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.


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