Arthur Warmoth
Sonoma State University
Book reviewed in this essay: Kenneth A. Bruffee. Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1993.

The discovery of social constructionist epistemology has caused quite a stir in the academy. This is particularly true in the humanities, where it has led to a radical relativizing and politicizing of the curriculum. This in turn has led to fears of cultural chaos and a nostalgia for the classical canon on the part of several conservative critics. Kenneth A. Bruffee’s Collaborative Learning defines the parameters of the social construction of social reality in terms that offer a new model for education. This new approach can make education more effective in traditional "quantitative" terms. But more importantly, it suggests that education can be more adaptive to the conditions of contemporary social reality while being a more satisfying experience for both students and teachers.

Bruffee’s interpretation of constructionist epistemology owes a particular debt to Thomas Kuhn’s concept of "paradigm," Richard Rorty’s "socially justified beliefs," and Clifford Geertz’ focus on "interpretation." He also offers a pedagogical model of collaborative learning based on this epistemology. He argues persuasively that this approach can initiate students into the real adult world of the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge in the professions, in academic disciplines, and in the culture at large. According to Bruffee, collaborative learning strategies can begin as early as junior high school, and they should be the principal pedagogy of higher education.


At the heart of collaborative learning theory is a theory of knowledge (known in the jargon of philosophy as an "epistemology"). Knowledge is "what people know." This may seem like a trivial point. But just what we actually know and how we know it has been a puzzle for philosophers since the pre-Socratic Greeks discovered that it is possible to think critically about the nature of thought itself.

Most traditional views have taken for granted that people know a world. It is assumed that knowledge lives "in the mind," and that reality exists "in the world." The philosophical questions have revolved around how the process of getting the world into the mind actually works, and how accurate it is. This approach reached its pinnacle of development in the modern philosophy of science that views "objective scientific method" as the best possible way to obtain knowledge about the world.

However, at least since Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, we have recognized that there is no direct connection between an independent, objective world ("noumena") and our experience ("phenomena"). All we have is a set of interpretations of our perceptions and experiences that lead us to believe that a world exists "out there." If that connection is always hypothetical, what is it that actually guarantees the "truth," or in Bruffee's term, the "authority" of knowledge? Bruffee, following the point of view of social constructionism, argues that the authority of knowledge ultimately derives from a "knowledge community" of people who agree about the truth. In support of this view, Bruffee calls on Thomas Kuhn, who says in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that "knowledge is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all" (cited in Bruffee, 1993, p. 3).

The key to understanding the difference between the constructionist view and more traditional views is that for constructionists, knowledge is not what individuals believe, but rather what social groups, or knowledge communities, believe. This approach is compatible with the focus of some contemporary cognitive psychologists on the "ecological validity" of knowledge, but it shifts the focus from biological to social ecology. The social constructionist position does not mean that people do not have ideas. But it does mean that people's ideas are ultimately given meaning by their social context. In that sense, it is the social context of meanings that is epistemologically fundamental, not their ideational content.

It should be emphasized that this discussion is about the most fundamental meaning of "meaning," not about all of its possible meanings. Ideas, logic, experimental method, psychoanalytic free association, and dozens of other forms of knowing are acceptable justifications of knowledge in their appropriate contexts. But every recognized form of meaning is dependent on some context. As Richard Rorty says (again quoted by Bruffee), "'a necessary truth' is merely 'a statement such that nobody has given us any interesting alternatives which would lead us to question it'" (1993, p. 142-143). Thus knowledge is the property of knowledge communities&emdash;that is, of cultures and subcultures, including academic and professional disciplines--that use, create and maintain it in ongoing discourses or social conversations.

