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 of arts degree in Psychology, in 1937 from Duke University, and went on to earn a master's degree in Psychology in 1939 and then a doctorate in Psychology in 1941 from Harvard University. 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 1956, Bruner published the book A Study of Thinking, which formally initiated the study of cognitive psychology. Soon afterward 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 contested the computer model of the mind, advocating a more holistic understanding of cognitive processes.
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 to 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.
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 (Kalmár Magda), 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.
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 which contributed to the development of narrative psychology. His book Acts of Meaning has been cited over 20,000 times followed by Actual Minds, Possible Worlds which has been cited by over 18,000 scholarly publications, making them two of the most influential works of the 20th century. In these books, Bruner argued that there are two forms of thinking: the paradigmatic and the narrative. The former is the method of science and is based upon classification and categorisation. The alternative narrative approach organises everyday interpretations of the world in storied form. The challenge of contemporary psychology is to understand this everyday form of thinking.
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