Dr. Jerome Bruner
Jennifer Strange, Co-Chair of the NAREA Board: We are here tonight to honor Dr. Jerome Bruner, the 2007 Recipient of NAREA Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Early Childhood Education. Bruner is a psychologist and educator whose career has centered around research on perception, learning, memory and other aspects of cognition, especially in young children. He has written many seminal works on education and cognitive studies. He is one of great thinkers of our time and has provoked so many of us in our own thinking. Dr. Bruner could not be here with us because he has a teaching commitment in New York, where he is currently a Professor at NYU School of Law. Therefore, Lella Gandini and Amelia Gambetti will offer us a presentation about Dr. Bruner’s work and the history of his relationship with the educators in Reggio Emilia. Following that, Carolyn Edwards, Karen Haigh and Baji Rankin will participate in a panel discussion, offering their reflections on some questions asked of Dr. Bruner as well as his responses to those questions.
Lella Gandini, Reggio Children Liaison in the U.S. for the Dissemination of the Reggio Approach
Jerome Bruner was born in 1915. He received a B.A. from Duke University, a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and was Professor of Psychology at Harvard from 1952-1972. At this time, there was a great deal of attention to behavioral psychology but Bruner’s interest focused more on what was important for learning. He became a leader in the establishment of cognitive psychology as an alternative to behaviorist theories. His first book was The Process of Education, which was published in 1960 and based on research regarding the teaching and learning of children. Bruner created the Center for Research on Cognitive Science at Harvard and designed a curriculum called “Man: A Course of Study,” based on the idea that learning is like a spiral and children learn based on what they know. But because of the criticism of this curriculum, the federal funding for the Center for Research on Cognitive Science was cut and the center was closed. Bruner then went to England, where he was a Watts Professor at Oxford University from 1972-1980, where his study focused on much younger children. While he was in England, the book Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing was published.
Bruner returned to the States in 1981 and continued to spend time observing children. In 1986, he wroteChild Talk: Learning to Use Language, followed by Actual Minds: Possible Worlds in 1986, Acts of Meaning in 1991 and The Culture of Education in 1991. Bruner was also a Professor at the New School for Social Research and a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. Bruner received his doctorate in history and the meaning of law from New York University. Bruner’s book, Making Stories, which was published in 2002, focused on the role of narrative in learning, in law, in literature and in life. His last book, In Search of Pedagogy, published in 2006, is a two-volume collection of essays that represent his career interests from his reaction to behaviorism, to cognition, and to his more recent work on children’s learning and relationships.
In the 1970s, most of the books that Bruner wrote were translated into Italian. In Italy, there is a great deal of curiosity on the part of the public about psychology and Bruner became very well known. In 1981, Loris Malaguzzi, the editor of the Italian journal Zerosei, and the editor of L’Educatore asked me to interview Bruner, who was also living in Massachusetts. During the interview, we discussed his belief that all children are capable of learning, that the way we teach with the awareness of what children know is vitally important, and his view of learning as a spiral. We also discussed the influence of anthropology on his work. Since he had been instrumental in the creation of the Head Start program, we discussed the Italian people’s interest in how the United States provided services to disadvantaged children. Finally, we discussed the human tendency to formulate hypotheses and the power of the mind. Bruner said that even infants make hypotheses about what surrounds them and therefore, it is very important to expect this from children. He didn’t know about what was being done in the Reggio infant-toddler centers and preschools at the time.
It was in September 1995 that Jerome Bruner first visited Reggio Emilia. In one of his speeches there, he said, “School is not a preparation for the world. It is the world of the child, and it is a special world for the child and the teacher together. This is obvious, of course, but no one thinks about it, in general. The greatest possibilities are not out there waiting for us, but the greatest possibilities are here in our heads.”
