Bruner over break

Today you would have seen me playing Twenty Questions in study hall. My subject asked “was it a female driver?” -No. “Was he texting?” -No. “Was the car going down a hill?” -No.
Organized persistence is a feature of what Jerome Bruner calls cumulative constructionism, wherein students formulate hypotheses in a game of Twenty Questions. Intrigued by the idea of whether my students, fifty years after his experiments, tend to be deficient or rich in organizational persistence, I began to repeat his experiment this afternoon in a trial run. It was easier than I thought it would be to categorize my subject student’s questions as “locating constraints” or as “posing hypotheses as questions”; categorizing questions – about why a car ran off the road and hit a tree – provides information about how someone is constructing knowledge, organizing the information received in the “yes” or “no” response.

Although I was really interested in whether adolescents’ minds operate now as they did then, and ultimately in how valid Bruner’s work is today, I now think a better experiment for me must take into account Bruner’s point, which is that discovery learning should lead students toward more organized persistence, and a better way of organizing memory and harvesting information.
If this is true, my students who have become familiar as discoverers in my class should show strengths such as organizing questions in cycles, and summarizing things to themselves. Cumulative constructivism is “characterized by sensitivity to constraint, by connective maneuvers, and by organized persistence,” Bruner says in “The Act of Discovery”, found in his collection Essays Written for the Left Hand.
I admit going into it that I have trepidation. My students in 2014 may be less able to persist over the course of an entire Dickens novel, say, than those of 1993 or 2003; can they find ways of organizing all that information? But the hope persists, despite doubts, that discovery learning will be the best antidote to an “episodic” culture, demanding increasingly brief attention spans. Episodic empiricism, Bruner argues, is the other end of the continuum from cumulative constructionism. It is deficient in organizational persistence, and may ignore or disregard prior constraints in a Twenty Questions game, just stringing hypotheses along non cumulatively. 20130925-145038.jpg
To gather useful data, I ought to know which teachers my students have now and have had previously who tend to invite students to learn through discovery. It would also be helpful to know how many hours or months of discovery in learning actually occur, and how much it helps a child learn the varieties of problem solving, of transforming information for better use, “helps him go about the very task of learning.” Quantifying all that seems a bit daunting.
For the moment I will recollect the discouragement written on the face of my subject when a series of unconnected hypotheses returned void, and her elation when she finally concluded accurately that a squirrel caused the driver to swerve. Unfortunately, each subject needs to play 4 times, with 4 scenarios, and one game was enough.
Anyone for Twenty Questions?


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