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Jerome Bruner

John Simkin

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Guest Mark Valenti


A million thanks for bringing up this topic. I've recently been working on a project involving narrative and Bruner's work will help enormously.

As an aside, I believe we'll have a high degree of certainty about the JFK killing when we reach a coherent narrative of events. We're getting there.


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In 2003 research was carried out at the United States National Learning Lab in Maine to assess the most effective way that young people can learn. The researchers employed a variety of different teaching methods and then tested the students to find out how much they had learnt. From this the researchers were able to calculate what they called the Average Retention Rate. The results were as follows:

Teacher talking to a class (5%)

Student reading a book (10%)

Student watching an audio visual presentation (20%)

Student watching a teacher demonstration (30%)

Students taking part in a discussion group (50%)

Students involved in an activity that is related to what the teacher wants them to learn (75%)

Students teaching others (90%).

These research findings do not surprise me. I once carried out some research on a group whom I had taught over a period of six years (11 to 17). The information they had retained from their history lessons reflected the findings of US National Learning Lab, in that the most effective learning was related to the amount of active participation from the student.

However, it seems to me that the majority of teachers spend much of their time using teaching methods which, according to US National Learning Lab, are fairly ineffective. I suspect the main reasons for employing traditional instructional methods are as follows: (1) this was the way that the teachers were taught when they were pupils at school; (2) this was the way that teachers were trained to teach; (3) this is the accepted way of teaching amongst colleagues - i.e. peer group pressure; (4) teachers enjoy being performers; (5) the teacher feels more in control of the situation when traditional instructional methods are used.

Tradition is the great enemy of innovation. One of the advantages of using the Internet in the classroom is that it encourages teachers to think again about teaching methods. One of the fears that I have is that teachers producing materials online will attempt to duplicate the methods they use in the classroom.

The idea that students should play an active role in their learning is not a new idea. In the 1960s educationalists like Jerome Bruner argued that people learn best when they learn in an active rather than a passive manner. He used the example of how we learn language. It is claimed that this is the most difficult thing we have to do in our life, yet we learn it so young and so quickly – so easily in fact, that some experts in this field have argued that language is, to a certain extent, an inherited skill.

Bruner argues that the reason we learn language so quickly is due to the method we use. As we are introduced to words, we use them. We test them out. Words immediately became practical. We can quickly see why it helps us to know these words.

This method is very different from the way most subjects are taught at school. The student is usually a passive receptacle trying to take in information that they will need for some test or examination in the future. To complete this task effectively depends on students employing what sociologists have called deferred gratification. This is something that most young people are not very good at. They want their pleasures now, not in the distant future.

In his book, The Process of Education (1960), Bruner argues that it is possible to teach any topic or subject using the same methods that we use when learning language. This involves structuring the material so that the student can test out and use the information in a practical way.

Bruner’s ideas on learning helps to explain why the Learning Lab researchers found that the highest Retention Rate occurred when students were given the opportunity to teach other students. As teachers we have all had the experience of having to teach something we do not know too much about. How quickly we learn when we know that the next day we will be faced by students asking us questions about the material.

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