Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Page Full of Abnormal Discourse and a Bottle Full of Gin

I just finished reading Kenneth A. Bruffee's "Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind" for the second time, and though I still basically agree with his main points about the socially constructed nature of knowledge, I am also a little worried about some of the implications of his discussion. While I appreciate that a social-constructivist view of knowledge allows us to be free of the Cartesian worldview that views knowledge as "information impressed upon the individual by some outside source" (Bruffee 92) I feel that a whole new host of problems attend the social-constructivist conception of knowledge.

Let me explain. While the pre-Cartesian model placed the source of knowledge in "the mind of God", the Cartesian model does little better, according to Bruffee, by replacing the "mind of god" with some other equally abstract external source. The social-constructivist model according to Rorty and others, transcends the limitations of the Cartesian model by placing the source of knowledge in the hands--or mouths-- of the people. In the "conversation of mankind", as it were.

Now I certainly think that knowledge is socially constructed to some extent, in fact, I even believe that the pre-humanist idea that knowledge comes from a divine source was a result of social consensus among the ruling religious class. This example--religious rulers imposing a concept of knowledge on the masses-- is exactly why I feel hesitant about advocating for social and collaborative learning practice. I definitely think that some good is gained by teaching collaboratively, and by consciously making collaboration the focus of a classroom, I have learned far more in classrooms that employ a collaborative approach than in those that adhere to the old "banking model" of education. Nevertheless, I feel that interruptions to the "normal" flow of "discourse" are even more central than Bruffee seems to suggest to keeping such an approach viable, useful, and ethical.

I would go so far as to say that unless "abnormal discourse" is the emphasis--nay, the center--of a collaborative classroom, then that classroom runs the risk of turning into little more than a place where half-informed group-think and second-rate-pseudo-intellectualism dominate. If learning is a social process, then it is vital that teachers and students alike remember the pitfalls and shortcomings of sociality; remember that sometimes in social situations the loudest voices and the hottest heads dominate the soft-spoken and the thoughtful; remember that charisma and intelligence do not always go hand in hand, and remember that communication and understanding are related, but ultimately distinct spheres.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Keith Sawyer refreshes the stale metaphor of the classroom as performance by tweaking that metaphor to conceive of the classroom as improvisational performance. Adding the element of improv, not just to the teacher's plan (or lack thereof) but also to the model of interaction between teacher and students, accommodates social construction and dialogism.

And the improvisational performance metaphor works, not just as a way to talk about what teacher's and students do in the classroom, but also as a way to construct lesson plans and as a general guide to one's teaching practices. I find Sawyer's discussion particularly convincing when he talks about the classroom conversation as a sort of improvisational performance in which both students and teachers participate. Why do I find this convincing? Well, because it mirrors experiences I have had in classes--and those experiences were among the most rewarding I have had as a student. I think that improvisation and collaboration are what make writing workshops so fun (and instructive), and it's no accident that peer groups (a common technique used in composition courses at HSU) are reminiscent of the creative writing workshops I have attended.

As Sawyer warns, the skills needed to effectively lead an improvisational classroom may not come automatically to the beginning teacher. As I look ahead to teaching my own classes, I only hope that I can learn to be as effective an improviser as some of my past teachers. And I think it's important to keep in mind that for even the most gifted and experienced teacher, improv can go awry, just as it can for the stand-up comic who, after a series of jokes that have the audience in stitches, suddenly loses his place, or delivers a punchline that falls flat. The trick, it seems to me, is knowing how to recover from errors, because as human beings we're always going to make mistakes. Skill lies in the recovery as much as in the performancea.