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?