Collaborative Learning in a Prison Context

a Celtic knot covered by a variety of words such as, unite, diversity, and assist.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Whether it was the early Christians studying the first books of the New Testament together in the catacombs of ancient Rome or the husband and wife team of Marie and Pierre Curie discovering radium in the late nineteenth century, human beings have been practicing collaborative learning for years. That said, I had never given thought to the term until taking the “Intro to Writing Center Studies/Tutoring Writing” class at a maximum-security prison where I am currently incarcerated. The more I read for class, the more I realized that the majority of productive learning I have done has been of the collaborative variety, especially where the ten years since my incarceration are concerned. That is why I was not surprised to see that 58% of the students surveyed by Alicia Brazeau in her article “Groupies and Singletons: Student Preferences in Classroom Based Writing Consulting” preferred to work in consultant-led groups as opposed to one-on-one sessions (287). The positives of collaborative learning far outweigh the negatives, particularly as collaborative learning relates to peer tutoring that is set in a prison environment.

Life behind bars brings its own unique set of circumstances to the traditional classroom setting. Not only is there a very strict sense of the actual time you have to learn from the teacher, but class can also be cut short at any moment if a lockdown occurs. Then there is the issue of students spread throughout different housing units, so once class is over you have limited contact with most peers until the following week. This learning atmosphere may sound like what Andrea Lunsford would refer to as a “Storehouse Center,” but I argue that it has the feel of a “Warehouse Hub,” as in the human variety (4). That is why there is such a premium put on the hour you have with classmates in the chow hall before you are escorted to the school building each week.

During chow, it is not uncommon to be part of a group consisting of seven or eight peers brainstorming ideas or discussing the best approach to a writing assignment. Everyone’s point of view is respected, and the informal setting provides a laid-back environment. This experience reminds me of when some students from Alicia Brazeau’s survey remarked, “[T]he group setting is more successful because everyone views the writing from a different perspective,” and they emphasized their appreciation for “multiple ideas from diverse students” (288). This holds true for me as well; the exegesis paper we wrote for our Old Testament class is an example of this type of collaborative learning in action.

The assignment was to break down a chapter from the Book of Genesis as if preparing to preach about it in a sermon. We were assigned groups, and my group got the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16. While this exercise’s purpose was for us to show our exegetical skills, we were given a range of ways to complete the task. As long as we had an introduction and conclusion along with certain features such as form/genre, boundaries, historical context, and vocabulary, we had free reign as to how to construct the paper. We also had to have a specific focus, and that is where our individual backgrounds and personalities came into play. A few of the Latino students wanted to focus on the class and race issues in the text, while some African-American students in the group identified with the effects of slavery and (possible) rape culture of the time. Then there was myself and a few others who saw the continual working of God’s providence through multiple individuals to fulfill His divine purpose.   

Our discussion had the feel of a Burkean Parlour that Lunsford writes about because it was informed by a theory of knowledge as socially constructed, of power and control as constantly negotiated and shared, and of collaboration as its first principle (9). Eventually, after taking the two covenants between God and Abraham in both Genesis 15 and 17 into account, we agreed to use God’s providence as our focus, and I ended up in the role of group leader/peer tutor because I had more resources to dedicate towards the project. It was an eye-opening experience, and the conversations about what direction we should take gave me insight into my peers’ perspectives—so much so, that months later, as I read Lunsford’s article “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center,” these words jumped off the page: “Collaboration leads not only to sharper, more critical thinking (students must explain, defend, adapt), but to a deeper understanding of others” (5). I couldn’t agree more that collaborative learning breaks down barriers between peers by creating opportunity for a conversation to take place. It removes the restraints of the independent, often judgmental classroom mentality we are used to participating in.

In the interest of fairness, however, I must acknowledge that collaborative learning is not always sunshine and rainbows. My experience writing our trinity paper in Theology shows some of the pros and convicts (yes—I meant convicts) of collaboration. At first, some students battled to get their opinions across, and it quickly became a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” I would not call these men “bad apples” per se; they were just different, and as Will Felpset al. state, “People who are different have a life experience different from the rest of the team or hold different opinions from the rest of the group aren’t ‘bad apples’” (183). The passion the others students in my group had for the subject could have been interpreted as “bad apple” behavior, though, because they dominated the group’s time, and this caused other students to feel they missed out on information they would have otherwise absorbed during an individual session. This possible drawback to collaboration is echoed by Brazeau’s students who felt that working with a consultant individually helped them to avoid the distractions and feelings of being overwhelmed by responses they found in their group meetings (288).

Nevertheless, because communication in prison is of the utmost importance, as soon as my classmates expressed their feelings, changes were made to rectify the situation and avoid conflict. A student who had studied the trinity before volunteered as a tutor, and after a few more classes and study halls, we were on our way to finishing the assignment. This leads me to believe that while subject matter can play an integral role in the success or failure of collaborative learning, the right peer tutor is even that much more important.  A team member with high self-confidence, a calm effect, and the creativity to respond actively rather than reactively can diffuse the impact of potential “bad apple” behavior.

Overall, the positives of collaborative learning and peer tutoring in prison outweigh the negatives. In his article, “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” Kenneth Bruffee says, “Peer tutoring, like collaborative learning in general, plays an important role in education because it provides a particular kind of social context for conversation, a particular kind of community, that of status equals, or peers” (329). What is prison, if not a community of social outcasts looking for the opportunity of redemption through education? That may be a loaded question, but the fact remains that collaboration behind these walls is essential for any and every kind of growth and learning experience, educational or otherwise.

Works Cited

Brazeau, Alicia. “Groupies and Singletons: Student Preferences in Classroom-Based Writing Consulting.” The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, edited by Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta, Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 284-293.

Bruffee, Kenneth. “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, edited by Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta, Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 325-335.

Felps, Will, et al.. “How, When, and Why Bad Apples Spoilthe Barrel: Negative Group Members and Dysfunctional Groups.” Research in Organizational Behavior: an Annual Series of Analytical Essays and Critical Reviews, vol. 27, 2006, pp. 175-222.

Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 12, no. 1, Fall 1991, 3-10.

Author Bio

Scott Moore is a Writing Advisor and incarcerated student at North Park Theological Seminary (NPTS) in the School of Restorative Arts. He is pursing an MA in Christian Ministry through NPTS at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison about an hour southwest of Chicago. In addition to having  just completed  a 2-credit "Intro to Writing Center Studies/Tutoring Writing" course offered through North Park's Writing Center, Scott collaborates with 13 other Writing Advisors from this class to facilitate weekly drop-in conferences for incarcerated peers enrolled in his MA program.