Is Bruner's Units of Study Still Relevant to Today's Classroom?
In 1965, Jerome Bruner in The Form of the Course presented six units that he felt were vital to the classroom.
1. Talks to Teachers
2. Queries and Contrasts
4. Model Exercises
6. Supplementary Materials
To my surprise, as I pondered these six units, I realized that all were still relevant to today's classroom to some degree. I found that, more often than not, it was the examples he provided that outdated his work rather than the principles behind his list.
Talks to Teachers: While “Talks to Teachers” by William James (1899) is certainly outdated for our time, this unit can represent teaching resources that educators should have readily available and the need for continuous teacher development.
Devices: And while “Technicolor cartridge projectors” have long since disappeared, the unit called Devices obviously would incorporate the technology we are using to teach during Covid-19.
Documentaries: This unit could include CuriosityStream or NASA’s International Space Station live stream or the myriad of educational videos on YouTube. (I agree with Bruner that “too often, films have a way of producing passivity” so it is our responsibility as teachers to ensure that the content we share is meaningful and encourages further exploration.) (1965, p. 25).
Supplementary Materials: This unit could include online platforms such as “Learn Around the World” to connect your students with students in another country or Project Noah where students can help scientists document organisms.
However, I think what seemed even more antiquated to me than the examples Bruner gave in the units above was his overt focus on word-based approaches in the name of “critical thinking.” Reading through many of his examples, specifically in the units “Queries and Contrasts” and “Model Exercises,” reminded me of the Socratic approach to teaching; ambiguous or abstract questions that supposedly spark meaningful discussion (but more often than not result in a student desperately trying to guess what his teacher is thinking). For example, he encouraged teachers to “pose riddles,” “puzzles,” “conundrums” and “hints” - suggestions that, I admit, remind me of leading questions in court; questions that are discouraged as they prod (read: force or coerce) a desired answer (1965, pp. 24-25). (Funnily enough, he does not seem to connect these approaches to his observation of “the tendency of children to be lazy in using information;” a passivity which I definitely consider to be the direct result of leading questions in the classroom.) (1965, p. 25)
To varying degrees, Bruner’s six units are largely used in today’s classroom. Thankfully, however, there are much more relevant and useful resources available today to help us “to render these hopes into a workable form for real teachers in real classes” (1965, p. 23).
Bruner, J. (1965). Man: A Course of Study. Occasional Paper No. 3. National Science Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED178390.pdf
James, W. (1899). Talks to Teachers on Psychology. H. Holt. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Talks_to_Teachers_on_Psychology/tglbPruUCPsC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PP17&printsec=frontcover