Jerome Bruner (1915–2016), an educational psychologist who shaped generations

Jerome “Jerry” Bruner, the educational psychologist known as “the father of the cognitive revolution” in educational thought, died Sunday, June 5 at the age of 100. Until the mid-20th century, American education called upon students to sit passively, absorbing knowledge dispensed by a teacher at the front of the room. That changed with the space-race fear that students in the Soviet Union were mastering math and science at levels children in the U.S. were not. The Woods Hole Conference, convened in 1959 with Bruner as its chairman, was a turning point at which the American educational system began to address children not as listeners only, but as constructive problem-solvers. The following year, Bruner and fellow psychologist George Miller founded the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies to promote their new model. Bruner would later write that the purpose of cognitive studies “was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated.”

The effect of cognitive studies on American education was profound, and continues to be influential through the work of researchers who followed Bruner into the field, some of them as his students and assistants. Howard Gardner, author of the book “Frames of Mind,” which proposed the model of multiple intelligences, worked for Bruner as a research assistant early in his career. In a tribute written before Bruner’s death, Gardner told Arizona State University’s Inside the Academy, “Jerome Bruner has no peers,” and said Bruner was “not merely one of the foremost educational thinkers of the era [but] also an inspired learner and teacher.”

Gardner, who visited ASU in May as a guest of the Frank Rhodes Lecture Series on the Creation of the Future, called Bruner "the most important American thinker on education since John Dewey. While perhaps no one is Dewey's equal in intellectual depth, Jerry is likely to have as a profound an influence on the intellectual landscape as Dewey and, thanks to his vibrant and accessible writings, a greater influence on thinking and practices in classrooms.”

Bruner spent two hours in conversation with Audrey Amrein-Beardsley of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2011. In the video-recorded interviews, Bruner looks back not only on his career and influence on educational psychology, but on 96 years of life that included sailing his own boat across the Atlantic, competitive croquet and daily bicycle commutes that often resulted in “the next big idea.” Those interviews, along with tributes by educators and scholars, are available at Inside the Academy.