The proposition that knowledge is ultimately grounded in conversations among members of knowledge communities is based primarily on three lines of argument. The most fundamental is the study of the sociology of knowledge, as represented in works such as Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) and Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966). The second is the study of the cognitive development of individuals (ontogenetic cognitive development) by psychologists such as the Russian L. S. Vygotsky, who has shown that from the very earliest stages knowing develops in a social context. The third is the study of the evolution of humanity's cognitive capabilities (phylogenetic cognitive development), as represented by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

The Sociology of Knowledge

Constructionism has been developing over several decades in the fields of philosophy, history and literary criticism. Husserl’s phenomenology and the "Critical Theory" influenced by Karl Marx’ interpretation of the history of ideas have been important influences. The sociology of knowledge looks at the history of ideas and the sociology of contemporary intellectual life in order to understand what knowledge is by looking at how it is actually used and how new knowledge is created.

The structure of our language tends to persuade us that knowledge must be created before it can be used. But the preeminence of new knowledge in our cultural life is a modern phenomenon dating from the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. For most of human history, most of the knowledge needed for societies to survive and thrive was embodied in traditions that were passed on over many generations through the symbols of language and the arts. In such a situation, where most knowledge was "passed on" and very little had to be "discovered," a static model of the nature of knowledge served very well.

However, the creativity of modern science, politics, and the communications and entertainment media have created cultural conditions in which much of the truth about social reality is continuously being reinvented and therefore needs to be continuously rediscovered. This has led to a need to understand more deeply how the process of knowledge creation actually works. While much of the knowledge and information we need to manage our daily lives can still be reliably obtained from competent authorities, the complexity of the world increasingly calls into question the basis of the competence of those expert authorities.

During most of the modern era, the most reliable source of authoritative knowledge has been believed to be the physical sciences, and therefore methodologies derived from the physical sciences have enjoyed a privileged position in modern intellectual life. In the twentieth century, however, even the most fundamental understanding of classical Newtonian physics were undermined by quantum mechanics and Einstein's Theory of Relativity. In attempting to understand how one widely held scientific worldview could be replaced by another, Thomas Kuhn explored in considerable depth the process by which scientific "paradigms," as he called them, are both maintained and changed. The conventional view of scientific progress is that scientists add to their fund of knowledge incrementally through carefully thought out processes of experimentation and hypothesis testing. However, when the scientific community becomes increasingly uncomfortable with a growing body of findings that do not fit the existing paradigm, the situation cannot be resolved simply by accumulating more research findings. It can only be resolved by a conversation within the scientific community that renegotiates the acceptable terms of scientific discourse. (Such renegotiation may involve a generational dynamic: The speakers of the obsolete language do not necessarily convert; they may simply die out and be replaced by the more robust discourse of a new generation.) The recognition that new paradigms are created through conversations among knowledgeable peers has led to a realization that they are also maintained and applied by conversations within knowledge communities that manage the flow of information through books, professional periodicals, academic programs, and communities of professional practice.

This reexamination of the foundations of disciplinary knowledge in the natural sciences has been accompanied by extensive self-reflection about the nature and authority of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences. In all of these fields the metaphor of knowledge as communication among competent peers is receiving growing recognition. This is particularly true in these disciplines because they are more dependent upon discursive and narrative language, and less dependent on the language of mathematical quantification, than are the natural sciences.

If knowledge is fundamentally competent discourse, why has this fact been so difficult to see? Perhaps it has something to do with the politics of knowledge. There has always been a tendency for the knowledgeable to use their knowledge to exploit the ignorant. The possibility of exploitation creates an incentive for the knowledgeable to reinforce the ignorance of the ignorant by pretending that knowledge is something other than, something more mysterious than, what it actually is: the symbolic property of knowledge communities.

Individual Cognitive Psychological Development

Rather than knowledge being something that must be created before it can be communicated, it is more accurate to say that the process of creating and communicating knowledge are inextricably intertwined. This can be seen in the careful study of the origins on knowledge at both the personal (ontogenetic) and the collective or species (phylogenetic) levels.

