Literature education as a school for thinking

Martijn Koek (UvA)
A mixed method study into the kinship between critical thinking and reading to understand literary fiction, and its possible application in literature education

In both ancient and modern times scholars have supposed that reading literary fiction can engage us in a kind of thinking that differs from the basic thought processes that steer our daily lives. Aristotle (c. 335 B.C.) for instance pointed out the potential of fictious stories in helping us to think hypothetically, because their fictionality shows us how things can be different from what they are. Shklovsky (1917) posed that ''poetic language'' could well defamiliarize readers, essentially triggering them to reflect on their daily assumptions. Nussbaum (1992) claims that novels can engage readers in thinking about moral possibilities, through the lives of the characters portrayed in the story. So, essentially, reading literary fiction might trigger reflective thinking procesess to override automatic ones, which can be seen as a prerequisite for critical thinking (Stanovich, 2010).

There are also empirical studies that give weight to this supposition. Experienced readers of literary fiction, for instance, seem to be less prone to cognitive closure, which is the inability to think beyond a personal stance (Dkjikic, Oatley, Moldoveanu, 2013) and reading literary fiction is indicated to enhance readers'cognitive theory of mind, which is the ability to understand the thoughts of others (Kidd & Castano, 2013), and the development of their moral reflection (Hakemulder, 2000).

From an educational perspective this theoretical kinship between reading literary fiction and learning to think critically is valuable, since in recent years critical thinking has been increasingly advocated as a primary goal for secundary education, by scholars and policy makers alike (for instance Nussbaum, 2011; Barnett, 2005; Elder, 2015). In practice, though, at least in the Dutch educational context of today, literature education has a hard time living up to its potential in addressing this goal. Assignments that stimulate critical thinking are virtually absent from current text books (Witte, 2008). Teachers of literature are also not trained in how to foster critical thinking in their students and there is little empirical knowledge about how they could do just that, because the aforementioned studies into the cognitive effects of literature  1) are not conducted in an educational context 2) do not answer the question how these effects of literature come about. Therefore, simply asking teachers of literature to infuse their pedagogy with critical thinking would be asking them to shift their paradigm, while the new paradigm is still not clear to them. 

Therefore, the purpose of our project is to investigate if a specific pedagogy of literature education, build upon the kinship between reading literary fiction and thinking critically, can indeed foster critical thinking skills and dispositions in students aged 15 to 18. In order to do that we will follow several steps.

First we will conceptialize the 'criticalness' in critically understanding literary fiction. Second we will design an instrument to assess this concept in the context of regular literary education. Third we will investigate the correlations between scores on our instrument and scores on regular critical thinking tests. Fourth we will interview a sample of students that significantly improved their scores on the literary test and students that didn't, to determine how different pedagocical elements (like teacher activities, text qualities, learning activities) might have contributed to a better score. Fifth we will design one or more interventions, based on the outcomes of our previous steps, possibly in collaboration with literature teachers from different schools. Finally we will determine and investigate the effects of our intervention(s) on the quality of critically understanding literary fiction (as measured by our tests), improvement in general critical thinking skills and dispositions and on motivation for literature education. 

The project is supervised by Gert Rijlaarsdam (UvA), Tanja Janssen (UvA) and Frank Hakemulder (UU).

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