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Jerome Bruner on Concept Attainment Strategies

Jerome S. Bruner, Jacqueline J. Goodnow, and the late George A. Austin developed the idea of concept attainment in their book A Study of Thinking (1956).  Here I report on the contributions of Jerome S. Bruner with regard to concept attainment.  Dr. Bruner, a pyschologist and educator at the New York University Law School, was a pioneer in the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology as well as a prime mover in the educational reform movement in the 1960s.  Bruner’s interest in the mind has led him into several avenues of inquiry on how the mind works.  He uses a multidisciplinary approach, combining anthropology, psychology, linquistics, and literary theory, to explore how enculturation affects the formation of institutions – particularly education and more recently law.  Bruner’s primary contribution to education fall within the arena of the information processing models – the models designed to help students acquire and operate on data.  His primary advance in this area pertains to the development and use of Concept Attainment in curriculum development.

Concept Attainment, a close relative to inductive thinking (Joyce and Weil 1967:15), focuses on the decision-making and categorization processes leading up to the creation and understanding of a concept.  A concept is “the network of inferences that are or may be set into play by an act of categorization” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin 1956:244).  The pattern of decisions leading to concept attainment involve the following five general factors:

1) the definition of task;
2) the nature of the examples encountered;
3) the nature of validation procedures;
4) the consequences of specific categorizations; and
5) the nature of imposed restrictions.

Following, I provide an example of how each of these general factors interrelate and compose concept attainment. Your name is Marisol and you are from Octunich, a small Mayan town located in the interior of the Yucatan, Mexico.  However, you find yourself visiting the College of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the hopes of pursuing a degree in Ecotourism and Business Management. 

Your task is to identify all the properties associated with the group of people who are university professors.  Your guide, Jennifer, introduces you to several professors from the College of Business and the Law School.  Most of the male professors wear black shoes, suits and a tie, and are of moderate height.  The female professors also wear black shoes, suits or neatly pressed, plain colored, two piece clothes.  The female professors are much shorter than the male professors but much bigger than yourself.  Both the female and male professors have short hair and are neatly shaven.

After spending a day visiting and meeting several of the Law and Business Professors, you think you have a good idea what a university professor looks like.  However, late in the afternoon, you decide to visit the University Museum and talk with a few Anthropology Professors who have conducted research in Octunich. 

Upon entering the Department of Anthropology, it appears as if there are no professors in sight.  Everyone is wearing jeans or khakis and sneakers or sandals.  The females all have more colorful outfits whereas the males have the same button down shirts as the Law and Business Professors.  However, the males do not necessarily tuck their shirts in.  Additionally, many of the females have long hair and the males have a higher tendency of facial hair.  Jennifer reveals that many of these individuals are professors as well. 

You find yourself in a quandary in that your whole concept of what a university professor should look like seems to need a makeover.  Additionally, you realize appearance is not necessarily a good indicator of a university professor.  You find yourself repositioning how to approach this concept of the university professor.  Moreover, you can feel the butterflies in your stomach because tomorrow you are on your own. 

From the latter example, it is interesting to note the domino affect of how numerous decisions regarding the categorization processes lead you down one road of concept attainment.  The path you take may or may not lead to the understanding necessary to proceed to the next concept. 

Bruner et al (1956) examined many instances of concept attainment in an effort to devise regularities in the decision-making processes.  The regularities are what he refers to as strategies or “a pattern of decisions in the acquisition, retention, and utilization of information that serves to meet certain objectives” (Bruner et al 1956).  Following a set strategic plan for concept attainment insures the following:

  1. The concept will be attained after minimum number of encounters with relevant instances;
  2. A concept will be attained with certainty, regardless of the number of instances one must test en route to attainment;
  3. Minimize the amount of strain on guessing and memorization while guaranteeing a concept will be attained;
  4. To minimize the number of wrong categorizations prior to attaining a concept (Bruner et al 1956).

The Concept Attainment approach then uses positive and negative exemplars or cues to guide categorization into significant groups.  This in turn, results in somewhat of a guided tour of the concept therefore guaranteeing the latter objectives.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), as Bruner et al (1956) pointed out in A Study of Thinking, individuals often call on the past relevance of cues.  In this case, an individual is working with familiar cues but unfamiliar categories.  Consequently, a transmission of misinformation and a symbolic misfire results in a path similar to that one taken by Marisol.  As a result, the wrong categorizations and resulting concept is attained. Numerous classifications and decisions affect how each individual proceeds to the next factor.  Consequently, the absolute understanding of a concept differs from individual to individual, and subsequently from culture to culture.  Concept attainment involves not only the decision-making processes involved with categorization but it also incorporates a personalized historical experience of each student or individual.

Miscommunications in concept attainment could be a drawback to the educational process in that certain goals and educational standards might not get met.  However, I see it as an advantage in the advent and acceptance of the multicultural classroom.  Using the strategies of concept attainment can augment the cultural differences while also meeting institutional educational goals and standards.  Moreover, I envision the Web Quest as a way to integrate the goals of concept attainment with multicultural preservation. 
A Web Quest similar to the strategies of concept attainment includes task definition, process, resources, evaluation, and conclusion.  A Web Quest could incorporate the use of positive and negative exemplars to guide the categorization process.  However, given the various backgrounds both intellectually and culturally of the students, the conclusion and/or presentation and understanding of the concept could preserve the interesting differences and similarities between students. 

In conclusion, Concept Attainment Strategies in general are very effective tools for imparting a large body of information consisting of numerous interrelated concepts.  It requires the teacher to serve as a guide through the various concepts as well as an evaluator of the effectiveness of such an approach.  I do not know the impact of such an approach on current classroom practice but I would imagine it positive.  I look forward to integrating  concept attainment strategies with new innovations in educational technology. 


Bruner, J.S., Goodnow, J.J. & Austin, G.A. (1956) A Study of Thinking.  Chapman & Hall, Limited.  London.