Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing

Annotation was provided by Allegra Molineaux

Hairston, Maxine (1982). The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33 (1), 76-88.


This article is an attempt to capture and summarize a shift from a product-oriented to a process-oriented teaching of writing that was occurring at this time, using Thomas Khun's concept of "paradigm shift" to explain the challenges of this transformation. The author, Maxine Hairston, homes in on several aspects of Khun's theory that she believes are reflected in the changing approach to writing instruction, including the ideas that: 1) paradigms are difficult to "see" because they permeate the beliefs and assumptions of an entire discipline, 2) paradigm shifts occur as a crisis when a feeling that "unresolved problems" with the current model have reached a critical mass, and 3) current practitioners are intellectually, economically and emotionally attached to the accepted paradigm (reflected in methods and textbooks) and are resistant to change. Hairston goes on to summarize the original paradigm, discuss the crisis that is bringing about the change, and describe the new paradigm that is in development.

The original paradigm for teaching writing, according to Hairston, put an overwhelming emphasis on the finished product. Teachers would grade primarily on style and usage, teach students skills that were closer to editing skills than writing ones, suggest that the writing process was linear and straightforward, ignore the place of invention in writing, and focus almost entirely on bland expository forms. This model was not based on research or experimentation, but rather propagated from generation to generation as the accepted method. Furthermore, the "practitioners" she describes are mostly college English professors, who have little incentive to follow up on current research in this field, since their expertise and interest is primarily in literary criticism and not the teaching of writing. She points out, however, that they do work hard (marking every mistake on a paper, for example) and are constantly frustrated by the poor improvement they see.

Hairston sees the origin of the paradigm shift in Noam Chomsky's work on transformational grammar, in that it helped people to see language as a process rather than a finished work. The crisis that she believes is precipitating the shift is the growth in college admissions (especially of older, returning students who tend to question accepted standards more freely) that is putting strain on an already fragile system. Furthermore, the national attention on dropping verbal scores on standardized tests as put writing education under increased scrutiny.

The new model of process-oriented writing instruction, according to Hairston, seeks to break away from the emphasis on style and exposition, instead focusing on "writing as an act of discovery" that is nonlinear and creative. Teachers are now invested in intervening while students are in the act of writing, teaching strategies of invention and discovery (rather than "proofreading"), encouraging a mix of expressive and expository forms, and actively engaging in writing themselves. Perhaps most importantly, this paradigm is based on active research and takes professional writers as the model for finding an effective process. Hairston is hopeful that this paradigm is beginning to take hold, particularly with new textbooks and training for university professors.


The purpose of this article is to engage in a broad historical overview of a changing situation, so the research is an interesting combination of generalities of "types" that are clearly based on personal experience (for example, professors that brag about the hours they spend grading each essay) and a textual analysis of changes in current research and textbooks. While this approach is not particularly concrete or methodical, it provides an interesting analysis of situation from the perspective of someone who is clearly engaged in the day-to-day struggles within the discipline. The re-purposing of Khun's approach for a social science milieu engages the reader and the field in an informative dialogue about resistance and change.


Reading an article from 1982 about a paradigm shift that was supposed to have occurred is an interesting exercise in time-travel. In some ways, she is right that a process-oriented approach has become the new dominant narrative, but her anecdotes about the "old" model are still surprisingly fresh and visible in writing education at every turn. It is almost as if the new paradigm was adopted but failed to fully out-compete the old, and they now live uncomfortably side-by-side. My favorite quotation from Khun that she uses seems particularly poignant: "Novelty ordinarily emerges only for the man who, knowing with precision what he should expect, is able to recognize that something has gone wrong." I cannot help but think that the current overwhelming focus on standardized testing is a particular danger when looked at from this perspective: we are actively engaged in measuring students' writing abilities through a lens that has nothing to do with good writing -- we are thus missing the "precision" necessary to tell us when something is wrong.

1 comment:

Daisy Sharrock said...

Allegra, as I was reading through your reflection portion of your post I was struck by how similar the issue of using the wrong lens for assessment matched how I feel about the way we teach and assess science. It appears that in order to make something more definable, more concrete, and more assessable we have created a system that ignores the subtlety of the discipline, in effect ignoring the actual path to a rich understanding. I know we're supposed to be narrowing our focus of action research, but the more I read, the more the mountain of areas I feel I should be exploring grows!

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