Bruffee cites several examples of research that show that cognitive development is essentially a reciprocal, interactive social process from the very beginning. What we call "thought" is actually in its origins internalized conversation or social communication. According to Bruffee,

L. S. Vygotsky confirmed this view by showing that reflective thought is social conversation internalized. We first experience and learn what Oakeshott calls "the skill and partnership of conversation"--what I call here the craft of interdependence--in the arena of direct social exchange. Only then, Vygotsky demonstrates, do we learn to displace that skill and partnership by dramatizing and playing out silently within ourselves the role of every participant in the conversation. (1993, p. 114)

Vygotsky’s observation of a child "getting to know" a spoon vividly illustrates this point.

Vygotsky describes a scene illustrating this process of community composition and collaboration that involves . . . a six-month-old infant. The infant sees an attractive object--let's say a shiny spoon--and extends his hand to grasp it. The spoon is out of reach. For a moment, Vygotsky says, the infants "hands, stretched toward that object, remain poised in the air. His fingers make grasping movements." The infant in this scene appears to be trying, at the most elemental level, to establish contact with a bit of physical reality. Shoved around by physical reality, he shoves back. He wants a response from the object or a relationship with it that corresponds to his reaching out for it. But the object does not cooperate in the effort to be known. Objects never do. For a moment, then, the infant reaches and nothing happens.

Then something does happen. The object still doesn't cooperate, but Mommy does. The infant's mother moves the object closer, so that the infant can feel it, look at it, put it into his mouth.

In this brief, mundane scene lies a key to understanding the nonfoundational social constructionist understanding of knowledge and, not incidentally, collaborative learning. When infants reach for an object, they do not merely reach. They send a message. When Mommy or Daddy or some other caretaking person finally gets the message and responds, infants learn indelibly the importance of this seemingly irrelevant side effect. Our effort to grasp an object, Vygotsky tells us, is the first step we take in learning to point [i.e. to make a communicative gesture]. . . .

What Vygotsky's reading of this scene tells us is that knowing is not an unmediated, direct relationship between subject and object. It is a disjunctive, mediated process involving the agency of other people. (1993, p. 117)

An observation by Bruno Latour shows a similar process taking place at an early stage of language development:

A mother is walking in the countryside with her daughter. The little girl calls "flifli" anything that darts away very rapidly and disappears from view. A pigeon is thus a "flifli" but so is a hare fleeing in panic, or even her ball when someone kicks it hard without her seeing it. Looking down in a pond the little girls notices a gudgeon that is swimming away and she says "flifli." "No" the mother says "that is not a 'flifli,' that is a fish; there is a 'flifli' over there," and she points to a sparrow taking off. Mother and daughter are at the intersection of two chains of associations; one that ties a ball, a hare, a pigeon, and a gudgeon to the word "flifli"; the other one that. . .could indeed apply to several instances above--but not to the ball-- and [the word] "bird" that would apply only to the pigeon and the sparrow. The mother, not being a relativist, does not hesitate to name "incorrect" her daughters usage of the word "flifli.". . ."Flifli" recalls a set of instances that are not usually associated in the mother's language. The girls has to reshuffle the instances gathered so far under the word "flifli," under the new headings "bird," "fish," and "ball." (Latour, cited in Bruffee, 1993, p. 120)

The Cognitive Development of the Human Species

These careful observations of the emergence of what we call ‘knowledge’ out of the process of social communication at the individual level is confirmed by what we are coming to know about the evolution of human intelligence as an aspect of the evolution of the human species. Biologists tell us that we share more than 90 per cent of our genes with our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. We differ from chimps in size, posture, and hair distribution, but we share a large repertoire of behavioral characteristics, particularly social behaviors. The evolution of physical differences appears to be a process clearly apparent as long as four million years ago, as seen in the paleontological reconstructions of our anthropoid ancestors from southern Africa. The evolution of a uniquely human intelligence, however, is more recent.

According to Clifford Geertz, human intelligence evolved during the last Ice Age. This is based on the evidence of the rapid development of human brain capacity as well as the beginnings of evidence of human symbolic activity such as ritual burials. This impetus for this rapid evolution appears to be the development of the capacity for symbolic communication. We evolved our large cerebral cortex in order to communicate. Thinking comes along as a necessary element of the communication process. It is for this reason that Geertz affirms that "Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its form, social in its applications" (Cited in Bruffee, 1993, p. 114).


