Oct 31

The phrase “Collaborative Learning” gives me flashbacks to the third grade, when I spent the majority of my reading periods trapped in a coat closet the size of my current miniscule East Village apartment teaching little Travis C. to read. When I protested, my teacher argued that it would be as good for me as it would be for Travis: My reading skills and patience would grow stronger, while Travis would learn the basics of sounding out words. Instead of giving me more advanced material to chew through, my task was now to spend thirty minutes a day with this poor boy while the rest of the class, consisting of average readers, got to enjoy the assigned books. I complained to the teacher. My parents chimed in. Travis mostly drooled. We ended up moving before the issue was resolved.

Maybe this scarring experience is the reason I still cringe at the idea of group work, for as a student I’ve yet to have an experience convincing me of its advantages. I’ve always enjoyed interaction with the teacher – even if I’m just being talked at – because he or she is the trained and therefore more informed professional, for what it’s worth (and I like being the one to decide what it is indeed worth). I like class discussions because I can hear more opinions, and I can hear how they’re fielded by other students and moderated by the teacher. This doesn’t happen in group reading and conversation. I don’t think academic learning necessarily has anything to do with the real world, but those who do might even argue that the classroom (as opposed to the small group) discussion format leads to better preparation for learning to be heard and to be diplomatic in situations like board meetings and conferences.

Of course in light of the massive class sizes of 50+ mentioned in Bruffee’s essay, collaborative reading and discussion could potentially produce better results than a lecture given to an enormous half-dazed audience. Misleading, though, is the supposition that by implementing the collaborative learning approach in the classroom, the teacher may use peer interaction as the main source of instruction. A common problem I have seen as a student is that [my] group to teacher contact is almost always as diluted as my individual contact with the teacher when he or she is in front of the entire class, and it’s certainly briefer. As a teacher, I’ve seen that some groups benefit greatly from small group discussions, but with group work it is harder (as a teacher) to identify the individuals who are less prepared and engaged. It is also harder to see which students who may truly wish to engage are suffering at the hands of their unprepared or simply dull classmates. In the best of cases, it’s still the blind leading the blind: they’ll get there eventually, but they’ll get there much faster if somebody who can see would just take their arm. The readings mention few ways around the issue of limited student/teacher time: Bruffee suggests making rounds to work with groups “intensively” and “directively”. This sounds great in practice, but I have never had a teacher who uses group work as instruction actually meet these standards or execute anything of the sort effectively. Usually the teacher just passes by and more or less asks how things are going. Polite and awkward smiling ensues. In my classroom, I use group work for brief but frequent exercises: my class is small, though, so I haven’t had to find a way to implement it  as a necessity because there is not enough of me to go around.

Howard’s essay, Collaborative Pedagogy, basically a reading on Bruffee with the aim of proposing group writing strategies, starts with Bruffee’s disturbing crackpot definition of writing, which he sees as “internalized conversation” and “internalized public and social talk made public again”. So much for writing for self-discovery. So much as well for writing to make the connection between internalized conversation and internalized public and social talk and internal feelings, which may or may not be a product of these things. Howard’s students may never know. Not only does Bruffee’s definition undermine the entire premise for talk therapy, which is that verbalizing thoughts is different to doing anything else with them (After all, does anybody actually get advice from their therapist that they can’t either think of themselves or find online?), but it deprives students of any mental space required to organize their thoughts. While I understand that anything anybody writes or even says is the product of outside influences, I still think students should be allowed the mental space to sort out their thoughts.

This leads me to one last point, which is to address what writing as a process seems to imply for some of the people we read this week: I agree that writing is a process, and collaboration is constructive insofar as it’s useful as a writer to receive thoughtful peer reviews. But to then construe writing as a process that can be entirely worked through in a group setting, as though Writing has a tangible goal that might allow for collaboration and group vision, is taking things a little too far. I understand why engineers, wanting to build a functioning bridge that will objectively meet cost, safety and efficiency guidelines, might work on models collaboratively, or why doctors might consult on a difficult diagnosis so that it is accurate. But as long as there is no such thing as a formula for the perfect paper, or an ideal outcome, I think it is radical to say that writing collaboratively can lead to anything besides a headache. From a didactical standpoint, I think people need to know what they think about something (ideally by writing about it) before they start to collaborate with others on the topic. As a stretch, a collaborative paper could be useful as a post-writing assignment as a way of letting a group of students produce a sole paper that converses with the differing papers of the group members, therefore allowing them to practice engaging with and writing about each other’s papers. Still, on a visceral level, I can’t imagine anything more horrific than group writing.