On October 16, 1995 at the University of Milan, there was a major conference with the title, “Nostalgia for the Future” in honor of Loris Malaguzzi, who had died in 1994. During his presentation at this conference, Bruner said, “When I came to Reggio Emilia last September, I was invited to see these world famous preschools. I expected a little city miracle but I was not prepared for what I found. It was not just that they were better than I expected but it was something I had never seen.” I believe that Bruner had been very disappointed and demoralized by the fact that the curriculum he had designed in his earlier years had been so highly criticized. Therefore, when he arrived in Reggio, he found what he had always dreamed about, created by a city in Italy.
In Reggio Emilia in 1996, Bruner participated in a public meeting with the Italian Minister of Education. The mayor and the people of Reggio had asked Bruner to challenge the Minister of Education because they were afraid that he was interested in cutting funding to municipal schools. During the debate, Bruner challenged the minister to think about schools as communities, rather than merely as recipients of directives from the state. Bruner also said that testing might be able to evaluate a specific lesson but not the potentialities of the child. Another point he made was that departments of education are not very successful in preparing teachers and this should be the role of the universities.
Jerome Bruner became an honorary citizen of Reggio Emilia in 1997. During the ceremony, he said, “After my first visit in Reggio Emilia, I was struck by the fact that these are not just Reggio schools but an expression of a kind of Reggio spirit. Every place has its own spirit, its own past, its own aspiration – the spirit that comes straight from the land.” He also said, “Reggio Emilia is, first of all, local. It has a style of its very own. Every community has a style of its own. Each place forms a community from its own style and its own life. The great problem is to be oneself and we honor Reggio Emilia for having found the secret to be Reggio. Reggio is not a blueprint. It is an inspiration to be yourself, and to find your own excellence and perfection.” Bruner offered this reflection about the preschools, “A Reggio preschool is a special kind of place, one in which young human beings are invited to grow in mind, in sensibility and in belonging to a broader community.”
Amelia Gambetti, Reggio Children and International Center Loris Malaguzzi Project Promotion and Development, Reggio Children Network Coordinator, International Liaison and Consultant, and Liaison to NAREA
Lella asked me to share my perspective on the evolution of the presence of Jerome Bruner in Reggio Emilia. One important aspect of our experience that captured his attentions since the beginning is the history of our experience, especially in terms of women and the role of the women’s association in the development of our work; the strength of the women, especially in the beginning, when they began to open the schools. The collaboration of this grass-roots movement of women called Unione Donne Italiane, the Union of Italian Women, with the municipality was essential for the opening of new schools and services for young children in Reggio. This collaboration also gave a great deal of determination to our work, to the work of Malaguzzi and the work of the administrators at that time to continue to develop centers for children.
Another aspect of our experience, to which Bruner related was how much the community has been always been a significant part of our work. He was captured by the many experiences within the community that we had since the beginning. Since the late ‘60s, we would bring the schools into the piazzas of the city. There we created ateliers, dress-up areas and housekeeping corners, in order for the children, teachers and parents to be visible to the citizens of the community. At least once a year, we still go into the piazzas with the families and the children, in order to underline the importance of giving visibility to children, to early childhood, and to the work that we do that is so essential for the image of the child and for all the potentialities that image brings to the world.
Bruner has also collaborated with Reggio Children to develop a stronger relationship with the University of Modena and Reggio. Quite often when he comes, he gives lectures at the university. During this school year, Reggio Children and the University of Modena and Reggio have organized an international course for students from different parts of the world, and Bruner will give lectures to the students from nine different countries who are taking this course.
Bruner comes to Reggio at least once a year, usually close to the end of the school year and he likes to be updated about the work that we do. At the end of every school year, we organize professional development meetings where teachers, pedagogisti and atelieristi share their work, especially the last research projects, in order to underline the importance of working with children and developing interesting experiences with children. Bruner likes to give a contribution and he always asks very provocative questions.
Jennifer: In preparation for this program, Lella and Judy Kaminsky posed some questions to Dr. Bruner and he responded with some very intriguing answers. We thought that it would be interesting for the members of this panel to respond to some of the same questions and to Bruner’s answers. It is our challenge to think about the history of this very strong community that was so intertwined with the schools, and try to make sense of how this could be part of our life in schools in North America.
