Writing is a key skill in today’s society. An important backdrop for this is the technological development in communication that has fundamentally altered the nature and practice of writing and has brought with it a dramatic increase in the spread and significance of writing. There is a call to know what this means for the individual in the context of a learner biography and how the challenge is met at subject and educational levels. The purpose of the present project is to shed light on these questions by means of a qualitative study of writing in upper secondary education, where studies that take a longitudinal student perspective are linked to studies in central subjects. The aim is to create new knowledge about students’ ways of learning subjects through writing and of learning writing through subjects and to examine the ways in which they develop writing skills through their upper secondary education. The project is the first major Danish research initiative in writing, and the organisational aim is to establish a centre for writing research at an international level.
According to Karlsson (2006), in ‘the new textual society’ working life, education and everyday life have become dependent on the written word to an unprecedented extent. Writing skills have become as much a prerequisite for learning and education as for inclusion in civic and working life, and written communication increasingly underpins everyday social activities (Matre 2006, Smidt 2008). The technology of writing has, furthermore, a decisive cultural and social significance as a medium for the production of knowledge (Olson 1994).
From the standpoint of educational policy ‘the new textual society’ is reflected in the growing attention paid to literacy as an integral part of academic learning. The significance of language for learning, for the creation of identity and for participation in culture and society is an underlying consideration both of the European Council’s investment in Language in Education, Languages for Education (Council of Europe 2010) and in the Norwegian educational reform, Kunnskapsløftet (Knowledge Promotion), in which writing skills were introduced in all subjects in 2006. In the same way the Danish reform of the gymnasium (upper secondary) school in 2005 describes written work as a common task for the entire subject range and a central element of the students’ study competence. This new focus on writing is not, however, linked to an overall literacy strategy, and studies suggest that there is a serious gap between reform intentions and practice in schools (Krogh et al. 2009, Christensen 2009). Seen alongside increasing diversity in student cohorts and an increase in the drop-out rate (UNIC 2009), there are strong indications that written work constitutes a particular problem in upper secondary courses and that there is an urgent need both for theoretical development and for empirical studies in the area of upper secondary writing practice.
At the research level a paradigmatic ‘discursive turn’ has taken place in disciplinary didactics (Ongstad 2006). Recent research has developed a theoretical basis for the conceptualization of teaching and learning in ‘the new textual society’, seeing subjects and teaching as discursive, semiotically mediated phenomena (Ongstad 2006, Cope & Kalantzis 1993, Lemke 1990). The discursive paradigm has proved to be fruitful in research (Lorentzen et al. 2008, Elf 2008, Vollmer 2007, Kress et al 2005, Knain 1999), but the implications for students’ forms of learning, for disciplinary didactics and for teaching practice have been far from fully explored.
In the current project the discursive perspective finds expression in the research field and in the research questions. The research field is seen as a triadic construction of student, subject and use of writing. The construction refers both to the classic didactic triangle (student, subject, teacher) and to the communicative triad (form, content, function), which is regarded in the discursive paradigm as a fundamental form of disciplinary didactics (Ongstad 2004, Krogh 2003). The research field is understood as utterances (Bakhtin 1986) that simultaneously activate student, subject and use of writing. These aspects are mutually linked, and the overall research questions are to be understood as three interlinking angles on the same object of study, namely, writing in the light of ‘the new textual society’ and of ‘the discursive turn in disciplinary didactics’. The research questions are as follows:
- What do the new conditions mean for the position, function and nature of writing in teaching practice?
- What do these new conditions mean for students’ writing, and how does this harmonize with the school’s interpretation of the students’ need for experience, resources and skills in writing?
- What do these new conditions mean for the didactics and the disciplinarity of subjects?