The Wisdom of Jerome Bruner in “The Culture of Education”: Book Review

Education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture  —Jerome Bruner

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THE CULTURE OF EDUCATION, Jerome Bruner, Harvard Univ. Press, 1996

The Culture of Education presents nine thought-provoking essays on the subject of cultural psychology and its implications for education. The essays embody Bruner’s experience, knowledge and wisdom of the science of learning, and culture’s influence on teaching and learning.  A scholar of psychology, Bruner defines cultural psychology as a system that describes how humans make sense of their world. A cultural approach to education describes how the mind works—the science of learning with culture. In Bruner’s words the theory of education lies at the intersection “between the nature of mind and the nature of culture”.

The essays are still relevant in today’s context with the abundance of educational technology. Bruner provides a unique construct for thinking about technology. He describes how humans make sense of the world—where learning and thinking are dependent upon cultural settings and the use of cultural artifacts. Thinking of educational technology as artifacts of culture, and learning as dependent on culture—puts technology in a different perspective. Technology as part of culture suggests education needs to embrace technology, as according to Bruner learning is always dependent upon the cultural setting and its resources. Technology in education settings, as many have already argued, needs to be closely linked with pedagogy (Anderson & Dron, 2011Okajie et al., 2014).

In the first essay, Culture, Mind, and Education, Bruner devotes significant discussion upfront to contrasting theories that describe learning. Bruner is critical of the information processing theory or what he calls ‘computationalism’—comparing the mind to a computational device. Bruner proceeds to methodically outline how the psycho-cultural approach addresses learning via ten tenets that each include, to varying degrees culture’s influence and theory of the mind—cognitivism.  Bruner argues each tenet elegantly; none better than number seven—the institutional tenet.  The institution refers to all types of institution, each embodying a distinct culture reflected in symbols, stories and power figures. Complex structures within institutions Bruner argues, leads to coercion, power struggles which are especially detrimental for entities responsible for education. Bruner concludes that any efforts towards improvement (reform) by education institutions must involve teachers; teachers are critical and central to reform efforts.

Several of the essays quite practical in nature, focus on how to teach effectively. The second essay Folk Pedagogy brings in to the open the idea that teachers do not always approach teaching and learning effectively. Teachers (and students) bring with them to the classroom pre-conceived ideas of how learning happens, explained in part by ingrained cultural beliefs about how the mind works.  Bruner outlines in his methodical manner four models of the mind based on pre-conceived ideas, and the related education goals of each. Bruner suggests that by examining and evaluating each carefully, we are then able to rethink our approach to education. Pedagogy is not innocent Bruner states—it’s a medium that carries its own message (page 63).  The latter statement is an example of how powerful and deep Bruner’s ideas are.  The remaining essays are just as stimulating as the first two. Each presents a dimension of education worth examining. Each challenges the reader to think about teaching and education from a different viewpoint, sometimes several.

Closing Thoughts
The Culture of Education deserves a place on every educator’s bookshelf. Bruner is a remarkable scholar, author and man. At ninety-nine years of age his contributions to the study and advancement of education are numerous. As recently as 2011 Bruner participated in Arizona State University’s Inside the Academy program via an interview. The Culture of Education is just one of Bruner’s many works well worth studying; it’s an indispensable guide to finding answers to today’s toughest questions about education.

Educational encounters, to begin with, should result in understanding, not mere performance. pg. xi

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