Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on the Act of Discovery and the Key to True Learning
“Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.”
By Maria Popova
I’ve always held the art of discovery in higher regard than the art of invention. Rather than creating something that didn’t previously exist, to discover is to uncover what has always been there but had remained hidden from view — to shine a light on a corner of the world until now shrouded in the darkness of not-knowing. Given our severe sensorial and cognitive blinders, which ensure that the vast majority of reality remains hidden from our view, any act of discovery is therefore a remarkable feat.
It is also a supreme challenge to our quintessential compulsion for certainty. “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery,” the great French physiologist Claude Bernard asserted. But this joy of discovery, far from an unmerited grace, is the product of a delicate intellectual art that requires learning to dance with the unknown in such a way as to reveal its knowables while embracing its perennial unknowables.
How to master that art is what the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016) — who shaped the evolution of cognitive psychology and learning theory — explores in a magnificent essay titled “The Act of Discovery.” Found in his 1962 collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the source of Bruner’s timeless wisdom on the six essential conditions for creativity, how we limit our happiness, and the four psychological pillars of art — the essay examines the essential attitudes and cognitive skills that power the process of true learning and fruitful ideation.
Bruner, who at 100 remains actively engaged in intellectual life, writes:
Discovery, like surprise, favors the well-prepared mind.
Discovery … is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights. It may well be that an additional fact or shred of evidence makes this larger transformation possible. But it is often not even dependent on new information.
For the person to search out and find regularities and relationships in his environment, he must either come armed with an expectancy that there will be something to find or be aroused to such an expectancy so that he may devise ways of searching and finding. One of the chief enemies of search is the assumption that there is nothing one can find in the environment by way of regularity or relationship.
Three decades after trailblazing educator Abraham Flexner argued for the usefulness of useless information, Bruner echoes Buckminster Fuller’s admonition against the extreme specialization of knowledge and argues that the art of discovery is the art of traversing the abyss between the irrelevant and the potentially relevant on a tightrope of information-discernment:
Emphasis on discovery in learning has precisely the effect on the learner of leading him to be a constructionist, to organize what he is encountering in a matter not only designated to discover regularity an relatedness, but also to avoid the kind of information drift that fails to keep account of the uses to which information might have to be put.
Half a century before modern psychologists examined how to cultivate a healthy relationship with achievement and outlined the life-shaping dichotomy between the “growth” and the “fixed” mindsets, Bruner addresses the same concepts; he argues that mastering the art of discovery helps the learner shift from extrinsic motives — those fixed systems based on reward and punishment, like standardized tests — to intrinsic ones:
To the degree that one is able to approach learning as a task of discovering something rather than “learning about” it, to that degree there will be a tendency for the child to work with the autonomy of self-reward, or, more properly, be rewarded by discovery itself.
When learning leads only to pellets of this or that in the short run rather than to mastery in the long run, then behavior can be readily “shaped” by extrinsic rewards. But when behavior becomes more extended and competence-oriented, it comes under the control of more complex cognitive structures and operates more from the inside out.
Bruner considers what disposition is most fruitful to the art of discovery:
Several activities and attitudes … appear to go with inquiry and research. These have to do with the process of trying to find out something and, though their presence is no guarantee that the product will be a great discovery, their absence is likely to lead to awkwardness or aridity or confusion.
He illustrates those attitudes with what is perhaps the most insightful lens on problem-solving ever crafted — the English philosopher Thomas Dewar Weldon’s distinction between difficulties, puzzles, and problems. Bruner synthesizes:
We solve a problem or make a discovery when we impose a puzzle form on a difficulty to convert it into a problem that can be solved in such a way that it gets us where we want to be. That is to say, we recast the difficulty into a form that we know how to work with — then we work it. Much of what we speak of as discovery consists of knowing how to impose a workable kind of form on various kinds of difficulties. A small but crucial part of discovery of the highest order is to invent and develop effective models or “puzzle forms.” It is in this area that they truly powerful mind shines.
The real question, Bruner argues, is how to teach and train people for this model-invention of puzzle-forms. But what he considers in the context of children’s education is equally true in the broader context of learning the essential life-skills that help us make up our minds in order to navigate the most puzzling labyrinths of existence, from whether to explore the possibility of a new relationship to whether it’s time to quit a longtime job:
How, for instance, do we teach a child to cut his losses but at the same time to be persistent in trying out an idea; to risk forming an early hunch without at the same time formulating one so early and with so little evidence that he is stuck with it while he waits for appropriate evidence to materialize; to pose good testable guesses that are neither too brittle nor to sinuously incorrigible? … I have never seen anybody improve in the art and technique of inquiry by any means other than engaging in inquiry.
More than half a century later, On Knowing remains one of the most illuminating books ever published. Sample it further with Bruner’s ideas on myth and identity and the art of “effective surprise,” then see John Dewey on mastering the art of reflection and how to harness our natural curiosity.
Published October 1, 2015