Bruner was born blind (due to cataracts) on October 1, 1915 in New York City, to Herman and Rose Bruner, who were Polish Jewish immigrants. An operation at age 2 restored his vision. He received a bachelor's degree in psychology, in 1937 from Duke, and went on to earn a master's degree in psychology in 1939 and then a doctorate in psychology in 1941 from Harvard. In 1939, Bruner published his first psychological article on the effect of thymus extract on the sexual behavior of the female rat. During World War II, Bruner served on the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force committee under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, researching social psychological phenomena.
In 1945 Bruner returned to Harvard as a psychology professor and was heavily involved in research relating to cognitive psychology and educational psychology. In 1970 Bruner left Harvard to teach at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. He returned to the United States in 1980 to continue his research in developmental psychology. In 1991 Bruner joined the faculty at New York University.
As an adjunct professor at NYU School of Law, Bruner studied how psychology affects legal practice. During his career, Bruner was awarded honorary doctorates from Yale University, Columbia University, the Sorbonne, the ISPA Instituto Universitário, as well as colleges and universities in such locations as Berlin and Rome, and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He turned 100 in October 2015 and died on June 5, 2016.
Bruner is one of the pioneers of cognitive psychology in the United States, which began through his own early research on sensation and perception as being active, rather than passive processes.
In 1947 Bruner published his study Value and Need as Organizing Factors in Perception, in which poor and rich children were asked to estimate the size of coins or wooden disks the size of American pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half-dollars. The results showed that the value and need the poor and rich children associated with coins caused them to significantly overestimate the size of the coins, especially when compared to their more accurate estimations of the same size disks.
Similarly, another study conducted by Bruner and Leo Postman showed slower reaction times and less accurate answers when a deck of playing cards reversed the color of the suit symbol for some cards (e.g. red spades and black hearts). These series of experiments issued in what some called the 'New Look' psychology, which challenged psychologists to study not just an organism's response to a stimulus, but also its internal interpretation. After these experiments on perception, Bruner turned his attention to the actual cognitions that he had indirectly studied in his perception studies.
In 1956 Bruner published the book A Study of Thinking, which formally initiated the study of cognitive psychology. Soon afterwards Bruner helped found the Harvard Center of Cognitive Studies. After a time, Bruner began to research other topics in psychology, but in 1990 he returned to the subject and gave a series of lectures, later compiled into the book Acts of Meaning. In these lectures, Bruner refuted the computer model for studying the mind, advocating a more holistic understanding of the mind and its cognitions.
Beginning around 1967 Bruner turned his attention to the subject of developmental psychology and studied the way children learn. He coined the term "scaffolding" to describe the way children often build on the information they have already mastered. In his research on the development of children (1966) Bruner proposed three modes of representation: enactive representation (action-based), iconic representation (image-based), and symbolic representation (language-based). Rather than neatly delineated stages, the modes of representation are integrated and only loosely sequential as they "translate" into each other. Symbolic representation remains the ultimate mode, for it "is clearly the most mysterious of the three."
Bruner's theory suggests it is efficacious, when faced with new material, to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners. A true instructional designer, Bruner's work also suggests that a learner (even of a very young age) is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organized appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget and other stage theorists. (Driscoll, Marcy). Like Bloom's Taxonomy, Bruner suggests a system of coding in which people form a hierarchical arrangement of related categories. Each successively higher level of categories becomes more specific, echoing Benjamin Bloom's understanding of knowledge acquisition as well as the related idea of instructional scaffolding.
In accordance with this understanding of learning, Bruner proposed the spiral curriculum, a teaching approach in which each subject or skill area is revisited at intervals, at a more sophisticated level each time. First there is basic knowledge of a subject, then more sophistication is added, reinforcing principles that were first discussed. This system is used in China and India. Bruner's spiral curriculum, however, draws heavily from evolution to explain how to learn better and thus it drew criticism from conservatives. In the United States classes are split by grade—life sciences in 9th grade, chemistry in 10th, physics in 11th. The spiral teaches life sciences, chem, physics all in one year, then two subjects, then one, then all three again to understand how they mold together. Bruner also believes learning should be spurred by interest in the material rather than tests or punishment, since one learns best when they find the knowledge they are obtaining appealing.
