Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge.

Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. – book reviews

Jean MacGregor

Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge by Kenneth A. Bruffee makes the compelling point that collaborative learning is the logical extension of natural learning processes (from birth onward) into formal classroom settings. Collaboration among students is much more than simply learning interdependently in classrooms and building social relationships through mutual exploration of academic matters. Collaborative learning, and the epistemological thinking Bruffee associates with it, have profound implications for our understanding of knowledge, the authority of teachers, and the teaching enterprise. We must move beyond the idea that collaborative learning is “just another arrow in a teacher’s quiver of pedagogical tricks”; rather it “requires teachers to subordinate and transform traditional teaching methods.”

For the past 20-odd years, Kenneth Bruffee has been immersed in collaborative learning as a teacher of English in his own classroom at Brooklyn College, as a co-learner with other teachers in the greater New York City area and beyond, as a designer and facilitator of peer-tutoring programs, and, ultimately, as a weaver of social constructionist philosophy into an epistemological tapestry for his work.

Bruffee has never been shy in his writings about sharing his learning with his readers. Although he risks appearing wide-eyed to those who have read extensively in the disciplines he explores, or who have more experience than he–for example, in the teaching of science or the creative use of technology–Bruffee models spirit and curiosity for those who aspire to reach beyond their intellectual horizons and move across the boundaries of their disciplines. As he disarmingly states in the introduction to his endnotes, “there is nothing very sysematic about most of the reading that informs this book. Many readers will wonder how, for goodness sake, I have not read this or that. Easy, I reply. But I regret not discovering, much less reading, everything relevant and I welcome suggestions from readers that will fill in the blanks.” One of our suggestions for filling in the blanks would be Transforming Knowledge by Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, which offers a rich exploration of our unexamined assumptions about making meanings.

Bruffee’s book is a collection of essays around a shared topic. It has a put-together quality, reflecting, at any given moment, what the author wished to explore. At the same time, Collaborative Learning is eminently readable and may be taken in discrete sections or as a whole depending upon a particular reader’s inclination and need.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a series of essays on practical matters regarding the implementation of collaborative learning. Some, like “A Basic Model of Classroom Collaboration,” offer practical advice on aspects of collaborative learning that are especially difficult for new practitioners and continue to challenge folks who have been working with collaborative learning for years. The inexperienced will sigh with relief that help has arrived; the experienced will read, with a critical eye, chapters that invite them to compare the wisdom of their practice with the good thoughts and wisdom collected here.

Part 2 explores “the broader educational and professional contexts” of collaborative learning. Bruffee draws upon the work of Rorty, Kuhn, Geertz, Vygotksy, LaTour and others to claim that social interaction and conversation constitute the learning process. Conversations of all kinds, internal and external, create and shape knowledge. Scholars, professionals, and scientists are continuously constructing and reconstructing their knowledge in interdependent communities of “knowledgeable peers.” Bruffee takes the post-modernist position that knowledge is a “nonfoundational” social construct that is “local and historically changing.” Education based on a nonfoundational understanding of knowledge challenges traditional assumptions about the essentials of a liberal education and the authority of teachers whose role is to transmit knowledge. In a nonfoundational context, the role of the teacher is to help the student join the conversation of a particular knowledge community: “Students are outsiders. They enter their classes ignorant of the community constituting language that the teacher speaks.” The practice of collaborative learning facilitates the educational process by “helping students converse with increasing facility in the language of the communities they want to join.”

According to Bruffee, “traditional academic study tends either to suppress or to sublimate the origins…of both students and teachers, in favor of the prevailing academic culture.” In fact, all students already belong to many communities of knowledgeable peers, having to do with their family lives, their religious and ethnic backgrounds, and their “clubs, gangs or cliques.” The collaborative classroom and curriculum “understand communities of all kinds, academic and nonacademic, as similar in their constitution and goals.” The conversations of collaborative learning create a bridge between communities. Collaborative groups provide students with a transition experience that helps them renegotiate their relationships in the communities to which they already belong and create new relationships in academic and disciplinary contexts.

In view of the increasingly diverse students in our classrooms, it is even more important to create such bridges. Bruffee acknowledges the complexity of multicultural issues and their challenge to higher education. He suggests that current strategies for embracing cultural pluralism–that of adding a book, a course, a requirement, or a department–fall seriously short. In Bruffee’s view, reconfiguring the canon or the content means remaining trapped in a foundational conception of knowledge, that “nothing needs to be changed in college classrooms but curriculum.” Bruffee’s curriculum would begin instead with students and their building interdependent relationships with one another as they enter the conversations of the academy.

Bruffee has displaced–or replaced–the central issue of higher education today. College teachers should not be arguing over just the “canon” (what is to be taught), but rather how we teach and how we bring the various learners and voices into the conversations of the academy. Some of the most exciting work in this regard, from our point of view, is going on in learning communities organized around interand cross-disciplinary questions regarding the central issues of our time. Here, teachers working at the boundaries of their own knowledge are learning from each other while engaging students in these same questions.

Given the scope of his vision of collaborative learning, it is disconcerting that, in a very brief appendix, Bruffee concludes with a practical matter and makes a pitch for “architecture and classroom design” more conducive to collaborative learning. While these last pages of the book raise a crucial problem, they point to only one brick in a virtual wall of impediments to collaborative learning in most colleges: the political economies of most institutions that “load” lower-division classes with enrollments of dozens and sometimes hundreds of students; course delivery structures that dish up learning experiences in fragments of two- or three-hour-long segments a week; evaluation procedures that by and large test students’ recall rather than their ability to communicate understanding; hiring and promotional practices that value teachers’ ability to transmit foundational knowledge; and the scant attention paid to developing faculty members’ ability to facilitate collaborative learning–to name a few. If Bruffee is right that our views of knowledge, knowing, and learning have changed so profoundly in the past half-century, then a lot more than classroom architecture is out of synch with emerging epistemological thinking. In dozens of encrusted ways, our colleges mirror structures that were put in place in the ’90s of a century ago.

Bruffee’s is a provocative book that invites conversation about how we were acculturated in college to think about knowledge and the authority of our own teachers; about what, in our disciplines, we understand knowledge and learning to be; about how we invite students to join us in the conversation and build their own understandings. If we agree on the value of collaborative learning and the importance of student conversation in our classes, what are the implications for what our courses cover and how they cover it? For class size? For the structure and timing of classes through a week or a term? If we agree on the value of collaborative learning, we must agree to accept a broader arena of discussion and work.

Collaborative learning is not merely what goes on in an occasional group activity. It is the transformation of the structure of a whole course. Ultimately, collaborative learning has implications as well for the organization of the entire academic program and the means by which colleges and universities are governed. Kenneth Bruffee sets some important questions before us and should stimulate us to raise even more.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group