A collaborative paper written by Sharo Dickerson, Ulises Neira-Galaviz, and Maria Cruz Quinones
The importance of structure in learning and education is fundamental for several reasons as pointed out by Jerome Bruner (1960) in this Chapter. Bruner makes an important statement that learning “should serve us in the future” (p. 17) through specific transfer to similar tasks and the “nonspecific transfer or the transfer of principles and attitudes” (ibid). Specific transfer and transfer of principles make fundamentals of content more understandable and comprehensible. This enables students to make broad and deep connections of basic ideas in and across disciplines. In doing so, the structure provided in learning and education brought the importance of (a) relevance and appropriateness in the subject matter, (b) purpose and meaning in the acquisition of skills and general understanding, and (c) usefulness in relationships of learning.
Making a subject more comprehensible leads to a deep understanding of the subject matter. When one compares this to an iceberg, it means seeing the whole iceberg, not just the tip that is visible above the water. Bruner’s structure in learning requires taking students to unseen depths in the content areas, not just skimming across the surface through concentration on facts and topics. In doing this, students develop schema or frameworks through which connections of facts and topics can be made to the principles of the discipline. This enables students to make connections of ideas that on the surface appear different, but in essence have the same structure with which they are familiar. The point is made that the teacher who does not grasp those underlying principles that are foundational to the discipline will not be able to provide instruction to students that will impact their future studies in the subject. Bruner states, “Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical” (p. 31). H. Lynn Erickson developed a model for the structure of knowledge that encourages “synergistic thinking” (Erickson, 2007, p. 9) for students. They use the lower level facts and topics to understand the more complex concepts, principles, generalizations and theories “to discern patterns, connection, and deeper, transferable understandings” (ibid). Understanding is defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) as “a mental construct, an abstraction made by the human mind to make sense of many pieces of knowledge” (p. 37).
Bruner’s contribution to learning through his understanding of underlying principles is foundational in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). The TEKS address what students must know (facts and topics), understand (concepts, generalizations and principles) and be able to do (processes, procedures, strategies, skills). Erickson’s structure of knowledge is based on Bruner’s understanding of the importance of moving beyond the surface knowledge to foundational understanding of a discipline and its connection to other disciplines. In Realms of Meaning, Philip H. Phenix wrote that “general education is the process of engendering essential meanings” (p. 5). The TEKS are designed so that students can move from basic understandings based on prior knowledge and personal experience to understanding the essential meanings of the discipline.
School districts provide opportunities for students to develop this deep understanding in different ways. Many districts across Texas are using CSCOPE, a curriculum that aligns the TEKS across grade levels to ensure spiraling of knowledge from Kindergarten through high school. One district in Region 19 is using a Virtual School to provide online courses and instruction aligned to state standards, a scope and sequence and learning activities across grade K-12 levels. Bruner’s emphasis on structure in learning and education contributed greatly to today’s development and implementation of consistency and standardization not only in fact-to-face classroom instruction, but also in online and blended learning environments. Teacher’s knowledge and skills, student learning styles, administration’s leadership and school management, and parent involvement are important components of these learning environments.
Students can often manipulate numbers in mathematics, but have no understanding of what those numbers actually mean. This reinforces Bruner’s statement that understanding the fundamentals of a subject makes what students are learning more comprehensible. Based on learning the details (facts and topics) well so that they are “conserved in memory” (Bruner, p. 24) attached to fundamental principles and ideas, students will always be able to pull these out of memory. “A good theory is the vehicle not only for understanding a phenomenon now but also for remembering it tomorrow” (Bruner, p. 25).
Bruner, J. (1960, 1977). The Process of Education: A Landmark in Educational Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Erickson, H. L. (2007). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Phenix, P. H. (1964). Realms of Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, 2nd Ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
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