Works Cited:

Bruffee, Kenneth A.  “Collaborative Learning: Some Practical Models”  College English. 34.5 (Feb. 1973): 634-643.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Collaborative Pedagogy” in Tate, Gary, Amy Rupiper, Kurt Schick. A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. New York: Oxford UP, 2001.

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2 comments so far

  1. 1 Yair Solan
    12:10 am - 11-2-2011

    I have similar apprehensions about collaborate learning, Hillary, though I suppose that depends on the specific kind of collaborative practices we’re talking about. On the one hand, there’s feedback through collaboration (peer review workshops) which – even allowing for the differences in “criteria and stances in judging student work” (309) that Thomas Newkirk observes between teachers and students – this is still the type of collaborate activity I am most comfortable with in the classroom, and the one I see as most beneficial to students.

    Collaborative learning and collaborative writing, however, are trickier tasks to manage – though I can’t really say I’ve tackled collaborative learning in my class as Bruffee describes it, where students teach each other the material (honestly, I do not see that as important as any of the other collaborative activities mentioned in the readings this week.) One activity I did with my class earlier in the semester, however, revealed to me the pitfalls of collaborative writing. I had students watch a clip from a film and work together to write one paragraph on it using the PIE paragraph format (while making sure to use a course reading as evidence). The activity garnered mixed results, mainly because of the difficulty my students had in producing a single piece of writing as a group (which also made the activity take longer than it really should have). I would not necessary abandon this activity next semester, but perhaps would make sure that I use such collaborative writing activities pretty sparingly in my class – and only with assignments which would generate brief and rather concise texts. Nonetheless, I am always somewhat wary of these group activities, because it becomes fairly obvious that a lot of the time one or two strong students seem to be carrying weaker ones through the assignments (and this does not often turn into a learning experience for the latter, as far as I can tell). While this issue is acknowledged in this week’s readings, I had hoped they would provide more advice about how to manage group activities in this way (so that each student is pulling their weight, so to speak) – perhaps this is another reason why I favor peer workshops over most other kinds of collaborative activities, as I feel that one-on-one peer workshops encourage students to be more active readers and writers, whereas larger group activities might give some students the opportunity to fade into the background, if that is already their tendency.

  2. 2 Frances Tran
    4:00 am - 11-2-2011


    Thanks for a great post! I completely understand your reservations about group work. I have never been fond of it in the past and you raise some really good points about why it may be ineffective in some cases. I definitely find myself sometimes reverting to the “how’s it going?” question that does produce those awkward smiles when I circulate among the separate groups in my class. But I have also learned from teaching these last few months that I need to give my students some time to think through the activity and get started on it before I begin making my rounds. (I usually occupy myself by writing their homework on the board or do some other kind of busy work). Also, it helps to have more specific questions about the activity at hand and some suggestions of how to complete it rather than opening with “How’s it going?”

    I have actually found myself relying on group work a lot more than I thought I would this semester. I find that it gives students a break from hearing me lecture about a text and enables them to share their ideas with their peers before reporting back to the class. Of course, I am definitely not of the mind that “everything goes” in a class discussion. I do find myself pushing my students to think more carefully about their answers to my questions and even correcting some of their really bizarre interpretations of course reading materials.

    Bruffee’s article on “Collaborative Learning: Some Practical Models,” however, got me really interested in the idea of creating “collaborative groups” that will allow students to work closely together with one another throughout the semester. It also reminded me of a former class I took where this model was implemented very successfully. I worked with about five students and we were responsible for doing group presentations and collaborative blog posts throughout the semester, which definitely got us to know each other very well. In fact, I think that the numerous group activities I have been implementing this semester has allowed certain students to become more comfortable working with one another and has made communication between them a lot easier. The only thing that does worry me about this model, as you mention above, is how it may unfairly stick certain students with the brunt of the work and also prevent us as teachers from recognizing those students who are less prepared. I am definitely worried that some might fall between the cracks when the same students are presenting again and again.

    On a final note, I just wanted to echo your thoughts and horror at the idea of group writing. Although I am in favor of collaborative work especially when trying to get students to understand a difficult text, I think that in a first-year writing course, group writing would be utter suicide. While some lazier students would be more than happy to let those who are more engaged take over the work, I think that a composition class should work towards helping students improve their writing individually by providing them an opportunity to develop their own voices as writers. To do this successfully, there needs to be a balance between collaborative and individual work in the classroom and when it comes to writing, especially for formal paper assignments, that’s where I would draw the line.

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