Knowledge (knowing) is, in its most fundamental character, a social process. In other words, knowledge is always the "common property" of a culture or subculture. Human societies are made up of many overlapping knowledge communities, all based on the unique human capacity for symbolic human communication. These knowledge communities range from cultures and subcultures to groups and organizations that perform particular social functions to the constellation of relationships found in extended families. These knowledge communities or cultures and subcultures, are not static or rigidly defined systems. They are constantly change and evolving. They overlap and compete with one another. They embody varying degrees of complexity and sophistication. And they embody different types of organizing principles based on different purposes and historical circumstances.

From this point of view, learning begins as an initiation into the culture that is represented by the child’s parents (or primary caregivers), and education is a process of reacculturation into an ever expanding web of knowledge communities. Growing up is a series of acculturations and reacculturations into a series of increasingly sophisticated knowledge communities, beginning with the family and culminating in one or more of the world’s human societies.

Education as Reacculturation

Social constructionism offers a new understanding of what knowledge is and how it is maintained and developed. This view of knowledge has implications for the practice of education, including a new understanding of the roles of both teachers and learners.

In order to understand higher education as a process of reacculturation, it is useful to recognize that the goals of a liberal education typically involve reacculturation in two distinct types of knowledge communities. The first of these is the community of educated citizens, of well-rounded, productive, self-aware human beings. This is the professed goal of most general education programs, as well as being the primary goal of the minority of schools that define themselves as "liberal arts colleges."

The second type of knowledge community is represented by the major, which offers initiation into an academic and/or professional knowledge community that typically fulfills some useful social function in the context of the larger society. In the case of academic disciplines, this function is usually research and the maintenance and development of a particular body of knowledge. In the case of professional majors, one becomes a member of a profession with a specifically defined social function, such as medicine, law, engineering, teaching, or management.

Collaborative learning is a useful approach to higher education because it gives college students an experience of the way knowledge professionals actually live and work.

In generating texts&emdash;in writing&emdash;scientists do what all writers do who write in an active, engaged community of knowledgeable peers. They carry on a "meticulous sorting of weak connections between existing ideas" by willingly subjecting themselves to mutual criticism. They read and reread, check and recheck, revise and re-revise their own and each other’s written material. It goes without saying that social scientists and humanists, lawyers, doctors, and accountants construct knowledge in much the same way, writing to one another in an active, engaged community of knowledgeable peers. (Bruffee, 1953, p. 53; internal quote from Latour & Woolgar.)

Thus collaborative learning gives undergraduates a taste of the real world of professional scholarship.

However, there is more than an undergraduate internship experience in a field that some students will want to pursue in graduate school. It also represents an initiation into the world of information management that is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the work world as technology makes information processing skills increasingly obsolete.

The information revolution, at its core, is about automating our ability to process and communicate data, or bits of information. As such, it is rendering obsolete the number crunching skills that have been at the core of most of the growth of middle class professionalism&emdash;accountants, engineers, technicians, middle managers, and bureaucrats&emdash;for most of the twentieth century. At bottom, this is what "corporate downsizing" and "reinventing government" are all about. The alternative is to create careers based on information management that use information processing technology creatively and effectively. It turns out that information management is most effectively carried out by teams, or small knowledge communities.

Boundary Discourse and Transition Communities.

According to collaborative learning theory, the process of reacculturation tends to work better if it involves peer group interactions as well as direction by authority figures. this has led to a focus on two aspects of the discourse of knowledge communities that are particularly useful for understanding the dynamics of higher education: boundary discourse and transition communities.

The conversation in most knowledge communities most of the time is in terms of what Rorty calls "normal discourse." This is discourse in which the rules of the game&emdash;grammar, syntax, and vocabulary&emdash;are generally understood and agreed upon. The community may generate new knowledge and insight by playing according to the accepted rules, but the rules and the worldview of the community remain unchallenged.

