Jerome S. Bruner, whose theories about perception, child development and learning informed education policy for generations and helped launch the modern study of creative problem solving, known as the cognitive revolution, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 100.
His death was confirmed by his partner, Eleanor M. Fox.
Dr. Bruner was a researcher at Harvard in the 1940s when he became impatient with behaviorism, then a widely held theory, which viewed learning in terms of stimulus and response: the chime of a bell before mealtime and salivation, in Ivan Pavlov’s famous dog experiments.
Dr. Bruner believed that behaviorism, rooted in animal experiments, ignored many dimensions of human mental experience. In one 1947 experiment, he found that children from low-income households perceived a coin to be larger than it actually was — their desires apparently shaping not only their thinking but also the physical dimensions of what they saw.
In subsequent work, he argued that the mind is not a passive learner — not a stimulus-response machine — but an active one, bringing a full complement of motives, instincts and intentions to shape comprehension, as well as perception. His writings — in particular the book “A Study of Thinking” (1956), written with Jacqueline J. Goodnow and George A. Austin — inspired a generation of psychologists and helped break the hold of behaviorism on the field.
To build a more complete theory, he and the experimentalist George A. Miller, a Harvard colleague, founded the Center for Cognitive Studies, which supported investigation into the inner workings of human thought.
Much later, this shift in focus from behavior to information processing came to be known as the cognitive revolution.
“He was a psychologist of possibilities,” said Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. “He opened one door of the mind after another, and then moved on to something different.”
Dr. Gardner added, “He was the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey — and there is no one like him today.”
Dr. Bruner’s work made him a sought-after expert on development and education. In the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space, officials and prominent educators called for a deeper commitment to education, particularly in the sciences.
In 1959, federal science agencies convened a meeting of top scholars at Woods Hole, in Massachusetts, to brainstorm about possible reforms. Dr. Bruner, who ran the meeting, summarized participants’ views in “The Process of Education” (1960), a book that quickly became a landmark text in education reform and theory.
“We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any age of development,” Dr. Bruner wrote, in what would become one of the most widely quoted lines in education circles.
One idea that emerged from the meeting was the “spiral curriculum,” in which teachers introduce students to topics early, in age-appropriate language, and revisit the same subjects in subsequent years, adding depth and complexity. Many school districts have incorporated that approach, beginning in grade school.
Later, Dr. Bruner drew on his experience at Woods Hole to help design Head Start, the federal program introduced in 1965 to improve preschool development.
In 1972, Dr. Bruner took a position at Oxford University, where, always intellectually restless, he began arguing that cognitive psychology should be broadened to include narrative construction and culture, which also shape the strategies people use to make sense of the world.
“Through Jerome Bruner, the cognitive revolution hit educational thinking, in the United States and around the world,” said Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a former student of his.
Jerome Seymour Bruner was born in Manhattan on Oct. 1, 1915, the youngest of three children of Herman and Rose Bruner, who had immigrated from Poland. His father worked as a watchmaker, among other jobs, and his mother managed the household. He also had an older half brother.
Born blind because of cataracts, he had an experimental operation to restore his vision at age 2. The memory of that explosion of sight and color never left him, friends said, and guided his later thinking about how the mind shapes perception. So, too, did social adaptation: His father died when Jerome was 12, and his mother moved the family to Florida, where he attended a series of high schools.
Dr. Bruner graduated from Duke University with a degree in psychology in 1937 before entering a doctoral program at Harvard, where he met his first wife, Katherine Frost. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his second marriage. He was predeceased by his third wife, Carol Feldman.
Besides Dr. Fox, a professor at New York University School of Law, Dr. Bruner is survived by a son, Whitley, and a daughter, Jane Bruner Mullane, both from his first marriage, as well as three grandchildren.
Dr. Bruner wrote or co-wrote a dozen influential books and won a long list of awards in psychology and education. In the 1990s, he became an educational ambassador of sorts, working with preschools in Reggio Emilia, an Italian town near Bologna, and elsewhere. A number of preschools around the world use the Reggio Emilia approach, inspired by Dr. Bruner’s work there.
He finished his career at N.Y.U. as a law professor, using his ideas about thinking, culture and storytelling to analyze legal reasoning and punishment. He retired in 2013.
“He was an anthropologist, really, never comfortable in one field or with one theory,” Dr. Fox said. “He was always looking for broader connections.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of times Jerome S. Bruner was divorced. Dr. Bruner was divorced twice; his third wife died.