Q: In your acceptance speech on receiving honorary citizenship of the city of Reggio Emilia in 1997, which is published in Reggio Tutta and titled, “Citizens of the World,” you state that Reggio Emilia is a city “small enough to have a self-consciousness. It has a deep sense of its own ‘Reggiana’ identity.” How do you feel it is possible for a city or community to develop a strong sense of identity? How can the members of an educational community develop a sense of their own history and identity inside and outside the school?
Dr. Bruner: Well, the first thing they need to do is to think and talk about this question. What have we done about our schools in the past and have we ever properly enunciated our aims? How have we judged our successes and failures in the past? How should we do so now? What have been our successes and our failures, both at the present time and in the past? Have there been some outstanding heroes/heroines in our local educational efforts over the years? Who are they and what did they do? What kind of town/city are we, educationally speaking? How can we get better – and by what means? We surely need more local “consciousness-raising” about education. When I was a child, there was virtually no awareness about what schools were doing locally, and what the community’s role was in furthering or improving education. Even the Parent-Teachers Association, the old PTA, didn’t seem concerned with such matters! It is time for a change.
Karen Haigh, Governor’s State University Family Development Center Executive Director: While thinking about this whole idea of community and making connections to learning, I related to my experiences at Chicago Commons, Governor’s State University and Chicago Public Schools. What we have done in all three settings is work to understand our identity. When I say our identity, I mean children, parents and staff. We thought about who we are, what we’re like and what we can do. We thought about how could we make connections between our identity and our communities. Community can be both inside the school and outside the school.
Some examples of making connections with the community inside the school are:
• children describing what another child is like or taking time to watch peers to see what they like to do;
• asking a parent what was their favorite toy as a child, asking the child what their favorite toy is and documenting their choices together; and
• interviewing a staff person in the center and asking them what their job is, and then asking the children after they interview this person whether they could make something that could help the staff person do their job better.
So it has become important to think of different kinds of ways to help children connect with the community of the school. But there’s also connecting with the community outside the school. A Chicago inner-city neighborhood is very different than the campus of Governor’s State University, which located in a prairie. When I first worked with Governor’s State, the teachers there said, “We don’t have a community. There’s nothing we can do.” But I said, “There is a community. There’s the prairie; there’s the sculptures on campus and there’s the university itself to explore.” So children began to do things like exploring the sculptures and going to the university library to see what students do there. The teachers found out that there is an abundance of things to explore in this community – people, buildings, nature. It’s important to go way beyond just looking at community helpers or the fire station. It’s looking at what is there in your community and how you can connect to it. While we’re studying and exploring identity and community, we’re really building a sense of community together and we’re connecting with each other in the inside world and the outside world.
Baji Rankin, New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children, Executive Director: I think we are facing many of the same challenges in New Mexico that you all are facing. Early childhood is gaining more public attention and more public scrutiny. We have officials and policy makers, especially in publicly funded programs, that are requiring more accountability, and more regulations and standards that define our work. I believe it is important for us to create an identity as an early childhood field. Creating an identity as early childhood educators in New Mexico or the United States or North America is a huge challenge. We must take into account where we are in relation to those challenges but not let those challenges define us. Those of us in this room who are inspired by the Reggio approach, have a role to play in creating this identity, an identity that is based on the image of the strong, competent child, partnership and collaboration.
In the United States, we face difficulties regarding NAEYC accreditation, which includes very challenging new standards, and developmentally appropriate practices, which are currently being revised. They will both influence the creation of this identity and I believe that the Reggio network has an important role to play in defining both the NAEYC accreditation standards and DAP. Our field is at a critical point, in terms of the discussion taking place around these documents. It reminds me of the debate in Reggio many years ago regarding progettazione and programmazione, which is a more conventional approach. How can we support programs that follow children’s interests without succumbing to the standards required of many of our programs? We have to find ways to go beyond the standards so that we are not defined by them. We must use our inspiration from children and enter into this process of dialogue, in order to create a sense of identity here in the United States around early childhood.
