The Pedagogy of
James Moffett B Y S E A N G E R N A N T
At the height of his career, James Moffett was an important and influential thinker in both the field of education in general and in the area of teaching writing in particular. He saw teaching writing as essential not only to a student’s education, but to his or her ability to reason and psychological well being. Even after his death, his books Active Voice and Student-Centered Language Arts K-12 are seen as vital resources for teachers of writing. As is implied by their titles, these works emphasize the importance of students taking an active role in the process of their own educations and focus on helping students discover and express their own unique perspectives via student-centered instruction. There are three aspects of a praxis of teaching writing informed by Moffett’s ideas that are most unique to his perspective and which would do the most to correct the failings of the assessment-based model of education in use today. First is his system of a progression of writing assignments of increasing complexity. Second is his belief that students should read and write every day. It might seem that this would produce a volume of work which would be too much for any teacher to keep up with. But in fact this leads directly to the third and most important aspect of Moffett’s pedagogy: his method of assessment. In direct opposition to older methods of evaluation which employed strict standards based on rigid rubrics and a system of letter grades, or to the current method of assessment via high-stakes standardized testing, Moffett instead prescribed a system of periodic holistic assessment in which a teacher would review each student’s portfolio of written work, evaluating based on individual progress in ability to reason and express oneself.
To understand the value of Moffett’s ideas it is important to compare them to what writing instruction was like before they were published. In a reflection on his work written following his death, Betty Jane Wagner, co-writer with Moffett of Student-Centered Language Arts and Reading, K-13, recalled that before anyone had ever heard of James Moffett, before his work was widely known, before any other teachers tried to apply his ideas, language arts instruction revolved primarily around prescriptive and obligatory instruction on “handwriting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, book reports, and ... speech training” (147). Writing instruction was teacher centered. A typical classroom featured one teacher standing at the front of a room of students arrayed in rows facing the front of the room where the instructor would deliver a lecture and issue directives to which the students were expected to quietly and obediently observe, absorb, and process. In the late 50s and early 60s when this type of classroom was still the norm, Moffett’s ideas were only available to a few teachers via typed versions copied and passed along from teacher to teacher (Moffett 3). The ideas in this early “experimental” version of his pedagogy were seen as a paradigm shift by the few teachers with access to them (Walmsley 120). Then in 1968 his ideas were made available to a wider audience with the publication of the first edition of Student Centered Language Arts.
The book called for, as the title announced, shifting the focus from the teacher to the student. Students were expected to work together in small groups and on their own. They were free to choose from a number of possible exercises designed by Moffett (Moffett 6). Topic ideas were always the students’, inspired by their own internal monologues and readings that they selected themselves, which helped the teacher create an individualized program in which each student was allowed to develop at their own pace (Moffett 10). The focus of his instruction was “writing, reading, [and] thinking” (Wagner 147) and called for every lesson to include “Individualization, Interaction and Integration” (Weiner 78). The center that tied all these ideas together was oral language (Wagner 147).
His ideas were seen as groundbreaking and fresh, and were quickly adopted by many teachers (Walmsley 120). In the place of the rote learning taught in the authoritative classrooms that predated his influence, he recommended a series of student directed exercises. A typical progression designed by Moffett in Active Voice has students begin by writing in stream of consciousness (28). From there they would move to writing an inner monologue (Moffett 56). This would then proceed into a “dialogue of ideas” (Moffett 61), in the form of an imaginary conversation between two characters debating an issue of the student’s choosing. The next step in this progression would be “dialogue converted into essay” (Moffett 67), in which the student would compile both parts of the previously composed discussion into a cohesive essay discussing the pros and cons of an issue. In this way a student’s own ideas led them into more and more sophisticated writing.
