Teaching fiction: How reality is constructed and the purposes of schooling – in response to Grant Wiggins (part 1)

Grant Wiggins, ASCD‘s co-author of Understanding  by Design, recently stirred some discussion in educational circles by suggesting that fiction should be banned from the curriculum. I don’t need to rehash the disputes that he started, particularly over his generalizations about the differing preferences of boys and girls, as you can read them in the comments below his post.

Wiggins seems to suggest in the comments that he there is humor intended here, but I’ll respond to the points made as I understood them from the perspective of school design. Why do we read fiction in schools? What is the point of this exercise if, as Wiggins contends, it bores boys and is not that useful to what adults actually need to read in their professional lives?

There are at least two important design reasons to consider with regards to fiction reading and analysis: 1) fiction is as relevant to our ability to make meaning out of the world as any factual text if not more so; 2) knowledge of the literary cannon as well as knoweldge of the tropes, techniques, and functions of fictional literature are powerful forms of cultural capital. I will address the first point here and the second in a subsequent post.

To the first point, psychologist Keith Oatley makes an intriguing argument (admittedly in relation to the field of psychology) for the fundamental importance of fiction.

Modern psychology as science has allied itself with only one kind of truth: truth as empirical correspondence. This kind of truth is necessarybut not sufficient. If psychology is to be fully psychology, there must be consideration of twoother kinds of truth as well: truth as coherence within complex structures and truth as personalrelevance (see Table 1).Empirical psychology obeys criteria of the first type of truth. Fiction fails this criterion but can meet the other two. One could say, then, thatfiction can be twice as true as fact. (pp. 102-103)

The stories we tell and are told are profoundly important to our understandings and the meaning we make of the world around us. It is no surprise therefore, that as reported by Joe Keohane of the Boston Globe, facts themselves seem to lack the power to convince most people of truth. Keohane explains:

Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

Learning to read fiction is important because story and narrative provide the social context in which we make meaning of facts. Knowledge, Piaget detailed, can be understood as a web of schema held in the mind. New information is understood in the context of these existing schema. The stories we read, hear, watch, and experinece allow us to subtly change our schema over time.

If our purposes are to educate students to be easily manipulated by mis-truths, than we should ignore the importance of personal experience and social context in meaning making. If we want students to be able to make relevant meaning of the facts they encounter and to be able to weigh the validity and importance of these facts against the scope of cultural knowledge and history, then we should probably ensure that the powerful, insightful, meaning-generating fiction helps shape their social understandings.

To illustrate the point, it is worth noting that Richard Rothstein, an educational researcher and economist who writes about education and social class, details the importance of recreational reading and other cultural learning for the development of 21st century skills. Rothstein argues that it is differences in exposure to these learning experiences that mitigate against the academic and economic success of poor students:

The advantage that middle-class children gain after school and in summer comes from the self-confidence they acquire and the awareness of the world outside that they develop through organized athletics, dance, drama, museum visits, recreational reading,  and other activities that develop inquisitiveness, creativity, self-discipline, and organizational skills.

Further narrowing the in-school curriculum can only exacerbate the differences in access to meaningful learning and cultural capital that exists between wealthy and poor students in the United States.

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