Q: In “Citizens of the World,” you also assert, “Every community has a style of its own; each place forms a community from its own style and its own life…Every place should find its own style and develop its own excellence. The great problem is to be yourself…Reggio is not a blueprint. It is an inspiration to be yourself and to find your own excellence…” At one time in American history, there was a strong tradition of pride and engagement in the workings and autonomy of local communities. How do you think it is possible to regain, recognize and take advantage of the style of your own community, in a way that makes it possible for citizens to work together to build strong educational communities for young children?
Dr. Bruner: Where “style of your own community” is concerned, I suspect that such indifference may be rather typical of suburban communities – or at least it was typical in the old days. The main focusing factor back then was sports – how well the local high school football team was doing. I wish there had been some local community committee inquiring about the “style of life” in our town – not only educationally, but also in terms of equality of opportunity. Like for example, what about poor children versus well-to-do ones? Do we give the former some sort of “head start” to prepare them for later schooling? (I mention this one particularly because I had a major role in founding Head Start and I know how important it can be in getting a community to think about the issue of equal opportunity.) It would be interesting, for example, for a community to keep public track of its high school dropout rate (now approaching 30% nationally) and to mount well-publicized efforts to reduce it. I mention this example, because I want to emphasize the importance of specific goals in motivating people – much better than general ones about “improving education.” And indeed, let Reggio serve as an inspiration but, at the same time, let us recognize that it is not some sort of blueprint to be copied everywhere. We need to cultivate a local sense of opportunity. Muchmore local participation and local publicity!
Carolyn Edwards, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Professor of Psychology and Family and Consumer Sciences: Dr. Bruner seems to offer a pessimistic response to this question about how citizens can work together to build strong educational communities for young children. He comments that American communities really don’t have educational identities; instead, they tend to have a suburban rather than cosmopolitan mentality, focus on sports and put a low value on education…criticisms that have some validity. After what Lella shared with us about Dr. Bruner’s biography, I now understand the origins of some of the frustration underlying that answer. I would suggest that it arose from Dr. Bruner’s own personal experience trying to promote a progressive agenda in education through new uses of technology (“Man: A Course of Study”) and his feeling defeated in those humanistic efforts (although I think that he was more successful than he realized, and left a lasting and tangible trail). Indeed, it is very hard and frustrating for an advocate to feel disappointed in his or her efforts to make significant changes, because achieving change is such a long, collective process and it takes a “long view” to appreciate results.
Because of Lella’s comments, I feel I can better interpret Dr. Bruner’s remarks, because I admit, at first, I was a little surprised when I read his response to the question. I knew he taught for many years at Harvard University, one of the premier institutions of higher education in the entire world, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city which has an educational and intellectual identity with many excellent and innovative schools at every level from preschool through university. Dr. Bruner taught in one of the most exciting locations in the world and surely had community-related personal experiences that supported his progressive agenda and his intense efforts to make change in American education. This was privilege that Dr. Bruner earned on the basis of his world-class research. We know that Dr. Bruner was a mover and shaker in the Harvard University/Cambridge intellectual scene during the years he lived there. He was a member of a very forward-looking interdisciplinary academic department called “Social Relations” (which doesn’t exist anymore, perhaps reinforcing Bruner’s pessimism). This department was comprised of some of the world’s most creative anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists, all teaching and conducting research together. The department was housed in a building named William James Hall, after one of the founders of American psychology. I myself was an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1960s, and I clearly remember walking into that tall white building to take classes. Over the doorway was engraved a saying by William James, which I pondered often and is very relevant to our topic this evening:
“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse withers away without the sympathy of the community.”
This quotation emphasizes the importance of the individual and the community working together, and it suggests that Bruner’s university had a hopeful and vigorous view of American community life and potential.