"Abnormal" or "nonstandard discourse" takes place when members of different knowledge communities need to negotiate a new interpretation of reality. Nonstandard discourse usually occurs at the boundary between two knowledge communities, so that it is also referred to as "boundary discourse." There are a variety of circumstances where this can occur. It occurs when members of different cultures interact, an occurrence that is becoming more frequent in the postmodern world. It occurs when members of different professions interact, as when doctors talk to lawyers or even when faculty talk to administrators. It can also occur when members of a subgroup challenge the premises of a dominant group; this is the kind of discourse which Thomas Kuhn described in the scientific community as "paradigm shift." And it occurs where groups, such as students, attempt to negotiate their way into a new knowledge community.

One of the characteristics of boundary discourse is that it is not completely predictable. In many cases&emdash;Kuhn’s paradigm shift, for example&emdash;it leads to surprising and useful new insights. This experience has even been reported as a result of the conversation among faculty and students in educational programs operating according to a collaborative learning model. (Only in the most stultifying versions of traditional education is completely standardized one-way communication between faculty and students the norm.)

The dialogue cited above in which a child is negotiating with her mother about the proper use of "flifli" is a simple example of boundary discourse at an early state of the development of what Jurgen Habermas calls "communicative competence." Bruffee offers the following example of how the process occurs in college.

With material his students generated in a course he taught collaboratively. . .John Trimbur shows what happens in such a collaborative group. The assignment was to read a Studs Terkel interview with a former Ku Klux Klan leader who had reversed his position, coming in the end to agree with Martin Luther King. While the students were reading, thinking and discussing, they were to keep a personal log. Trimbur first asked them to discuss the piece in small, task-oriented groups of the sort I describe [above]. Then he asked them to go home and write an essay explaining that change, all the while keeping track of their thinking and their class discussion in their logs. He tells the rest of the story this way.
One woman wrote in her log that at first she couldn’t think of anything to say [about the Terkel] interview.]. She found the assignment difficult because she did not want to "judge" the guy. She went on quite a while in this entry to say how in her family she had been brought up not to "judge" other people. [Original brackets.]

Notice that the student herself (I’ll call her Mary) attributes her difficulty in discussing the subject to the way she had been acculturated in the first place; "the way "in her family she had been brought up." Mary’s teacher was asking her to talk about something beyond the boundaries of the knowledge community she belonged to. Trimbur continues:

Then, in a log entry written a few days later, she wrote again about the class hour when we discussed the Terkel piece and the writing assignment. What she had remembered now was something that another woman in the class had said about "conversion." She found herself "talking it over" with the woman, and as she talked it over she began to connect the idea of conversion with the story of St. Paul in the Bible. Making this connection was a dramatic event for her, as the entry describes it. "Dramatic" is not too strong a word for the experience, because it actively involved an imagined conversation with a classmate. Once that event occurred she felt ready to write and interested in what she had to say.

One thing this passage tells us is that change&emdash;reacculturation, learning&emdash;began for Mary when she engaged in conversation with a peer at the boundary between the community she was brought up in and the community her classmate was brought up in. Her classmate shared part of her cultural background, the religious part, but did nor share another part of it, the antijudgmental part. In this conversation, Mary’s peer provided the new word that allowed her to talk about the topic she had been assigned. She interposed, helping her to "translate" a word she was familiar with (conversion) from a strictly religious context to a secular one. then she internalized this boundary conversation with her peer and continued it on her own, in her imagination, as thought. (Bruffee, 1993, pp. 22-23. Original italics. Trimbur’s story is adapted from Bruffee, 1992.)

It turns out that it is easier to navigate the currents and shoals of boundary discourse in the company of others than it is to do it alone. This leads to the concept of "transition communities."

