Pioneers: Jerome Bruner and Lilian Katz


Here, we look at the work of two educators whose influence is reflected in the resurgence of putting the needs of the child at the heart of early years provision.

Key points

  • Bruner directed the Oxford pre-school project, where he was involved in researching, and writing about, the role of play in culture and development
  • He believed that every child can grow into an effective adult if our provision respects them as unique individuals, autonomous in their learning
  • Katz’s writing, research and promotion of effective practice in early childhood care and education has been influential at an international level
  • She believes that pedagogical practices are appropriate if they address all four categories of learning goals: Knowledge; skills; dispositions; and feelings

Note: This article was first published in the July 2008 issue of eye


OUR PIONEERS series continues this month by examining the life and works two American educators, Professor Jerome Bruner and Dr Lilian Katz. Both of these eminent figures have helped shape our attitudes to early years education and continue to have a major influence around the world.

Professor Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner is one of the best known educationalists, internationally, being one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Bruner was born in New York and educated at Duke and then Harvard University; he gained his PhD in 1947. During his career, he has worked and researched in the areas of social psychology, and cognitive and developmental psychology.

From the 1960s onwards, Bruner was involved in researching and writing about the processes of learning at different levels. He was acclaimed for his landmark book e Process of Education in 1960 and continued to establish himself in the research and promotion of education in America throughout his career.

Bruner’s interesting research into cognitive development led him towards a deeper understanding of the cognitive processes in young children and, therefore, their modes of representation – he understood representation to
be children’s ways of thinking and internalising knowledge. is in turn lead him to formulate his theory about representation and to consider what form of education/schooling is appropriate for learning. These aspects of his work are most relevant to current early childhood care and education.

Bruner was appointed to Oxford University in 1970 and became involved in researching, and writing about, the role of play in culture and development – among the research team during this period were Kathy Sylva and Alison Jolly. Bruner directed the Oxford pre-school project, which focused on the provision and quality of children’s experiences (from birth to five-years-old) in England at the time.

This project carried particular significance because it looked at the needs and experiences of the youngest children and because Professor Kathy Sylva, Bruner’s co-researcher, would go on to develop ideas about play, observation and research methodologies (based on her project work) that have since become very influential in the early years – for example, the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project.

In his publication, The Culture of Education (1996), Bruner discusses the factors that influence self-esteem, agency and learning in the developmental process and seeks to identify how children may be enabled to grow in their own sense of self and personhood.

In today’s practice, this encourages educators to consider how they can accomplish this when working alongside children, whether it is in the classroom or the daycare centre, across age ranges and disciplines. Bruner believed that the school system has a powerful influence in this process and that the school environment is part of the wider culture of any society. is means that the culture within schools should reflect society as a whole, and that children will experience culture as a continuum, from school to the wider world.

Bruner, in The Culture of Education, suggests: ‘What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broadest context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young. How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognise, is a function of how one conceives of culture, and its aims, professed or otherwise... culture shapes the mind... It provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conception of ourselves and our powers.’ (pp: ix-x)

Current comparisons/contemporary issues

More recently, Professor Bruner has collaborated closely with researchers and practitioners in the Italian pre-schools of Italy, including the influential Reggio Emilia community. In February 2004, I attended the ‘Crossing Boundaries’ conference in Italy. The theme of the conference was children’s rights around the world and on the capability of communities to meet these rights with the appropriate services. This was held in honour of the 40th Anniversary of the first Reggio pre-schools and the work of Loriz Malaguzzi (see January 2008 edition of eye).

Bruner spoke passionately, via video, about identity and the philosophy that underpins the belief that every child is given an opportunity to grow into an effective adult. We can do this by giving children what they need in childhood and by respecting the children as unique individuals, autonomous in their learning. is reflects Bruner’s opinion that children have a sense of agency (power/influence) over their learning, which influences how they value and see themselves (esteem) as learners and the potential they have as adults.

Practitioners who provide effective early childhood care and education will enable children to express their ideas and experiences through:

  • Child-initiated activities and experiences.
  • Play throughout the day, indoors and outdoors.
  • Through dialogues and revisiting ideas to explore the ‘new’ using extension.
  • Spiral curriculum approach – the concept that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’.

Bruner established a model for the ways in which children represent experiences and hold a body of knowledge in their mind, having first transformed their experiences in a meaningful way. is can take the form of three stages or modes:

  • The enactive mode, which is action-based (physical play).
  • The iconic mode where one thing stands for another; where the child replaces the action with an image (drawing, painting, imaginative play); images ‘stand for’ the object.
  • The symbolic mode, where a language (writing, scripts, notation, dance, imaginative play) represents meaning and can be a shared understanding.

Early years educators need to provide opportunities for all the modes of representation to ensure all three modes develop within the individual. Children learn the structure/rules that govern the representation of their thinking and then generalise this understanding to other aspects of their learning and experience.

Bruner advocated that through dialogues with children, practitioners could enable richer understanding in the child. He established the term ‘spiral curriculum’ to show that various subjects and the interests of children could be revisited and further explored at any stage of development, which would, in turn, increase knowledge and create a deeper understanding.