This type of progression, which forms the core of his method, has a solid theoretical basis informed primarily by the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, and is also in keeping with John Dewey’s ideas about experiential education (Moffett 244). As John Trimbur writes in “Beyond Cognition: The Voices in Inner Speech”, Piaget’s work on cognitive development indicates that the inner speech of developing writers goes through a process he calls “decentering,” in which they learn to adjust their own “frame(s) of reference ... to the perspectives of others” (Trimbur 212). The influence of this idea is easily seen in the progressions just described, in which students learn to move from inner monologue to written dialogue and then to an abstract discussion of ideas. But while Piaget saw this primarily as a biological development that happens on its own, independent of outside influence, Vygotsky saw it as a primarily social phenomenon. His concept of a zone of proximal development describes how students at a particular stage of development can complete tasks at a higher level than their own independent accomplishments when working with a competent instructor, and how being taught in this way assists them in attaining later stages of cognitive development. Moffett uses this concept in his ideas about how instruction should be accomplished, in which students work with each other and with their teacher, again on progressions from the simple to the relatively complex. Dewey’s influence is seen primarily in his philosophy of experiential education. To teach reading, writing, and grammar, Moffett said that students should read and write every day. The best way to learn proper grammar is to read proper grammar. The best way to learn to use proper grammar is to write. This is, by definition, an experiential educational practice.
The tradition of experiential education with which Moffett’s ideas work so well was established at the turn of the previous century, well over 100 years ago. The cognitive developmental theories of Piaget and Vygotsky on which Moffett based his philosophy came out in the 1920s and 30s. And while Moffett wrote well into the 1990s, his original work dates back to 1968. When Student Centered Language Arts was first published, teachers saw it as a radically new way to look at education. But while it is was published nearly fifty years ago, and was influenced by work twice as old, many people still consider it new and radical. If Moffett’s ideas stand on well established and broadly accepted scientific and pedagogical concepts, and if they are as effective in educating and as empowering for students as his proponents claim, why aren’t they more well known? Why are they not in use? The answer to that question is that they are, just not in public school.
Recent graduates of public schools are often criticized for being unable to express themselves effectively. But most have rarely if ever been provided with the opportunity to practice meaningful self-expression. Their teachers, blamed for failing public schools, are forced to work within a system that they have had little if any hand in creating. Toward the end of his career, Moffett wrote “On to the Past: Wrong-Headed School Reform”, an essay critical of assessment-based teaching in which he asked “why the changes that educators themselves propose for literacy never happen” (590). Why indeed? The loudest voices in support of high-stakes testing and assessment-based education belong to the members of a wealthy, politically powerful elite who would never dream of sending their own children to public school. Instead, their children attend elite private schools like Phillips Exeter Academy where Moffett developed his student-centered pedagogy and where children still reap its benefits. Unlike public school students, they are entrusted with the freedom to develop and share their own ideas. Moffett’s methods do more than teach students to write. They create educated free-thinkers with the acumen to see the world for what it is and the ability to communicate their own ideas effectively enough to take a role in shaping their world and running their lives. This is not a secret about education awaiting discovery in a dusty vault. Those with the political power to shape educational policy are aware of it and provide it to their children, but not to children in public schools. If the goal of a public school system is education, then why doesn’t it employ methods, like Moffett’s, that are known to work? If the current system graduates students who can follow instructions and pass tests, who recognize printed words on a page yet fail to recognize their import, who can fill in boxes on a form but who can’t manage to write anything deeper than 140 characters, is it unfair to ask if that is not what it has been designed to do. ∞
W O R K S C I T E D
Moffett, James. Active Voice: A Writing Program across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1992. Print.
Moffett, James. "On to the Past: Wrong-Headed School Reform." The Phi Delta Kappan
75.8 (1994): 584-90. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Trimbur, John. "Beyond Cognition: The Voices in Inner Speech." Rhetoric Review 5.2 (1987): 211-21. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.
Wagner, Betty Jane. "Reflective Tributes to James Moffett's Influence on English Education." English Education 29.2 (1997): 147-50. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Walmsley, Sean A. "James Moffett Reconsidered: Ahead of His Time, Again?" English Education 25.2 (1993): 120-27. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Weiner, Lois. "New Teachers: Designing Lesson Plans: What New Teachers Can Learn from Moffett and Wagner." The English Journal 86.4, Literary Festival (1997): 78-79. JSTOR. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.