A close look at what goes on in transition communities suggests that what they really are is translation communities. They organize students into social relationships involving a "temporary fusion of interests" that allow them to relinquish dependence on their fluency in one community-constituting language (their "old" one) and acquire fluency in the language that constitutes the community of which they are now becoming members (their "new" one). Enrolled in transition communities, students have a chance to learn and practice, relative to substantive issues, linguistic improvisation. . . .They carry on this nonstandard boundary discourse between the knowledge communities they belong to and one they do not belong to (the one in this case they are trying to join), in order to reacculturate themselves to the standards&emdash;the language, mores, and goals&emdash;of that unfamiliar community. (Bruffee, 1993, p. 75. Original italics. Internal quote from Knorr-Cetina.)

Transition communities are a powerful and effective tool for reacculturation because they involve the learner as a whole person in an interactive process. Bruffee cites the consciousness-raising "support groups" of the 1960s as an important example of transition communities. The term "support group," however, suggests that the focus of the group is on giving emotional support for a project that is defined by objectives external to the group. The term "transition community" has the advantage of suggesting that the intended transformation is intrinsic to the process taking place within the group itself.


In the constructionist view, all knowledge is constructed by knowledge communities--cultures and subcultures. That is, knowledge is constructed and reconstructed by discourse among knowledgeable peers. In this view, the processes of communicating and constructing knowledge are simply aspects of one complex, unitary social process that takes place within and between generations..

However, the foundational understanding of knowledge is a construction of Western civilization that has deep roots going back at least to Plato. For most practical issues faced by the culture at large, the knowledge and information needed to function is so well established and so little controversial that the foundational assumption serves quite well. In most practical situations, the view of knowledge as something transmitted from the knowledgeable to the ignorant works. A pedagogy that was based on this model was adequate to the needs of the day.

In the period beginning with the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the rate of the development of new knowledge has accelerated. This acceleration has reached the point where the continuous social construction of new knowledge has a destabilizing effect on society that cannot be ignored. In this environment, it becomes imperative to understand the process of knowledge creation in order to develop effective strategies for adapting to and managing the knowledge intensive society. Thus the recognition of the nonfoundational nature of academic and professional knowledge has become an increasingly important issue for higher education. In this context, collaborative learning has become increasingly important as a simulation of the "real world" of the information society, as well as being a more effective way to facilitate the reacculturation process that any educational enterprise represents.

The concept of foundational and nonfoundational knowledge are central to understanding Bruffee’s theory of higher education. Unfortunately, he uses the terms in two different ways which, although easily distinguished, can sometimes be confusing. The first way he uses the terms is to distinguish between two different epistemologies or theories of knowledge. One (the nonfoundational understanding of knowledge) refers to the social constructionist view, which he embraces. The other (the foundational view) refers to the cognitive theory, which he believes is superseded by social constructionism, but which still dominates much of academic thinking about higher education. The second way he uses them is to distinguish the assumptions and pedagogies that are appropriate to different stages of the educational process

Foundational and Nonfoundational Knowledge

The foundational understanding of knowledge assumes that knowledge is made up of stable, relatively static structures that exist in correspondence to a relatively stable and static world. When knowledge ‘develops’ or ‘grows,’ it develops by a process of accretion whereby new structures are added on to[p of the old. This view assumes that there is always a stable base or foundation on which to build.

From this perspective, education is seen as a process of transferring knowledge from the mind of the professor to the mind of the student. Students, in this model, are the passive recipients of knowledge ‘delivered’ by the educational system. Paolo Freire calls this the "banking model" of education, since the student is expected to store up knowledge in his or her mind in much the same way that savings accumulate in a bank account.

The foundational conventions that govern traditional college and university classrooms assume. . .that the authority of teachers lies in their function as curators of acknowledged touchstones of value and truth above and beyond themselves, such as treasured artifacts of art, literature, science, mathematics, and the universals of sound reasoning. The authority of college and university teachers from this point of view rests on the understanding that knowledge is a kind of substance contained in and given form by the vessel we call the mind. Teachers transfer knowledge from their own fuller vessels to the less full vessels of their students. Teachers impart knowledge that was imparted to them, as it was imparted to them. (Bruffee, 1993, p. 66)

The nonfoundational understanding of knowledge, on the other hand, focuses on the process rather than the content. Since the content of knowledge is only created and validated by the social process of knowing, there is no static ‘truth’ that is independent of the dynamic process that creates it. The creation and justification of knowledge is always ‘in process,’ so there is no unquestionable ‘place to stand;’ there are only places that have not yet been questioned. Therefore, there is no incontrovertible foundation for either knowledge or education.

