All illusions are potential ways of ordering reality. The goal of criticism should therefore be not to destroy illusions but to make us more sensitive to their workings and their complexity.
Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
I'm a child of the space race. In the late 1950s, the United States was in the middle of a cold war with the USSR, a political, economic, and technological conflict made even more intense by the successful launch of the Sputnik satellite. Americans were in a panic—perhaps our education system was to blame for the lack of mathematicians and physicists. In fact, the National Defense Education Act was signed into law just days before I was born. Among other things, it provided the financial support for an interdisciplinary gathering of distinguished scholars at Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1959 to examine how to improve public education. Participants included experts in mathematics, physics, education, psychology, history, the classics, and educational media.
Although the conference was ostensibly to address the teaching of math and science, it took a much broader focus. Indeed, it ended up addressing issues of communication in education—both how to communicate knowledge of the subject matter and how to use new technologies in education.
Leading this conference was Jerome Bruner, who at the time was an important cognitive psychologist in the United States and a scholar known for bridging the gap between the scientific and humanistic approaches of his discipline. The Process of Education (1960) was a slender book about five key ideas that emerged from the Woods Hole conference. Its publication caused a sensation in education, and it was reprinted in numerous editions. It included the then-revolutionary idea that systems and structures matter for learning: in particular, the scope and sequence of curriculum needs careful, systematic design. It offered the bold claim that anyone can learn anything if learning experiences are designed in a way that promotes intellectual curiosity. The book emphasized the importance of intuitive, creative thinking through discovery over rote memorization and drill. It offered a hopeful and optimistic perspective on the educational use of film as a "device for vicarious experience" (81) that could help dramatize a subject by "leading a student to identify more closely with a phenomenon of interest" (83) and empower children who are "learning how to learn" (6).
While technology in education can be powerful, the book concludes by acknowledging that the problems of education cannot be solved by buying 16-millimeter film projectors but instead by "discovering how to integrate the technique of the filmmaker or the program producer with the technique and wisdom of the skillful teacher" (Bruner 1960, 92). The Process of Education served (for a time) as a manifesto for all who wanted to improve schools because "its attention was on the knower and the knowing" (Evans 2011, 85). It presented the value of inquiry learning as something that enables learners to recognize that the world is not a given and is subject to change.
Born in 1915, Bruner's lifelong project explores connections between mind and culture and between the social science and the humanities, connecting human development and human experience. In a way, Bruner has been expanding the concept of literacy by exploring the relationship between language, learning, cognition, science, arts, and culture. My work—which is also seeking to expand the concept of literacy—is far more limited, practical and narrow in scope. I'm fascinated with how media both reflects and shapes individual identity, cultural norms, social values, and expectations, and our sense of possibility about the future. Thus, I aim to provide educators with learning resources and pedagogical strategies that enable learners of all ages to have a kind of heightened consciousness about symbols, culture and the meaning-making process through the practice of media analysis and media production.
I'm proud to acknowledge that Bruner is one of my intellectual grandparents: his work has influenced the way I think about media literacy education and about my life as a community-engaged scholar bridging the fields of communication and education. But, truthfully, his influence on my life began beyond my conscious awareness: in my first encounter with his work, I was actually too young to recognize him. Fortunately, in my second and, especially, my third encounters, I was able to appreciate and acknowledge his contributions to my own work in media literacy education.