Perhaps it is true that we Americans don’t have cities with the same tremendous history of building public systems of early childhood education as they do in Italy, but we do have many public school systems and federally funded children’s services that are of very good quality, are raising interesting questions and achieving significant results. Since it is noticeable that high quality research-based models are often located in university and college towns, we are led back to the interesting question that provoked Bruner’s thoughtful and provocative response. We can reflect on how the many colleges and universities throughout our country operate in collaboration with community practitioners and agencies to create gradual forward change. The collaboration between higher education, and community advocates and professionals–all of us working together—provide an unexpected and unique American synergy that produces an asset we can build on in the years to come.
Q: In your presentation for the “Crossing Boundaries” International Conference in 2004, “Working for children so that they can enjoy their rights,” you said that the experience in the Reggio municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools “is based on the idea that you treat three, four and five year olds as if they were people and enter into dialogue with them. Intelligence shows itself in dialogue, and this dialogic intelligence is strictly related to somehow being in the community.” What do you believe is the effect of continual dialogue among teachers and young children on language development, in comparison with more conventional literacy development strategies, such as teaching sounds and letters?
Dr. Bruner: I am totally convinced that dialogue “among teachers and young children” is essential not only for the mastery of language but for equipping minds with the wherewithal for communal life. To me, perhaps the main feature of human mentality is what we have come to call “intersubjectivity” – our efforts (surprisingly successful finally) to “read each others’ minds.” Other primate species never get anywhere near us in this achievement. I remember an incident at the Diana School in Reggio. A teacher asked a five-year-old child a question and the child answered. The teacher didn’t understand the answer and turned to the other children and said, “Help me. What did Giovanna mean by that? I didn’t understand.” So the children piped up with their explanations, and then Giovanna herself tried to explain not only what she had meant, but what the other children were saying to explain what she had meant. I remember remarking to Carlina Rinaldi (who was the teacher then) that the discussion reminded me of the grown-up world – of discussion at the Sunday dinner table or, for that matter, of discussions at graduate seminars at my university! Yes, the striking thing about human minds is that we share each others’ thoughts and feelings – an amazing accomplishment!!! And we should encourage it. And teach children how to do it better.
Baji: Dialogue among children is so important. Supporting conversations and story sharing of children is key to learning and teaching the sounds of letters. A child who is not able to talk very well can’t really know much about letters and what the letters mean. I think a key to helping children develop the ability to talk with each other and listen to each other is very connected with the ability of teachers to do the same. Building communities of learners among teachers is key to promoting this among children.
I’d like to give an example from the state of New Mexico, where there is a real challenge in communication between early childhood educators in community based programs, birth to five, and early childhood educators in public schools. In many cases, these educators live in two separate worlds. There is a project in New Mexico and in eight other states called the “Spark Project.” They are working on promoting communication and dialogue between these two worlds of education and supporting parents to be advocates for children as they move from one school to the other. Through a process called “joining hands,” teachers, directors and families talk with each other, creating bridges and connections between the two settings. This work is so important and needs support to continue. That kind of dialogue creates the context for children to dialogue among themselves.
Lella: I was very taken by Bruner’s book, Making Stories, because he wrote about narrative as a building block of human experience and a guidepost for our interaction with the others, thinking about the self and the others through narrative. We have all had experience with children creating stories and there has been research about these kinds of experiences. I believe that we should continue to study the stories that children construct about themselves and their experience because this is another way for them to express their humanity, their desire to grow and to become more knowledgeable about the world.
I will be presenting Dr. Bruner with the 2007 NAREA Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Early Childhood Education during a conference in New York later this month. But now, I would like to read to you Dr. Bruner’s written comments about receiving this award:
“Let me end by saying how pleased I am to receive the NAREA Lifetime Achievement Award. Yes, I have spent a good many years fighting the battle! And (in happier moments), I even feel we’re making some progress. It is indeed a good idea to make canadianpharmacy365.net available to our countrymen. Perhaps, in that way, we can become more fully aware of the opportunities open to us here in America as well.”
Jennifer: Thank you, Lella. I know you’ll offer our best wishes to Dr. Bruner. Thank you all for being here this evening and thank you for supporting the good work.
Together, we are empowering exceptional education.