Let us look at the subject ‘geography’ for a moment; it may be experienced in a reception class by making maps of the class or of the outdoor area, or even in activities, stories and walks in the local area to learn a sense of place and of where people live, and so on.

This may be revisited at key stage 2, where children will deepen their existing knowledge through similar, although age/stage appropriate, activities. Alongside this, adults (parents/carers) at all stages, in dialogue with teachers, will be extending the child’s learning and knowledge by anticipating what the child needs to focus on for the next stage of the learning process.

This is known as ‘scaffolding’. Providing a ‘scaffold’ for the ongoing exploration and construction of new knowledge also helps the child to transform their existing knowledge through a shared and emerging language, and through symbolic representations.

Links with principles of the foundation stage framework
Overall, for Bruner, respect for the child as an individual is fundamental, enabling them to develop a sense of ‘self ’ as a learner – children are learning all the time, within settings and the culture of their community. All three modes of representation should be integrated in children’s experiences.

Consider links with the unique child and enabling environments. Can you make any specific links between your provision and that championed by Bruner? How do you ‘scaffold’ children’s learning in your setting? Do you incorporate aspects of the spiral curriculum and an inclusive child-centred pedagogy?

Dr Lilian Katz

Lilian Katz is an inspirational early childhood scholar and professor. Her writing, research and promotion of effective practice in early childhood care and education has been influential at an international level through her lectures and seminars that have seen her travel the world on numerous occasions. Her publications are in excess of 150, including articles, chapters and books.

Katz was actually born in England and grew up in pre-war London. Her family emigrated to America in 1947. She graduated from Stanford University in 1968 where she completed her PhD. Later, she became Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, where she continues as Professor Emeritus of Early Childhood Education. In 1970, Katz directed the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education – she is a strong advocate of sharing research to support professionals, establishing two journals: Early Childhood Research Quarterly and Early Childhood Research & Practice.

Katz is mostly associated with her work in three aspects of early childhood care and education:

  • Dispositions for learning in young children.
  • The project approach to teaching and learning.
  • Quality and professional development for teachers and early childhood educators in early childhood settings.

Katz established the category of dispositions for learning in early childhood education. ese learning goals include dispositions, feelings, skills and knowledge. e dispositions can be loosely defined as ‘habits of mind’, this is shown in the children’s interest, persistence and motivations and engagement in activity. The attitude/dispositions are encouraged by environments that enable children to be motivated and to initiate their own learning.

Like Bruner, Katz believes and actively promotes the autonomy of the child in their own learning, given the appropriate conditions in a child-centred curriculum. This, for Katz, involves educators in engaging children’s intellectual curiosity, using the ‘project approach’ to nurture the children’s intellect and interest, as opposed to simply acquiring ‘academic’ knowledge and skills. The project approach supports children’s dispositions as curious investigators in a social context. Children need to learn how to operate in groups, collaborating together and enjoying a sense of connectedness with other children. Katz advocates that the meaningful activities provided by projects give a richer experience for all concerned because they are based on the children’s interests and known environments. This includes the educators and parents who can also extend the learning through meaningful conversations and by learning together. Implementing a project approach involves practitioners considering what is relevant and likely to engage the children’s involvement and make sense to them in the setting. It is worth noting that the project may play out over an extended period and involve several sub-topics.

Parallels can be drawn with the approach adopted by Reggio Emilia pre-schools (with their negotiated curriculum), which comes from Katz’s ongoing association with the area. Although the roots are different, and Italian pre-schools have a different history to the American project approach as advocated by Katz and Chard (2000), there are similarities in philosophy and in the understanding that children benefit from experiences grounded in their cultural context. Child-initiated learning should be supported by ‘dialogues’ as part of meaningful relationships, rather than forming part of a fixed, static curriculum.

Katz has emphasised that pedagogical practices are appropriate only if they address all four categories of learning goals: Knowledge; skills; dispositions; and feelings, in the education of young children.

Considering the experiences of children, Katz asks: ‘What does it feel like to be in this because they position of the child, thinking about the environment, and what events, resources and relationships demonstrate quality experiences for children. It is important to have this in mind because the foundation stage framework is a statutory model for current and evolving practice. In providing a child-centred and play-based curriculum, teams can reflect together on:

  • How children experience their setting?
  • What it is like for those children?
  • How responsive are adults to the needs and interests of the children?
  • How do you reflect on the curriculum and respond to children’s dispositions?

Both Bruner and Katz continue to influence early education, and practitioners can revisit and discover ideas contained in their articles and research studies. In many ways it is encouraging to consider how current practitioners can reflect on the pioneers’ theories and practice and create new ways of developing a responsive curriculum for all our children.

Reading and resource list

Bruner J (1960) The Process of Education. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA

Bruner J (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA

Bruner J (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, USA

Katz L, Chard S (2000) Engaging Children’s Minds: The Project Approach. Ablex Publishing: Louis, Missouri, USA

Katz L (1995) Talks with Teachers of Young Children. Ablex Publishing: Norwood, New Jersey, USA

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