Monthly Archives: March 2015

The World on Paper: a joint review

Review of Olson, D. (1994) The World on Paper, Cambridge University Press pp. 1-282

Much of Western education has focused on the relationship between writing and thinking. Is writing a simple act of recording thoughts and speech, as Plato believed in the Phaedrus? Or does writing do things that speech cannot do (Bazerman 1998; Emig 1997; Olson 1994, Halliday 1994)?

We think this debate is relevant today and we (Sally Zacharias and myself) have jointly reviewed the work of Olson because he argues that writing shapes the way we think. If he is right, how does 21st century tertiary writing shape the ways in which we think about knowledge? This has many implications for the diversity of academic writing, but also for how school children’s scientific thinking might be shaped by written discourses. Please share your reactions to our review with us.

Academic writing

Olson’s perspective on writing is that it shapes the way we think (Chapter 2) because the development of writing has allowed us to turn language into an object of study (p. 68). When language becomes the object of study, we develop concepts and categories that might otherwise not have developed, such as the concepts of ‘clause’ and ‘sentence’ (Chapter 6). These concepts have not only allowed us to understand the way we speak (pp. 118 and 258; Chapter 11), they have also revealed the ways in which we understand the world. Here, Olson refers us to Halliday on the use of grammatical metaphors.

Because writing has allowed us to shift the focus of our thinking processes from ‘things in themselves’ to the written ‘representations of those things’, then “every script has cognitive implications”(Chapter 10; pp. 196 and 282):

by examining the diversity of scripts and the ways they are used and what they provide models of, we have been able to specify a set of relations between literacy and cognition (page 275).

Writing, therefore, makes us think differently (page 258).

If we follow this line of reasoning, can we explain the existence and absence of diverse forms of writing? If diverse scripts open windows into diverse ways of thinking, then different genres might find their place in our academic discourses. This seems to be a possible interpretation of Olson’s speculations on genre: “…how does writing [understood as a way of thinking] alter genre […]?” (p. 134).

By way of example, he refers to the evolution of ‘illumination’ in medieval scripts.This genre evolved from a nuclear organisation of concepts – in which the script was subordinate to the illumination and the reader had to make inferences and connections by synthesising – to a linear organisation in which the illumination supported the script (p. 112).

The nuclear genre afforded the development of the reader’s interpretation; the linear genre afforded the expression of the writer’s intention. Each genre, therefore, shaped the reader’s thinking in different ways:

Nuclear genre (Middle Ages)

Nuclear genre (Middle Ages)

Linear genre (Middle Ages)

Linear genre (Middle Ages)

Olson’s is a wide-angled approach to writing, suggesting that he has a multimodal understanding of it (Chapter 10). He includes maps, Dutch paintings, botanical taxonomies, and Galilean diagrams of acceleration in his definition of writing, and argues that each form of ‘writing’ represents ways of thinking about the reality being represented.

This view of writing seems to align itself with the multimodal socio-semiotic approach of Bezemer and Kress (2008, p. 169) and seems to provide a rationale for reflecting on the extent to which we might accommodate diversification in our writing practices:

We ask what might be gained and what might be lost in changes of mode: from artefact and action to image, from image to writing, to speech, or to moving image

Bezemer J. and Kress G.(2008) ‘Writing in Multimodal Texts : A Social Semiotic Account of Designs for Learning’ Written Communication 25 (2): 166-195; Emig, Janet (1977) ‘Writing as a Mode of Learning’ College Composition and Communication. 28 (2): 122-28

Children’s scientific thinking

Sally Zacharias is doing a PhD at the School of Education at Nottingham and teaches on Master’s programmes at the School of Education in Glasgow. Her research interests include understanding the development of literacy practices and its link to the learning of school disciplines, especially of science

Two years in after the launch of the ‘curriculum for excellence’ in Scotland, teachers are once again having to think hard about how to develop their pupils’ literacy practices. Not only does this apply to English teachers but to all teachers including teachers of science.

So, what exactly is the relationship between teaching science and literacy? Is it that science teachers need just to remind their pupils that they should place a full stop at the end of their sentences or that they need to remember to spell words correctly? Or does literacy play a more central role in the learning (and practice) of science?

To begin to answer these questions I turned to Olson’s book “The World on Paper (1994),” in which the overall purpose is to explore how the invention of writing systems were instrumental to the development of modern thought, including modern scientific thought. He dispels the notion that reading and writing are simply skills of recognition and reproduction of letters but that

literate thought is the conscious representation and deliberate manipulation of [the thinking involved in reading]. Assumptions are universally made; literate thought is the recognition of an assumption as an assumption. Inferences are universally made; literate thought is the recognition of an inference as an inference, of a conclusion as a conclusion (Olson 1994, p. 280).

To arrive at this conclusion, Olson makes the case (Chapter 8) that in the seventeenth century a major shift in attitude to language lead to new ways of interpreting texts, which in turn resulted in new ways of interpreting Nature. Scientists such as Galileo and Harvey recognized that knowledge is a sign-manipulating activity (Reis, 1982, p33 cited in Olson p. 165) and that these signs could be manipulated independently of the things they represented. This contrasted to how signs had previously been seen as being ‘natural to their object’, a relation of metonomy. The recognition by seventeenth century scientists that scientific thought involved the notion of reality, ideas and representations of these ideas, namely language lead somewhat to a mistrust of how the language of texts were able to represent these ideas accurately. A new scientific style of language emerged, which was deemed to reflect and model scientific thought more effectively. Despite this shift in writing style, the status of language was reduced as a source of evidence and scientist paid closer attention to either their observations of experimental data or to their ideas and mental representations.

