Wiley’s Approach to Formulaic Writing

1 January 2017

In their quest to find a simple way to assure students have the writing skills they need, teachers are tempted to use formulaic writing. Having a method to rely on seems to be a win -win situation for teachers and students as well. In his article “ The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist)” Mark Wiley is trying to analyze to what extent teaching writing, as a formula will affect the writing process.

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Wiley is emphasizing that the tendency towards formulaic writing comes from the increasing pressure on schools to rise the test scores, and based on statistics, essays that comply the formula received high scores on test and advanced placement exams. Although the article was written 12 years ago, the topic is still current considering the recent teachers strike in Chicago. Similar to a more than a decade ago, among problems such as budget deficits, school closures and teacher layoffs, the Chicago teachers also object to their performance and jobs being tied to standardized tests.

Wiley’s article is analyzing the formulaic approach in writing and he is specifically addressing the Schaffer Method. He describes the Schaffer approach to teaching writing in great details. He continues by presenting the strengths of Schaffer formula and also the downside of the formulaic writing. He concludes that Schaffer method should be used as a strategy but resisting the formulaic. His analyze about the method seems to be very persuasive. Wiley is right about the fact that the success of Schaffer’s method suppress important aspects of writing process essential to student’s future development.

Schaffer’s method should be taught as a segment of the writing process, a tool that can be accessed when necessary rather than the only tool available. Because in a school setting, the writing teachers are the decision makers in regards to what writing method will be adopted, they are Wiley’s primary audience. His position as the composition coordinator, makes Wiley a trusted authority. Also being an English teacher, help readers identify with the writer. He connects and creates credibility with his audience in several ways.

Besides being knowledgeable about the subject, he demonstrates fairness and courtesy to alternative views. He analyzes the issue considering the advantages as well as the limitations in using Schaffer’s method. Wiley uses specific examples in order to give his argument presence and emotional resonance. “I understand what teachers are up against, particularly in urban schools: resources are scarce, buildings are in disrepair, classrooms are overcrowded, and scores of new teachers are needed; yet too many of these teachers are poorly prepared to teach writing”(61).

In other words, he involve his audience on one hand by empathizing with them, and on the other hand highlighting that too many of these teachers are not prepared to teach writing, thus, their tendency to favor a formulaic method. The increased pressure on schools to rise test scores and make sure high school students are ready for college, and because too many teachers are looking for quick fixes, determined Wiley to write the article (61). Although the article was published in 2000, similar issues seem to bother the teachers today.

According with Salon Media Group in March, “education researchers from 16 universities sent a letter to Emanuel and the head of the Chicago Public Schools warning against such measures, pointing out among other things that such test-based teacher evaluations have been shown to be highly unreliable measures of teacher quality. Moreover, poverty, homelessness, crime and other social issues beyond the influence of teachers often influence standardized test results. And we know this type of teacher evaluation risks creating teachers who ‘teach to the test’ instead of the creative, dynamic teachers we need”.

In other words the growing political pressure on schools to raise test scores that Wiley notice in his article appears to be at its peak. Although most of the audience will be supportive, considering the fact that Wiley is not against Schaffer formula as long as the method is part of a strategy, some will argue against it. “One teacher I interviewed stubbornly resisted Schaffer’s approach and claimed she would never use it. Students first need to develop writing fluency she argued, not simply learn how to fill out a form”(63).

The essence of Wiley argument is that by using Schaffers’s method, students will learn how to follow directions on filing out a form. On the other side, Schaffer’s supporters will argue that by using the method, rapid improvements were made even for struggling students, and the simple format to follow will help them achieve some immediate success in their academic writing. “Several high school teachers whom I have spoken with who have been using the Schaffer method generals saw rapid improvement in the writing of struggling students”(63).

Wiley is using counterexamples and counter testimony to rebut the opposing argument. He highlights that the teachers recognize that some students were bored with the method, and although they acknowledge that students need to move beyond Schaffer method in order to improve, they don’t know what to do next. Throughout his essay Wiley is using as evidence data from personal experience, data from observation or field research and data from interviews. One of the specific evidence Wiley uses is Data from observation or field research.

On one hand he is and English teacher, hence, he has a firsthand experience with Shafer’s method, on the other hand his position as the composition coordinator at a large metropolitan university gives him the opportunity to interact with other English teachers and get feedback about the method. “ Given the growing political pressure on schools to raise test scores and make sure students graduate from high school prepared to do college level work, I am busier than ever visiting high schools and talking to teachers about teaching writing”(61).

In making this comment Wiley emphasize his understanding of the matter. His comments throughout the essay direct the reader to see the issue from his perspective, suggesting to consider the bigger picture rather than the immediate benefits. “ Formulaic writing of the kind Schaffer advocates forces premature closure on complicated interpretative issues and stifles ongoing exploration. (…) Yes, this definitely nonformulaic exploration takes time and can lead students to question their assumption and beliefs”(65).

He agrees the nonformulaic approach is a longer process, but also underlines that this explorations facilitate growth in understanding and writhing ability (65). He notice that pro formulaic teachers loved the efficiency of Schaffer’s method, and also highlights that this approach should be used just to provide students a basic structure for writing. However, these interpretative comments emphasize his belief that the Schafer’s method should be used as a strategy rather than as a formula.

Although he may have firsthand experience with the method, skeptics may argue that his personal experience is limited, and even though his position facilitates interaction with numerous teachers, there is no statistical evidence to validate his claim. Another specific evidence Wiley uses is data from interviews. He mentions that one of the teachers he interviewed will never use Schaffer’s method. He introduced the teacher’s quote by noting that students need to learn more than just how to fill out a form. He explains the quote and also makes interpretive comments highlighting his viewpoint about the method.

Data from interviews can provide engaging personal stories thus enhancing the way the reader will receive the message. As limitations, critics might argue about the credibility of interview subjects, or the number of interviews not being sufficient for the matter. According to Willey argument, I would point out that the problem is not the formulaic writing but rather it is “the pedagogical blindness that formulaic writing leads to” (61). One of the benefits of Shaffer approach is that it makes the writing process accessible to everyone.

On one hand it will make writing enjoyable for students that like the scientific approach. On the other hand some readers may challenge this view by insisting that having a formula to apply makes writing more of a science rather than humanities class. Although Shaffer’s approach does not restrict creativity, having a structure to follow will not encourage such creativity. Wiley approach to formulaic writing is very realistic, and his way of presenting the topic clarifies the questions on the best method to teach writing.

As he puts it a more viable approach in teaching writing will be to “use formats as strategies but resisting the formulaic”(66). A strategy will use a formula but it will adapt it to a specific writing situation. In other words the formula will serve as a foundation to build the writing assignment rather than the writing assignment itself.

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