Writing as a Social Activity

In "Collaborative learning and the 'Conversation of mankind,'" Kenneth Bruffee defines collaborative learning as “a form of indirect teaching in which the teachers sets the problem and organizes students to work it out collaboratively.” The aim is also political, “eliminating from education what were perceived [in the Vietnam era] as socially destructive authoritarian social forms” (pp. 636-637). Acknowledging that students’ work “tended to improve” as a result of peer-based learning—they learned not only from other students but about what it means to help others—Bruffee decries how “the powerful educative force of peer influence “largely still is … ignored and hence wasted by traditional forms of education” (p. 638).

For Bruffee, the reasons for harnessing the power of peer learning are compelling. Collaborative learning teaches students to converse in ways that are valued within an intellectual community. Such conversation not only engages students in thought and reflection but also provides a social context—“a community of status equals” (p. 642)— that prepares them for future membership in professional communities and for engagement in what Richard Rorty calls “normal discourse.” Finally, peer learning challenges the notion that knowledge originates from designated experts. Rather, “to learn is to work collaboratively to establish and maintain knowledge among a community of knowledgeable peers” (p. 646). Indeed, peer learning reflects professional, particularly scientific, practices by defining and creating knowledge as a social construct, as a process of negotiating values.

Yet perhaps paradoxically, inculcating students into “normal discourse” opens up possibilities for “abnormal discourse.” Peer learning doesn’t set out to teach abnormal discourse. But, suggests Bruffee, it offers tools and practices that students can lay aside in order to generate new knowledge and set about “reconstituting knowledge communities in more satisfactory ways” (p. 648). Bruffee strongly implies that student writing becomes a form of knowledge only when it’s shared with a community of peers: when it’s part of a social context larger and more meaningful than a transaction between student and teacher.

Bruffee, K. A. (1984). Collaborative learning and the "Conversation of mankind." College English 46 (7): 635-652.