The purpose of language in the modern scientific era appears then to take on the role of simply representing ideas. However, as Olson points out, in order to become literate in a domain it is necessary to learn to share a paradigm. Olson refers to Kuhn, who he maintains advances this notion further by stating that a scientific community is one that ‘shares a set of texts, a set of interpretations and a set of beliefs as to what poses a problem.’ (p. 273). How then do pupils learn how to ‘think’ like a scientist? Partly through talk, which, by referring to Searle’s Speech Act theory, Olson claims, is a mode that can provide the interlocutors an immediate access to the speaker’s intention. And partly through writing, which to an extent models speech but does not provide the reader a direct link to the intentions of the writer. These need to be inferred by a conscious reflection of the text as an object.

Why, one might ask, do pupils need to read and write texts to become members of this community if written texts only provide an indirect route to the original intention? Olson argues convincingly that it is only through these written texts that we become conscious of the illocutionary force:

only utterances intended to be taken literally may play a deductive role in scientific knowledge (p279).

It is this awareness of how statements should be taken that is so important for the development of scientific thought.

Taking this perspective, literacy is much more than teaching pupils the rules of punctuation and spelling. It is about guiding pupils to interpret and use texts as potential sources of evidence, which may further develop the pupils’ scientific thinking.

Gendered writing versus androgyny

Reflections on knowledge and gender: am I a feminist?

This caught my attention today:

CaptureIn case the quote isn’t visible, Sarraute says:

The idea of ‘women’s writing’ shocks me. I think that in art we are androgynous

I was talking about gender with a colleague yesterday because I have submitted a seminar paper to a women’s philosophy group and my colleague asked ‘why’? How does being a ‘woman’ make the philosophy any different and why should women, in particular, be ‘mentored’?

I don’t think that I thought of it in gendered terms. My motivations for submitting to this particular seminar were not that it is ‘for women’ philosophers but because the call for submissions came with an opportunity to be mentored. I’d have submitted regardless of the ‘gender’ conditions, but I accept that it discriminates against non-women.

This ‘being a woman’ issue (replace with any other ‘Other’) seems to endure, even in the 21st century (eg. Athene Donald on women scientists; in sport, ‘this girl can‘) and perhaps the reasons it still endures include at least the following:

  • historical legacies: women have throughout history been excluded from prominent discourses (eg politics, economics, philosophy, architecture, golf clubs, etc.). Because men have created and then colonised these discursive spaces, the discourse (understood as ways of thinking) has been male, and therefore women haven’t accrued the historical and transformative confidence/competence needed to be part of these domains.

Because of this historical deficit (which is quantitative, not qualitative), I am in favour of positive discrimination as a way of redressing the imbalance until parity is established: it takes time, shifts in perception, and institutional endorsements for new ways of thinking (perspectives) to become established;

  • contested knowledge(s): the history of thought shows that what counts as ‘truth’ is a formative, negotiated, processual perspective, not a summative one. Each one of us wants our ‘truth’ to be accepted, and since men have historically dominated all discourses, they haven’t wanted women to question the ‘(dis)order’ they have created. Women disrupt that order (as do all ‘Others’) and therefore need to be silenced.

Imagine, for example, what our cityscapes might look like if women had dominated architectural discourses …

Compare Hadid:



to Foster:

cucumberand Piano:


We might all be living alongside each other rather than on top of each other; our sense of personal space would be different (we would be looking left-right (horizontally), not up-down (vertically), meaning that we would all be visible to each other; and maybe social communities rather than hierarchies would have formed. Maybe the world’s population would be more manageable because women would have control of their bodies, opt for fewer babies due to the lack of vertical space (there is only so much you can expand side-ways), and favour a more qualitative approach to life that didn’t involve growth and expansion at all costs! Maybe ….

But there is an annoying assumption underlying this distinction into genders: it assumes that all (fe)males think similarly (which is impossible). Women are as diverse as the human race is diverse. Therefore, if there is any sense in Sarraute’s claim that in art we are ‘androgynous’ (meaning ‘all the same’), it is not because we are ‘genderless’, but because we should not single out gender as the lens through which to judge art (or science, sport, etc.). Rather, we should take ‘humaness’ into account. However, because human ‘thinking’ has been shaped by histories and social epistemologies of inclusion and exclusion, it is hard NOT to take gender into account because being female may explain why, in general macro terms, women have different perspectives on knowledge compared to men.

I’m not arguing that women wouldn’t have worked out the fundamentals of maths and physics. That kind of thinking is not gendered, it’s functional. But the way they might have arrived at that knowledge and the use to which they might have put that knowledge, might have been different. That’s what I mean by ‘different perspectives’ on knowledge. Zaha Hadid’s architecture doesn’t rely on ‘female’ physics so knowing whether she is a woman or not makes no difference in that sense. But knowing she is a woman, i.e. the social product of a history, does make a difference to the way I contextualise her work and relate to it.

I do like Sarraute’s quote (I read her beautiful ‘Enfance’ when I was at secondary school) because I think the same can be said for parenting: good parenting has nothing to do with gender, but with good parenting! However, being gendered comes with historical affordances and constraints that can affect the way we perceive a work of intellect and what we do with it, not its quality.

Does that make me a feminist? What is your take on 21st century feminism?