous one.
Teachers also use scaffolding, a term coined by Bruner. Teachers do this by structuring activities based on students existing knowledge and in a way help them to reach the desired learning outcome. The teacher first demonstrates the process as the student watches then the teacher lets the student have a go, step back, and offers support and feedback when needed.
Today, Singaporean fourth-grade and eighth-grade students are the world's best in both mathematics and science, and their curriculum is copied by educators from around the world.