What if I told you thinking is a social process? And knowledge is socially constructed?
Kenneth A. Bruffee makes the argument in “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” that “reflective thought is public or social conversation internalized” (89). As someone who is in her mind more often than not, whose thoughts are her main focus, I was astounded that these thoughts were shaped by conversation. Thinking is something I believed was so inherently individual. Certainly my thoughts came from some thought-producing machine in the back of my brain, right? Instead, “[w]e learn to think reflectively as a result of learning to talk” (Bruffee 90). So, what Bruffee basically says, is that my parents and sister are always in my brain. (Okay, maybe that’s not what he’s getting at.)
Even though I do believe that some thoughts are unique to a specific person, the relationship between conversation and thought strikes me as important. Bruffee uses his conversation-thought argument to explain the importance of writing center collaboration. Because writing is just a physical manifestation of our thoughts (though somewhat more polished), conversations before and during the writing process are crucial.
This year, I am peer tutoring for the first time at the college level, and I have been nervous about imparting my wisdom to other students. What if I am not as good at writing as I think? What if I don’t know how to help someone? Am I supposed to have some knowledge of the psychology of writing? I’ve now realized that it’s okay not to know everything! No one does. Andrea Lunsford makes a strong argument for the importance of collaboration in the learning process, claiming that knowledge is “always contextually bound, … always socially constructed” (97). This is another way of saying thought is shaped by conversation. Our knowledge comes partially from our peers, and our thoughts come partially from our conversations.
Learning about the strong links between talking, thinking, and writing has further strengthened my opinion that collaboration is essential in classrooms—elementary and high school classrooms, as well as universities. Unfortunately, many of my peers have negative views of group work. “I end up doing all the work.” “We don’t actually work together; we just split up tasks.” This is not the type of collaboration that is valuable to students.
“Collaborative environments and tasks must demand collaboration. Students, tutors, teachers must really need one another to carry out common goals” (Lunsford 95). Group work is forced collaboration, which usually results in negative connotations of working with others. Lunsford argues that people must want and need to work with others on a certain task.
Working with fellow students on a particularly tricky physics problem or discussing the chapters you had to read for class—these are the collaborations that happen organically. Teachers should encourage students to collaborate on their own, to make their own choices about working with others, while also guiding them as to what is appropriate and what is plagiarism. This builds a student’s confidence in both herself and her peers. Internalizing these positive connotations is essential to students.
In the workplace, no one is sitting alone in a room with absolutely no way to communicate with anyone else. Heck, phones and technology are everywhere. Professionals ask each other questions and work together! Offices and other workplaces are often set up to be social, collaborative places, so why aren’t classrooms set up this way? Computer programmers share their programs if they cannot figure out a glitch, writers get peers and professionals toedit their work, and rocket scientists solve difficult equations together, but two students who work on an assignment together will get disciplined for cheating. Working together constructively (without cheating or plagiarizing) is so, so important, but this lesson is often left out in the classroom.
Humans are social beings, so it makes sense that we learn through conversation. Even someone as introverted as I am can get A LOT out of talking about her own writing, about books that confuse me, about being a better tutor. I am eternally grateful to my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who first taught me that talking about writing will make me a better writer. And I haven’t stopped talking about it since.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” Writing Centers: Theory and Administration, 1984, pp. 87-98.
Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, 1991, pp. 92-99.