The Blind Leading the Blind

As we can see throughout these readings, collaborative learning is as much about discourse communities as it is about anything else. The interaction between the idea of a discourse community and the idea of collaborative learning can be a problematic one, I think, especially with this question that Bruffee raises: “How can student peers, who are not themselves members of the knowledge communities they hope to enter, help other students to enter those communities? Isn’t collaborative learning the blind leading the blind?” (407). (I am assuming in my thinking that there is a negligible difference between a “knowledge community” and a discourse community; I’d welcome any clarifying distinctions!) The issue is one of entrance, acceptance, and—dare I say—being “right.”

Bruffee’s answer to the question that he raises is unsatisfactory for me, and I frankly have trouble calling it an answer at all. His response—to the issue of access to knowledge communities outside the local group—is that knowledge is socially constructed, not located outside the human, so it is less the blind leading the blind (down a path toward knowledge) and more the individuals constructing a path together: “Knowledge is an artifact created by a community of knowledgeable peers…that learning is a social and not an individual process” (Bruffee 407, emphasis added). That’s his response. It’s all well and good, but I don’t think he’s really addressing the problem of the question. How do peers become knowledgeable peers? How do we prevent collaborative miseducation? You can still go in a “wrong” direction with a group of peers; in Bruffee’s essay the location of “right” and “wrong” has merely changed from in the “real world” to the space of social relations that extend beyond your local group. A student is still “blind,” to continue with the metaphor. It all depends on what falls in the student’s blind spot, not the fact that a student is blind at all; in fact, we all have blind spots, gaps in understanding of how particular communities work to create knowledge.

Earlier, Bruffee answers this question in what may be a contradictory way. He writes that, yes, students working together can cover each other’s blind spots, but “Students are especially likely to master that discourse collaboratively if their conversation is structured indirectly by the task or problem that a member of the new discourse community (the teacher) has judiciously designed” (405). Here we no longer have a group of correcting, knowledgeable peers; we have a mentor who facilitates access. Might this quote be rephrased as (in a purpose-setting question for the teacher) how do I structure a problem/prompt/situation so that the students may most effectively perceive and use the rules of the target community? The notion that the teacher is necessary seems to go against big focus on the power of peers and knowledgeable peers on pp. 406-7.  What’s his deal?

Q: We might say that it is the role of the teacher to be a “mentor,” someone who can say this or that response to a problem would be meaningful in the target discourse/knowledge community. What are the power dynamics of such a relationship? How do our other readings for today approach the role of the teacher? I’m thinking particularly of Trimbur’s example on pp. 454-5. To what communities or knowledge is he facilitating student access?

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4 thoughts on “The Blind Leading the Blind

  1. The more I think about this, I don’t think we can prevent “collaborative miseducation” at all. On the other hand, I’m of the opinion (I think, at least) that collaborative and constructivist pedagogy is less likely to miseducate than a more typical sage on the stage approach. Maybe it’s a question of degree, not of avoiding all miseducation.

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  2. “How do we prevent miseducation” also has me thinking. Instead of preventing it, what if we use it as an advantage by turning it into a learning tool itself? May times in my class, I show students what “not” to do in comparison of what they should be doing. This approach will not work all of the time but I think it may in this case. If we can see and understand what is causing the miscommunication, and if one (or one group since we talking collaborative learning) recognize that they are veering down a wrong path or a little off track, then why not point out, or figure out what is going wrong and try to pin point what went wrong and how one arrived to that point? Of course, miseducation is bound to happen, and I also agree that it is the teachers role to guide or sway the individual/group back on path if distracted but what if we use miseducation as an advantage? Or just another way of coming to a conclusion?

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  3. Tyler, your “miseducation question” has also caused much mental activity on my part.

    I think it does help, as Adam pointed out, to think about minimizing the degree to which it happens.

    Recognizing the wrong path is sometimes tricky to do, but–as Heather pointed out–can be excellent teaching moments.

    I had this in the back of my head as my composition classes did peer review today. At the last minute, I changed the format. Here are the instructions I gave my students:

    Peer Review Guidelines:
    Find a partner who is not in your writing group.
    Sit so that you can each read your paper.
    Read your own paper aloud to your partner.
    After each paragraph, stop and discuss your writing. The listener/peer reviewer can be taking notes on the worksheet. [a guided peer review worksheet asking to offer strengths and advice for different sections/components of the paper]
    After reading both papers, fully fill out the peer review worksheet. [the strengths and advice]
    If you still have time, complete Part I individually. [a self-guided review of their own paper]

    As I was walking around the classroom, I was able to hear the thought processes of my students, allowing me to correct some miseducation (mainly citation issues) and to interact more with their writing and writing processes. Both the students and I walked away with a better understanding of where the other was at.

    After doing completing the peer review (which was more like a guided discussion), I asked my students to debrief in their writing group (I have students in sustained writing groups for each major assignment in order to build a sense of community and continuity in discussing their papers) using the following questions as a guide.

    Peer Review Debriefing:

    What was most helpful about this exercise?
    What was least helpful?

    What parts of the paper did you notice were strongest?
    What parts needed more work?

    Any particularly helpful strategies that you saw in someone’s paper?
    Any unique or insightful sources (beyond the book and the advertisement) that you saw?
    Unique or insightful “finds” of ethos, pathos, logos, or logical fallacies?

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