Literature education: insights in self and others

Marloes Schrijvers (UvA)
Educational design research into the effects of literature education on self-perceptions and social perceptions

When we read a book and get emerged in it, we imagine to place ourselves in a different, safe world. What we think and would like to do there, does not have actual consequences for our real lives (simulation theory; Mar & Oatley, 2008). This creates the opportunity to reflect on who we are, how we respond to others, which choices we make and which consequences that has for ourselves and others. Reading literary fiction, in short, can change how we think about ourselves and others.

Several studies have found support for these effects of literary fiction. For instance, readers can experience deepened self-perceptions when reading literature (Sikora, Kuiken & Miall, 2010), it is associated with changes in their personality traits (Djikic, Oatley, Zoeterman & Peterson, 2009) and reading can make us think about who we are, who we would like to be and how we do not want to become (possible selves; Richardson & Eccles, 2007). Moreover, reading literary fiction is associated with the enhancement of Theory of Mind, the ability to take someone else’s perspective (Kidd & Castano, 2013), as well as with an increase of empathy, the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013; Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009; Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, Dela Paz & Peterson, 2006; Hakemulder, 2000). 

Developing self-insight and empathy relates to literature education, because it ‘[has] an important value for developing citizenship; think for instance of broadening social and cultural horizons and developing empathic abilities’ (Dutch Center for Curriculum Development (SLO), 2015, p. 15). However, we cannot simply assume that the abovementioned effects of reading literary fiction are also occur because of following literature education. First of all, most of the studies cited above rely on adult participants, not on adolescents. Second, these studies are concerned with reading in an experimental setting or with leisure reading, and not with reading in an educational context in which the reading, with specific purposes in mind, is often compulsory. Therefore, we cannot generalize the results of the abovementioned studies to reading in the context of literature education.

Would literature education which focuses on perceptions of self and others be more closely related to the personal developments adolescents go through?

Yet, that is precisely what this research project is about. Would it not be possible that literature education which focuses (more) on self-perceptions and social perceptions is more closely related to the personal developments adolescents go through? After all, they become increasingly aware of themselves and others around them: on the one hand, they discover and develop their own, unique personality, and on the other hand, social relations become more and more important to them. Additionally, adolescents often have a preference for literature that makes them think about themselves and the world (Appleyard, 1991). By relating to the personal development that is so specific for adolescents, literature education might become more meaningful to them. In this way, they may not only gain valuable insights about themselves and the world, but their engagement with literature education and (literary) reading in general might also increase. In our four-year project (September 2014 – September 2018), we investigate this in several steps:

We focus on upper secondary education (both higher general and pre-university level) and explore what students report to have learned about themselves and others through the literature education they received so far, and how this relates to their teacher’s approach of teaching of literature. Based on this, as well as on the outcomes of a literature review, we formulate design principles for an intervention in literature education: we hypothize how a lesson series for the literature classroom might contribute to students’ self-perceptions and social perceptions. Which types of literature and which learning activities could we deploy to achieve this purpose?

 Next, in close collaboration with a group of teachers, for instance in focus groups or a Teacher Design Team (TDT), we develop one or more interventions. In this way, we are able to design an educational program that is not only based on our research, but also on the practical experience of teachers who are involved. Finally, the effects of the intervention(s) on self-perceptions, social perceptions and reading engagement in students are tested in (quasi-)experimental studies. We work towards an (online) lesson program that eventually results from our research, including a teacher training.  

The project is supervised by Gert Rijlaarsdam and Tanja Janssen (University of Amsterdam) and Olivia Fialho (Utrecht University). See also:

Would you like to know more? Please consult the information below.

‘Uses of Literary Fiction in the Classroom’
PhD student, University of Amsterdam