The Place of Strategic Dialogue in Collaborative Learning

The Place of Strategic Dialogue in Collaborative Learning

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The Place of Strategic Dialogue in Collaborative Learning

The tutorial interaction in writing centers provides beginning writers with an essential element not found in other types of student-helper interaction. Unlike the usual colloquium that occurs in most classrooms, tutoring offers a one-on-one setting whereby a student can directly consult with, discuss, and turn to an experienced peer for help with as many steps of the writing process as possible. This unique setting offers a chance for tutors to address students’ individual needs using strategic dialogue.

Kenneth A. Bruffee talks about the important facets peer-to-peer dialogue brings to the tutorial setting. In his essay, Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’ he discusses conversation and its place within the context of “collaborative learning.” Bruffee argues that “thought and writing are special artifacts grounded in conversation. As such, both are fostered by teaching that emphasizes conversational exchange among peers” (Intro, 3). He believes that thought originates in conversation. In general, conversation is a social artifact that can be internalized to encourage thought. Bruffee values peer tutoring so much because, as he said, it "provides a social context in which students can experience and practice the kinds of conversation that academics most value” (7). The dialogue that takes place between tutor and student fosters this kind of thought-provoking conversation. The interaction is one of a kind because it provides a unique setting whereby “status equals, or peers” (Bruffee, 8) can discuss matters that are closely at the heart of the writing process.

Emily Meyer and Louise Z. Smith, writers of The Practical Tutor, agree with Bruffee on the special contribution peer-to-peer tutoring grants to the process of writing. In their chapter called ‘Engaging in Dialogue,’ Meyer and Smith support Bruffee when they say, "the tutorial conference is an ideal format for such stimulation because it is truly dialogical” (28). This aspect is unique in two ways in that first, it provides the necessary one-on-one component that beginning writers don’t get when they sit in class among several other inexperienced writers. Second and more important, the dialogue that takes place between tutor and tutee stimulates thought that is originated in conversation. According to Bruffee, “The kind of conversation peer tutors engage in with their tutees can be emotionally involved, intellectually and substantively focused, and personally disinterested" (7). Conversation, in this sense, becomes an ideal way by which inexperienced writers can let out their thoughts, opinions, and feelings on a given topic.

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The tutor-student dyad allows for a social context whereby the inexperienced writer is stimulated to question and respond accordingly. According to Meyer and Smith, the conversation that takes place in the tutoring session is “a preparation for independent thinking and writing”(28). In the process of dialogue, with the help of the tutor, students develop skills that can lead to becoming more efficient, independent writers.

In preparing the beginning writer for independent thinking and writing, Bruffee asserts that the tutor’s task “must involve engaging students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible” (7). He believes that the conversation between tutor and tutee provokes thought between two knowledgeable peers, each contributing a particular category of familiarity and expertise. According to Bruffee, “The tutee brings to the conversation knowledge of the assignment. The tutor brings to the conversation knowledge of the conventions of discourse and knowledge of standard written English” (10). This knowledge exchange allows for efficient collaborative learning. The conversation that takes place at the heart of peer tutoring contributes immensely to this learning process. Bruffee adds that tutors “should contrive to ensure that conversation is similar in as many ways as possible to the way we would like [our students] to eventually write (7). He believes that conversation in peer-to-peer interaction must closely resemble how the written text should come out.
The peer-to-peer dialogue that takes place within the tutorial interaction sets the stage for a particular kind of conversation, one that resembles talk between a student’s “writing self” and his or her “checking self.” At this early stage of college-level discourse, most tutored students--- enrolled in either Basic Composition or Expository Writing---are still not acquainted with the idea of the “self as a checker.” Being inexperienced writers, they only know of “the self that writes.” Thus, most of the time, they fail to check and go beyond the surface of their writing. The tutor’s role in this early stage is to act as the temporary “checking self” for the student, questioning ideas, reflecting thought, and calling for elaboration through strategic handling of dialogue.

The way tutors handle dialogue is fundamental in addressing students’ individual weaknesses. Developing a dialogic habit of mind is essential to the writing process. Meyer and Smith mention that tutors, being experienced writers, have nurtured and established “an inner monitor, another ‘self,’ that comments and questions as the writing self sets down ideas” (27). Students can gain a lot by simply being in the same room as this other self, the “checker,” that is embodied in the tutor. They instinctively pick up certain aspects of the conversation through careful listening, observation, and active dialogue. According to Meyer and Smith, “the writer hears and responds to the kinds of questions he should be asking himself. The conversation provides practice that would help him internalize dialogic linguistic structures and thereby develop his critical faculties” (28). In addition to filling in for the “checking self,” the tutor can use careful dialogic to address issues such as: having difficulty with reading comprehension, struggling to find focus, and failing to synthesize complex arguments.

