March 21, 2005

Bruffee: "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'"

By understanding the rationale behind collaborative learning, Kenneth A. Bruffee hopes, in his "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind,'" that teachers, many of whom may be unsure about the practice, will see the value of collaborative learning in their classrooms.

Bruffee starts by discussing the nature of thought and knowledge. He cites Michael Oakeshott and Clifford Geertz, who, like Vygotski, believe that human thought is related causally to social conversation: that is, our private thoughts spring from our public interactions with others. Bruffee goes on to cite others from a variety of fields. Scientist Thomas Kuhn states that knowledge is not "merely relative," or "what any one of us says it is. Knowledge is maintained and established by communities of knowledgeable peers." Philosopher Richard Rorty believes that to understand any kind of knowledge, "we must understand how knowledge is established and maintained in the 'normal discourse' of communities of knowledgeable peers." Finally, literary critic Stanley Fish goes as far as to say that not only is knowledge a product of our social conversations, but so too are our feelings and intuitions.

Bruffee agrees with these thinkers and concludes, "To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively--that is, we must learn to converse well" and states, "Not to have mastered the normal discourse of a discipline, no matter how many 'facts' or data one may know, is not to be knowledgeable in that discipline." Our task as teachers then, he says, must be to engage students in conversations with each other and to encourage their conversations to sound like what Rorty calls "normal discourse." This means a conversation which everyone in the discourse community would define as "rational."

Bruffee sees the collaborative learning classroom as the ideal environment which will provide the kind of social context in which normal discourse can occur. Bruffee argues that, for instance, in a peer writing group, the editing work students are doing isn't what's important, it's the conversation they have while they work, a conversation about the assignment, about writing in general.

In addition to providing a place for normal discourse, Bruffee also states that itís where the equally important "abnormal" discourse can occur. Abnormal discourse can be seen, according to Rorty, as "kooky" or "revolutionary" depending on whether or not the speaker can persuade others of her ideas. Abnormal discourse is important because it helps us challenge the authority of knowledge that may be unproductive; it helps us change when we need to. As teachers, Bruffee claims, we need to teach the tools of normal discourse while at the same time leave room and permission for abnormal discourse to occur. As Bruffee puts it, we must be both "conservators and agents of change."

Using collaborative learning may be an uncomfortable pedagogical shift for some teachers who are used to being the expert because of their content mastery. Bruffee claims that in a collaborative learning environment, teachers, instead, have to view themselves as experts in how to think, speak and write in a discourse community. Our ultimate charge is to help our students access our discourse community, and to guide them through the "reculturation" process--where they figure out how to place this new community in the context of the rest of their identities--as they do so.


Bruffee's essay seems to intersect both Barlomae and Elbow. Bartholomae would agree with Bruffee when he says that students know something "only when they can explain it in writing to the satisfaction of the community of their knowledgeable peers." And Elbow would agree with the ultimate importance of the conversation that occurs in collaborative learning. He would also applaud Bruffee for trusting students to figure out how to access an unfamiliar discourse community together, and concur with Bruffee's description of the teacher's most important role as a discourse guide, rather than content expert. Bruffee's description of the benefits of collaborative learning also ties in well with both the believing game: "We socially justify belief when we explain to others why one way of understanding how the world hangs together seems to us preferable to other ways of understanding," and the doubting game: "We establish knowledge or justify belief collaboratively by challenging each other's biases and presuppositions".

Posted by gust0124 at March 21, 2005 10:34 PM