The Key Principles of Jerome Bruner’s Constructivist Theory

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September 21, 2019

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The American psychologist Jerome Bruner, strongly influenced by the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygostky, further developed and applied his ideas in the field of education. Bruner declared that Vygotsky (go to Lev Vygotsky’s Theory of Social Development) has convinced him about the impossibility of understanding the concept of human development in any other way than as a process of assistance, of collaboration between child and adult, where the adult is taking up the role of a sociocultural mediator. Due to its distinct features, we consider the theory to be a sociocultural constructivist one.


Bruner (buy his books from Amazon) believed that when children start to learn new concepts, they need help from teachers and other adults in the form of active support. To begin with, they are dependent on their adult support, but as they become more independent in their thinking and acquire new skills and knowledge, the support can be gradually faded. This form of structured interaction between the child and the adult is reminiscent of the scaffolding that supports the construction of a building. It is gradually dismantled as the work is completed.

In a very specific way, scaffolding represents a reduction in the many choices a child might face, so that they become focused only on acquiring the skill or knowledge that is required. The simplistic elegance of Bruner’s sociocultural theory means that scaffolding can be applied across all sectors, for all ages and for all topics of learning.

Principles of the learning process:

  1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).
  2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organization).
  3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).
  4. The progression of rewards as well as punishments


The notion of scaffolding developed by Jerome Bruner is deeply related to Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development and describes the ensemble of guiding and supporting interactions offered by a an adult or guardian (it can be a different child which possess a higher level of competency) meant to help the child organise his behaviours so as to become apt in solving a problem which he previously could not solve on his own. 

The process of scaffolding implies six interdependent elements:

  1. the engagement of the subject in the task of learning
  2. reducing the difficulties
  3. maintaining the focus on the objectives
  4. signaling the determined characteristics
  5. controlling frustration – in order to prevent the errors the child makes from becoming a feeling of failure and resignation
  6. demonstrating or presenting models.

Modes of Mental Representation

Bruner’s sociocultural constructivist theory suggests it is effective when faced with new material to follow a progression from enactive to iconic to symbolic representation; this holds true even for adult learners.

Moreover, his work also implies that a learner even of a very young age is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is organised appropriately, in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Piaget (read Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development) and other stage theorists (see all Stage Theories).

The first kind of memory. This mode is used within the first year of life (corresponding with Piaget’s sensorimotor stage). Thinking is based entirely on physical actions, and infants learn by doing, rather than by internal representation (or thinking).

It involves encoding physical action based information and storing it in our memory. For example, in the form of movement as a muscle memory, a baby might remember the action of shaking a rattle.

Plus, this mode continues later in many physical activities, such as learning to ride a bike.

Many adults can perform a variety of motor tasks (typing, sewing a shirt, operating a lawn mower) that they would find difficult to describe in iconic (picture) or symbolic (word) form.

Information is stored as sensory images (icons), usually visual ones, like pictures in the mind. For some, this is conscious; others say they don’t experience it.

This may explain why, when we are learning a new subject, it is often helpful to have diagrams or illustrations to accompany the verbal information.

Thinking is also based on the use other mental images (icons), such as hearing, smell or touch.

We can think of it as the force which moves development along. Piaget believed that cognitive development did not progress at a steady rate, but rather in leaps and bounds.

Symbolic representation develops last. It is where information is stored in the form of a code or symbol, such as language. This mode is acquired around six to seven years-old (corresponding to Piaget’s concrete operational stage).

In the symbolic stage, knowledge is stored primarily as words, mathematical symbols, or in other sociocultural symbol systems, such as music.

Sociocultural and other types of symbols are flexible in that they can be manipulated, ordered, classified etc., so the user isn’t constrained by actions or images (which have a fixed relation to that which they represent).

Equilibrium occurs when a child’s schemas can deal with most new information through assimilation. However, an unpleasant state of disequilibrium occurs when new information cannot be fitted into existing schemas (assimilation).

Equilibration is the force which drives the learning process as we do not like to be frustrated and will seek to restore balance by mastering the new challenge (accommodation). Once the new information is acquired the process of assimilation with the new schema will continue until the next time we need to make an adjustment to it.

Language implications of Bruner's Theory

Language is important for the increased ability to deal with abstract concepts. Jerome Bruner (buy his books from Amazon) argues that language can code stimuli and free an individual from the constraints of dealing only with appearances, to provide a more complex yet flexible cognition.

Bruner is poignant about language and how this affects cognition within this theory of sociocultural learning development. It is pertinent to any success of a child to identify the differences between adult language and the language used by children. With the child being younger, they need time to advance not only their conceptual learning but their language as well. Thus, teachers and parents alike are encouraged to envelop the scaffolding method of communication which is a strategy aimed to simplifying tasks within learning by making smaller steps, all leading to the final outcome. This aids in maintaining any frustration while keeping in mind what is important throughout the learning process.

The use of words can aid the development of the concepts they represent and can remove the constraints of the “here and now” concept. Bruner views the infant as an intelligent and active problem solver from birth, with intellectual abilities basically similar to those of the mature adult.


The teacher resources used should be focused on that of encouragement, aiding and allowing the student to uncover the main principles on their own. Communication between the learner and teacher is the key concept. Socratic learning is suggested as the best method of communication in this theoretical framework, as it allows the teacher to actively note any study skills the learner verbalises, their progression, their frustrations, and form a rubric of their current learning state based on the dialogue.

Seeing as this sociocultural constructivist theory developed by Jerome Bruner takes known information and expounds upon it, any teacher lesson plans, teacher worksheets, or resources should in fact be constantly building the learner’s knowledge in a spiral manner.

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