While Bruner was at Harvard he published a series of works about his assessment of current educational systems and ways that education could be improved. In 1961 he published the book Process of Education. Bruner also served as a member of the Educational Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Referencing his overall view that education should not focus merely on memorizing facts, Bruner wrote in Process of Education that "knowing how something is put together is worth a thousand facts about it." From 1964–1996 Bruner sought to develop a complete curriculum for the educational system that would meet the needs of students in three main areas which he called Man: A Course of Study. Bruner wanted to create an educational environment that would focus on (1) what was uniquely human about human beings, (2) how humans got that way and (3) how humans could become more so. In 1966 Bruner published another book relevant to education, Towards a Theory of Instruction, and then in 1973, another book, The Relevance of Education. Finally, in 1996, in The Culture of Education, Bruner reassessed the state of educational practices three decades after he had begun his educational research. Bruner was also credited with helping found the Head Start early childcare program. Bruner was deeply impressed by his 1995 visit to the preschools of Reggio Emilia and has established a collaborative relationship with them to improve educational systems internationally. Equally important was the relationship with the Italian Ministry of Education which officially recognized the value of this innovative experience.
In 1972 Bruner was appointed Watts Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, where he remained until 1980. In his Oxford years Bruner focused on early language development. Rejecting the nativist account of language acquisition proposed by Noam Chomsky, Bruner offered an alternative in the form of an interactionist or social interactionist theory of language development. In this approach, the social and interpersonal nature of language was emphasized, appealing to the work of philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, John L. Austin and John Searle for theoretical grounding. Following Lev Vygotsky the Russian theoretician of socio-cultural development, Bruner proposed that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition in general and of language in particular. He emphasized that children learn language in order to communicate, and, at the same time, they also learn the linguistic code. Meaningful language is acquired in the context of meaningful parent-infant interaction, learning “scaffolded” or supported by the child’s Language Acquisition Support System (LASS).
At Oxford Bruner worked with a large group of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to understand how young children manage to crack the linguistic code, among them Alison Garton, Alison Gopnik, Magda Kalmar (hu:Kalmár Magda (pszichológus)), Alan Leslie, Andrew Meltzoff, Anat Ninio, Roy Pea, Susan Sugarman, Michael Scaife, Marian Sigman, Kathy Sylva and many others. Much emphasis was placed on employing the then-revolutionary method of videotaped home-observations, Bruner showing the way to a new wave of researchers to get out of the laboratory and take on the complexities of naturally occurring events in a child’s life. This work was published in a large number of journal articles, and in 1983 Bruner published a summary in the book Child’s talk: Learning to Use Language.
This decade of research established Bruner at the helm of the interactionist approach to language development, exploring such themes as the acquisition of communicative intents and the development of their linguistic expression, the interactive context of language use in early childhood, and the role of parental input and scaffolding behavior in the acquisition of linguistic forms. This work rests on the assumptions of a social constructivist theory of meaning according to which meaningful participation in the social life of a group as well as meaningful use of language involve an interpersonal, intersubjective, collaborative process of creating shared meaning. The elucidation of this process became the focus of Bruner’s next period of work.
In 1980 Bruner returned to the United States, taking up the position of professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City in 1981. For the next decade, he worked on the development of a theory of the narrative construction of reality, culminating in several seminal publications. His book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds has been cited by over 16,100 scholarly publications, making it one of the most influential works of the 20th century.
In 1991 Bruner arrived at NYU as a visiting professor to do research and to found the Colloquium on the Theory of Legal Practice. The goal of this institution is to "study how law is practiced and how its practice can be understood by using tools developed in anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and literary theory."