The Foundational-Nonfoundational Knowledge Continuum

The second way in which Bruffee used these terms is to describe a developmental continuum that characterizes the nature of the curriculum and its appropriate pedagogy as education progresses from the primary to the postsecondary levels. Pedagogy at the various levels is related to the extent of cultural consensus about subject matter of the curriculum. The connection between the two usages lies in the fact that Bruffee believes that it is appropriate to treat knowledge taught at the primary levels as if it were foundational in the epistemological sense, even though a new, more rigorous epistemology recognizes all knowledge as nonfoundational, or fundamentally and historically consensual.

However, the earlier stages of educational acculturation still deal with information that is widely agreed to: 2 + 2 = 4, George Washington was the first President of the United States, water is composed of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, and so on. Therefore, at these levels the foundational assumption and pedagogy remain viable. For this reason, Bruffee says:

To put the case concisely in the terms used in this book, primary and secondary education is, and should be, mostly foundational; college and university is, or should be, mostly nonfoundational. (1993, p. 226. Original emphasis.)

Although Bruffee makes a good case for building the pedagogy of higher education on nonfoundational assumptions, this analysis also suggests that there is an appropriate place for the recognition of foundational knowledge in higher education. Although it is true that any academic discipline is always subject to the possibility of paradigm shift, it is also true that at any given point in time is dependent on the existence of shared foundation of normal discourse that embraces and expresses a shared worldview, The foundational basis of the normal discourse of academic disciplines is typically a combination of shared interpretations of history, theory, and method. And those foundations are typically the subject matter of introductory courses. At the same time, it should be noted that disciplines vary greatly in the degree to which common interpretations of history, theory, and method are widely agreed upon. Furthermore, the ever present possibility of paradigm shift suggests the value of introducing the idea of the nonfoundational nature of knowledge, as well as the experience of nonfoundational pedagogy, even in introductory courses.


Basically, collaborative learning is any approach to education in which students work together in small groups to solve problems. Within this general framework, there can be many variations in the composition of the group and the role of the instructor. Normally the groups are relatively small. According to Bruffee, research indicates that five or six is the optimal number for a group primarily dedicated to discussion, while task groups assigned to produce a tangible group project or product should have no more than three members. The instructor’s role adds the function of group facilitator to the traditional functions of serving as a source for information and insight. (Bruffee compares the skills required for breaking a large class into smaller working groups with those of the social director at a summer camp.) But the degree of structure and predetermined design that the instructor can impose on the group process can vary greatly, depending on the purpose of the course and the personal style and professional values of the instructor. Options can range from making students responsible for defining the goals of the curriculum as well as designing it, through working on problems with a variety of possible solutions, to a very structured design with one or a very few ‘right answers.’ (In Chapter Two, Bruffee presents a "consensus group" model of collaborative learning. Chapter Three discusses collaborative learning as an approach to writing, and Chapter Five discusses its relationship to peer tutoring.)

Collaborative learning is not a panacea for higher education. It does, however, offer an additional instructional strategy for college instructors. Positive outcomes of this strategy include:

Collaborative learning is a strategy that permits students and instructors to make good use of new information technologies. However, it does so while keeping human relationships, both among students and between students and instructors, at the center of the educational process. As such, it is a particularly important approach for faculty who are interested in preserving the traditional social and intellectual values of a liberal education.



Bruffee, K. A. (1992). A short course in writing, 3rd. ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Knorr-Cetina, K. D. (1981). The manufacture of knowledge: An essay on the contructivist and contextual nature of science. Oxford: Pergamon.

Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.

Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ.

Rorty, R. (1979). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society; The development of higher psychological processes. (Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner & Ellen Souberman, Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ.