We have known for some time that learning commences even before birth, however, we do not, as yet, fully understand how children learn. To help us understand, we can look at how theorists have sought to explain learning. Though offering different and even conflicting explanations, theorists have, nonetheless, provided us with a means by which we can better describe and explain those complex aspects of our children’s learning and development that we observe every day. As a parent, and more recently as a grandparent, I have found the different theories on children’s learning that I have studied to be most valuable in helping me understand why and how my children and now my grandchildren, learn. The first theorist I will look at is the American psychologist Jerome Bruner (1915-2016).

Bruner has helped us enormously in our understanding of children’s learning – it is an interesting fact that, whilst he was born blind due to cataracts, he, nevertheless, went on to overcome this condition and become a highly successful and internationally acclaimed academic. Bruner challenged much of the educational practice of his time (1950s, 60s and 70s), arguing that young children should be encouraged to be active participants in their own learning, as opposed to being mainly recipients of facts and information from adults, which was all-too-often the case in most educational settings. More particularly, he proposed that greater importance should be given to understanding the processes by which children learn and the unique qualities each child brings to every new learning experience.

The core elements to children’s learning

Bruner suggested three core elements that are central to children’s learning, namely: acquiring new knowledge, transforming and manipulating that knowledge and checking new knowledge. We can observe examples of this where children are introduced to new learning tasks and environments (see example later on) and start to acquire new knowledge; they then transform and manipulate the new knowledge by, for example, applying it in different situations such as play activities and problem-solving tasks, and they then check their new knowledge through talking with the adults supervising their learning. Bruner further suggested that individuals interpret the world around them using three ‘modes’, which he called, the Enactive, Iconic and Symbolic modes. We can think of these in the following way: The Enactive mode, sometimes thought of as ‘muscle memory’, refers, for example, to those physical actions we might observe in infants, the Iconic mode refers largely to images and the Symbolic mode to words, and symbols. With the Enactive mode, an infant’s sight of objects becomes increasingly linked to their physical movements; an infant lying in a cot may, for example, accidentally knock a rattle with their hand, which produces a noise. The infant may then turn their head to look at the rattle and in this way their physical movement becomes linked to the rattle and the sound it makes. It is through such actions that children’s learning develops, even in their first days and months. With the Iconic mode children can then begin to ‘think’ about objects that are not actually there in front of them because they have images of these objects. A young child playing in one room may, for example, think about a toy in another room or outside in their garden because they are able to conjure up an image of the toy even though it is not physically in front of them.

Whilst the Iconic mode is of course extremely useful to a young child it is restricted to the physical features of objects, such as their shape, colour and size. To think about abstract things and feelings or emotions such as kindness and sadness, however, the child requires language and it is this that is key to the Symbolic mode. The difference between the Iconic mode and the Symbolic mode can be considered as follows: a child may, for example, see a photograph of a cat or play with a toy plastic model of a cat – the photograph and the toy plastic model both represent the cat in a real way to the child – they can see the animal in the photograph and they can see and feel the shape of the plastic toy animal, the letters C-A-T, however, when they appear on a page, do not do this. They do not have the visual features of the picture or the physical features of the plastic toy model; they only represent what a ‘cat’ is because everyone agrees that these letters, when put together in a particular order, identify this type of animal. As language develops, children can remove themselves physically from situations whilst continuing to think about them. They can even begin to talk with others in more sophisticated ways about events they think might happen in the future. Importantly, they can increasingly work on problem-solving activities with other children and adults, and reflect on these problems afterwards.  Bruner was also keen to emphasise how engaging in reading and writing supports young children with reflecting more deeply not only about their own ideas but also, those of others.

The role of adults in children’s learning

Bruner was very interested in the strategies children use when they are learning new tasks and especially when they are engaged in problem-solving tasks. He saw the role of adults as being very important in supporting children with developing strategies that are effective and that help them with their learning. This led him to develop the concept of Scaffolding where adults refrain from overly controlling children’s learning activities, but instead, work alongside them to build on the knowledge they have already mastered by directing their learning. Scaffolding can be especially helpful when used with children who are experiencing difficulties grasping a new concept or when they are being introduced to a new concept that presents them with a significant challenge. Bruner also promoted the idea of Discovery Learning, where adults working with young children create environments where children can have new opportunities to learn through exploration. To help in this process it is important, Bruner believed, for adults working with children to have a good understanding of their existing knowledge, which they can then build on and develop even further. This way of thinking about children’s learning has been referred to as the ‘spiral’ curriculum where adults provide children with choices and then create opportunities for them to apply and develop their new learning. The following example illustrates many of Bruner’s ideas on learning:


Imagine a cold morning when the ground outside has been covered in frost or snow. The children are playing outside exploring the frosted surfaces by making patterns in the frost with their gloved hands. This is a great opportunity to start introducing new words to describe the frost such as, ‘icy’, ‘freezing’, ‘chilly’, ‘wintry’, ‘glistening’, ‘sparkling’, and so on. The children’s senses will make connections between the coldness, the feel of the icy surfaces and the patterns they are making and, in this way will become linked to these new words. Opportunities also present to help develop their co-ordination and fine-motor skills by encouraging them as part of their play and exploration to use tools such as sticks to make marks and even write letters – some might even be able to write their name in the frost. Some may play others to build a snowman and begin problem-solving tasks. Once indoors, the children will be keen to talk about their activities and this will enable the adults to reinforce their use of the new words they have learned by encouraging discussion.

In summary, Bruner’s theory has a great deal to offer practitioners in Early Years settings as well as parents of young children; it puts children at the centre of the learning experience and emphasises the importance of language and of progression in children’s thinking through adults allowing and encouraging children to be active participants in their own learning. His theory should be recognised as one that challenged how children in previous decades were, all-too-often, expected to sit in silence and be, simply, passive recipients of information.

For further information on how an understanding of Bruner’s ideas and those of other theorists can support practice in the early years, see the following link to my latest book: MacBlain, S.F. (2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. London: Sage:  https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/learning-theories-for-early-years-practice/book259408


About the author

Dr Sean MacBlain is a distinguished author whose most recent publication is: MacBlain (Sage, 2018) Learning Theories for Early Years Practice. Other publications include: MacBlain (Sage, 2014) How Children Learn; Gray and MacBlain (Sage, 2015) Learning Theories in Childhood, now going into its 3rd edition; MacBlain, Long and Dunn, (Sage, 2015) Dyslexia, Literacy and Inclusion: Child-centred Perspectives; MacBlain, Dunn and Luke (Sage, 2017) Contemporary Childhood; Sean’s publications are used by students, academics and practitioners worldwide. He is currently a senior academic at Plymouth Marjon University where he teaches on a range of undergraduate programmes and supervises students at Masters and Doctoral level. Sean worked previously as a Senior Lecturer in Education and Developmental Psychology at Stranmillis University College, Queens University Belfast and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist in private practice. Sean lives with his wife Angela in Somerset, England.

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