Bruner’s theory of how children construct knowledge involves three basic modes of instruction.
In their very early years, young children rely extensively upon enactive modes to learn. As a child learns to roll over, sit up or walk, they are learning to do so through their own actions. While this mode is present in people of all ages it is more dominant when a person is young. An example of this dominance is the way a young person can often learn to play a musical instrument more quickly than an older person.
Iconic representation normally becomes dominant during the next stage of childhood years. Children learn to understand what pictures and diagrams are and how to do arithmetic using numbers and without counting objects.
Later – usually around adolescence - the symbolic mode of learning becomes most dominant. Students can understand and work with concepts that are abstract.
According to Bruner, developmental growth involves mastering each of the increasingly more complex modes - enactive to iconic to symbolic. Mastering this incorporates becoming more skilled in translating between each mode. An example of this sort of translation could be a discussion (symbolic mode) of what students had learned from an experiment (iconic mode).
An implication of Bruner’s developmental theories is that children should be provided with study materials, activities, and tools that are matched to and capitalise on their developing cognitive capabilities. For example, a teacher wanting to help children learn about dinosaurs could use all three modes. Students could be asked to construct models of dinosaurs (enactive); they might watch a film about, or involving, dinosaurs (iconic); or they could consult reference texts and then discuss their findings (symbolic).