Bruner’s 3 steps of learning in a spiral curriculum

Jerome S. Bruner, was an American psychologist who is best known for his contributions to cognitive and developmental psychology. According to Bruner children actively engage with learning in a way that corresponds to the level of their cognitive development. Therefore, in order to maximise the learning experience, educators should focus on optimising the mode of presentation, rather than the content that is being taught. Bruner believed that children can learn complex topics, and that even adult learners can learn new concepts, if the presentation method is arranged in three stages: the enactive, iconic and symbolic. Read on to find out how it works.

The full story
bruner learning theory

Jerome Bruner’s Theory of Development is based on the assumption that we learn best when we go from concrete to abstract in a three-step process: First comes hands-on “Action”, then learning with “Images” and finally students transform what they’ve learned into “Language”. Throughout the experience, we constantly revisit previously learned topics while teachers provide carefully structured guidance along the way. And it seems to work.

reforming education

In the 1980s, the Singaporean government decided to stop importing foreign textbooks and, instead, build the world’s best math curriculum from scratch. Since that time, Singaporeans study fewer concepts with greater detail, following Bruner’s guideline. Before we learn how well this worked out, let’s go through each step of the theory with an example:

Enactive Representation
bruner enactive presentation

First, we learn through enactive representation. This happens in hands-on experiences, ideally with real-world applications. To divide 4 by 2, two students learn to cut a cake into 4 slices, so each can eat one now and bring one home later.

Iconic Representation
bruner iconic representation

Step two is iconic representation. We now link our memories of the experience to iconic pictures. Students are asked to draw a cake that was cut into four pieces.

Symbolic Representation
bruner symbolic representation

Last comes Symbolic Representation. We now use the images we internalized earlier and turn them into abstract language, such as mathematical symbols. Using a little bit of retrospection, we can easily solve the problem.

symbolic language

This last phase is also called language-based because we are really just learning the right words and symbols to express our thoughts. The actual math knowledge was acquired much earlier through hands-on experiences.

spiral curriculum

Bruner, therefore, advocated for the use of a spiral curriculum with continuous repetition of the same fundamental ideas. The curriculum is comprised of three characteristics :
– Students revisit the same topic at regular intervals
– The complexity of the topic increases with each revisit
– The new learning has a relationship with previous learning

bruner scaffolding

Teachers also use scaffolding, a term coined by Bruner. Teachers do this by structuring activities, based on students’ existing knowledge and in a way that helps them to reach the desired learning outcome. The teacher first demonstrates the process as the student watches. Then the teacher lets the student have a go, steps back, and offers support and feedback when needed.


Today, by the way, Singapore’s fourth and eighth graders are the world’s best in both mathematics and science, and Singapore’s math curriculum is copied by educators from around the world.

Jerome Bruner
intellectually honest teaching

Jerome Bruner was born blind in New York City in 1915. At age two, modern medicine restored his vision. Later he returned the favor by becoming a pioneer in cognitive development. He believed that “any subject can be taught in an intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development”.

“Blessings from Taiwan. Thank you for your video so I can teach my students BETTER than yesterday!”

Teacher David- -Eat, Play, Learn


Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

classroom exercise

We know Bruner’s theory is highly efficient for maths, but do you think you could make your subject more understandable by following Bruner’s ideas? Try it out!

For the next new topic you cover, try to follow Bruner’s three stages as you structure your classes. If this is new for you and your class, check in with your students regularly to see they are on track and tailor the duration of each stage to their needs.