These issues were individual weaknesses I found and carefully worked on with three of my students. The three had something in common with each other: they were Expository Writing students who had at least an entire semester to improve on reading, thinking, and writing skills they may have learned from Basic Composition. Although coming in with some writing experience, the three have yet to develop the “dialogic habit of mind” that Meyer and Smith talk about. Being inexperienced in composing dialogically, these three students’ “other self” exists, if at all, “in a nascent state” (Meyer and Smith, 28). While all are capable writers, the promise of their “other self” must be cultivated. According to Meyer and Smith, “its growth must be stimulated if the writer is to mature” (28). The tutor’s role is to facilitate in this process of cultivating a student’s “other self.”

Because these three students each presented a specific challenge to work on, I, as their tutor, had to frame dialogue to suit their individual needs. Realizing that I am temporarily filling in for each student’s “other self,” my own challenge was to customize dialogue to fit a particular weakness.
The place of strategic questioning:
Working with reading comprehension issues

Student number one, SS, had problems with reading comprehension. She came to tutoring on the first day feeling “stuck” in having to read a difficult text. The writers of the Douglass/Cook Writing Center 2002-2003 Tutor’s Manual say that students like SS communicate:
a variety of messages: that they are overwhelmed, that they feel helpless
because they do not understand the main idea of the piece, that they do not
know how to begin inserting themselves into a reading, that they do not know
where to begin” (12).

Indeed, SS continually showed signs of frustration in her early tutoring sessions. She would say things such as, “I’m so sick of having to read this passage over again. I don’t get what the author is trying to say anyway.” Obviously, SS’s dialogue reflects the kind of negativity that is characteristic of students having her particular problem.

My task as the tutor in this particular case was to break down the process for SS and show her ways to approach a difficult reading. Coupled with this is my temporary responsibility to fill in for SS’s “other self.” Taking into consideration her reading comprehension issues, I had to design dialogue that would help SS understand the things that she needs to understand in her reading. Knowing this, I couldn’t question SS based on the idea of me as her tutor. Rather, I had to conceptualize my questions as questions SS should be asking herself. The process requires a certain level of empathy on my part as the tutor. I needed to put myself in this student’s shoes to be able to identify with and understand her situation. That, I think, is the only way whereby I can successfully stand in for this student’s “other self.”

One specific task I assigned to this student was to pick out a passage that she has a good understanding of. Working from here, I asked her to summarize, in writing, what she thinks the author is trying to say. Then I would bring her into dialogue by asking to talk about what she wrote. SS welcomed this task because it enabled her to find at least one passage that she has control of, a passage that she can understand and know well enough to write a summary and talk about.

My next task for SS was to find a passage that she didn’t quite follow. Working carefully, sentence by sentence, I would ask her to summarize, again in writing, what she thinks the author is trying to say. Because I am dealing with a student with reading comprehension issues, “errors of fact or logic” that Meyer and Smith refer to may arise at this point. My role as the tutor filling in for SS’s “other self” unfolds in this situation. The key, however, was not only to ask questions SS should be asking herself. Another crucial element, according to Meyer and Smith, was to “ask the writer for arguments or evidence so that [I can help her] detect logical fallacies or misstatements” (36). Covert evaluations or judgments would only hurt the student. It’s also the last thing the “other self” would logically present to the writer. Instead, Meyer and Smith suggest, “a tutor could let the writer know that she must rethink an issue and then reopen the questioning” (36). This is exactly what I did with SS. First, I asked her to reconsider her arguments, then, I asked her to go back to the text to cite some evidence. Specific questions that I asked included:
“Where did that particular instance happen?”
“How can you support this statement?”
“What details in the text can help support your claim?”
“Can you explain why you say this is the case?”

Using the strategy of asking questions---and asking them in a non-threatening way---helped SS absorb the essential dialogue that can cultivate her “other self.” As Meyer and Smith say, this strategy “requires the writer to test her own hypothesis, to argue with herself, in effect, and thus to engage in that crucial dialogue that is basic to good thinking and good writing” (36). This, coupled with a tutor’s strong desire to successfully fill in for a writer’s “other self,” at least for the duration of the tutoring session, has helped SS face her reading comprehension issues.

The place of strategic responses:
Finding focus

Student number two, TP, had difficulty in finding focus. On our first session, TP admitted to me that she “tends to ramble on” in her papers. Her teacher’s comments paralleled this self-evaluation. TP was the type of student who had an overflow of ideas. She wrote a lot, but tended to digress. As a result, her text was marred with irrelevant explanation and extraneous information.

My role as the temporary “other self” in TP’s case was to assist in turning her papers into a strong, cohesive whole. Working with her rough drafts, we focused on the revision process, coupled with strategic dialogue to help TP find focus. The writers of the Douglass/Cook Tutor’s Manual describe revising as “reconsidering a text, rereading it, and reconceptualizing responses to it” (14). Because TP’s main weakness was to lose focus, I brought her back to her own writing to give her a chance to look back and reconsider her responses.

One specific task I assigned TP was to reread her rough draft and identify sections where she summarizes or uses quotation. Working on one passage at a time, I then asked TP one of the following three questions:
“What made you mention or make this point in your essay?
“How does this point relate to the main argument you’re making?
“Why do you think it is important to include this in your paper?”
These types of questions allowed TP to pinpoint two things in order to find focus: which parts of her paper made sense and contributed to a cohesive whole, and which parts were irrelevant and unconnected to her argument. By asking these questions, I also helped in cultivating TP’s “other self.” Since she was made aware of the types of questions she should be asking herself, she little by little developed the dialogic habit of mind that she could use on her own outside the tutoring session.

TP not only tended to lose focus in writing. The basis of that weakness was her tendency to do the same in speech. Most of our conversations would start topically, and then she would go off on a tangent and start talking about something else. The dialogic strategy of responding through paraphrase or summary helped in this regard. According to Meyer and Smith, “a tutor’s paraphrase or summary offers a writer an opportunity to reflect on what [s]he has said so far. This reflection is similar to what writers do as they revise drafts…” (34). In short, a tutor’s strategic response also helps a writer find focus. Because it allows the writer to reconsider something before going ahead, paraphrases or summaries can be a useful approach in framing dialogue in order to find focus.

The place of non-responses:
Forming synthesis

Student number three, SB, had trouble in synthesizing complex arguments. He usually came to tutoring without a draft. SB either faced one of two things: he was having difficulty generating text, or he was having problems understanding the readings. Subsequent tutoring sessions revealed that SB’s trouble stemmed not from reading or thinking difficulties, but from pre-writing and writing issues.
SB’s case was a special challenge for me because he was, in my opinion, a reserved speaker. In comparison to my other students, SB didn’t talk much. While other students more than openly welcomed every opportunity to talk about their opinions and ideas for their papers, SB had minimal reaction to most questions I presented him.

Whatever reasons SB has for being reserved, I, as his tutor, had to constantly find ways to engage and keep him engaged in dialogue. In his case, questioning---in all its forms---proved to be difficult for both of us. No matter how I phrased my questions, they didn’t elicit the types of responses from SB as I saw with my other students. SB would usually tell me, “I know what you’re trying to ask, I just don’t know how to word my answer.”

To tackle this problem, I resorted to freewriting exercises. Perhaps, putting ideas on paper would help SB generate some pertinent information. Specific start-up tasks I assigned SB included choosing a quotation from the text and freewriting about it in light of the assignment. Then I asked him to pick another quotation to connect to the first quotation that he picked. I then asked him to freewrite about the connection between the two quotes. This exercise revealed that SB’s problem was not with reading comprehension. The quotes that he picked and the connections he made in light of those quotes showed promise: they can be taken to a higher level of synthesis and turned into a complex argument if carefully worked on. The problem, in addition to SB’s restrained dialogue, was that (in my opinion) he didn’t feel like exerting any effort to go beyond mere quote analysis and connection.

My initial view on SB’s rather mediocre responsiveness was confirmed when, after our tutoring session, a fellow tutor---who happened to be SB’s Basic Composition instructor the previous semester---found out that he was one of my students, and gave me advice on how to handle SB’s attitude. According to this tutor, “SB is really a good student. He just needs to be pushed as far as his writing goes. He may not show any effort in the beginning, but he is capable of making complex arguments once given the chance.” This fellow tutor also told me to “not let him get away with the small work of quote analysis and connection. Make him leave the writing center with actual writing.”

The challenge now presented by this new information is that, although I am made aware of SB’s writing potential, three weeks into the tutoring session, I am still testing the waters as far as what sort of dialogue works for this particular student. How do I make him leave the writing center with actual writing if our interaction is not firmly grounded on dialogue? I can’t just simply tell him what to do. Based on experience, all prior tasks I’ve assigned were preceded by informal dialogue with my students. The initial dialogue’s purpose was to get a feel of my students’ ideas. This is also so they know why I’m assigning them a specific task, and maybe even have input or suggestion on what task they think will help them. The initial dialogue was something I couldn’t quite lay down in SB’s case.

Although the freewriting exercises helped him generate some text and form some synthesis, I think that if SB had been more engaged in dialogue, I, as his tutor, would have been able to assist him better with his writing issues. Even when I based my questions on SB’s writing---using them in place of his own dialogue---I still wasn’t able to get the response I needed in order to help him out. As Meyer and Smith mention, “The tutor, then, is a stand-in for the writer’s other self only insofar as he questions or summarizes what the writer has generated” (34). It is difficult to do this if the writer doesn’t make an effort to generate material that his or her tutor can question or summarize about.

In conclusion, dialogue is the groundwork for collaborative learning. Strategic dialogue can be used to address students’ specific needs such as having difficulty with reading comprehension, struggling to find focus, and failing to synthesize complex arguments. The tutor’s role in establishing strategic dialogue comes out when he or she successfully fills in for his or her student’s “other self” during each session. Students become aware of this “other self” as they closely interact with their tutors. However, the key to successful dialogue is close interaction. Tutors can fill in for their students’ “other self” only if both parties are willing to do the necessary work needed for collaborative learning. In short, while the tutor plays a big part in the cultivation of this “other self,” it is essentially up to students to control how much and how far this “other self” can accomplish for them.

Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’.”

Douglass/Cook Writing Center 2002-2003 Tutoring Manual.

Meyer, Emily and Louise Z. Smith. “Engaging in Dialogue.” The Practical Tutor. New York:
Oxford, 1987.
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