Dirk van der Meulen

PhD student University of Amsterdam
Innovative pedagogies for reading literary-historical texts in secondary education and finding new ways to inspire students

Historical literature education is traditionally associated with learning objectives as cultural literacy, literary-aesthetical development, historical consciousness, individual development and world orientation (Slings, 2007). In addition, it is argued that literary-historical texts offer universals and otherness, both similar and strange worlds, to which the modern reader can relate or be puzzled by (Van Assche, 1988), developing critical thinking, empathy, sympathy, moral problem solving skills in the process (Nussbaum, 2010). Finally, it is a general aim of historical literature education to stimulate the growth of literary-historical competence (Witte, 2008).

Many practical and more systematic problems, however threaten the attainment of these learning objectives. First of all, the available amount of time for literature education has decreased from 1.45 to 0.83 hours over the past decades (Verboord, 2004) due to Dutch, external, educational developments such as ‘the Mammoth Law’ (effective as of 1968) and the Second Phase (in 1998). This has reduced the depth to which a teacher can go with his students, which calls for a more effective and efficient organization of the literary classroom.

In addition, student-centered education presupposes teachers’ knowledge of and the skill to differentiate (Witte, 2007). Although the decline of canon-centered textbooks and the subsequent growth of student-centered textbooks have been observed at the micro-level, this appears not to have been caused by an increase in the skill to effectively differentiate, but of an orientation on students’ interests by publishers and teachers (Verboord & Van Rees, 2009). A study by Van de Grift (2010) confirms that the knowledge and skill to effectively differentiate is largely absent in Dutch secondary education in general. 

Finally, although Dutch academic interest in secondary, literary education has piqued at dissertation level in the past decades (e.g. Dirksen, 1995; De Vriend, 1996; Moerbeek, 1998; Janssen, 1998; Slings, 2000; Verboord, 2003; and Witte, 2008) and there has been other important research with pedagogical implications in the field on empirical literary studies (e.g. Andringa & Schram, 1990), there are currently, to the best of our knowledge, no experimental studies on the effects of teaching historical literature. Hence a remarkable lack of evidence-based pedagogy on how to teach historical literature education is observed (Bonset & Braaksma, 2008). 

In general, there are only two pedagogical guidelines: i) historicizing (studying a literary-historical text within its relevant, historical context) or ii) making an older text topical/contrasting a literary-historical text and our modern times on a thematic level (Van Assche, 1988). It should be noted that these two concepts date from the eighties of the previous century, being the heyday of interest in the pedagogy of historical literature. Little progress has been made since then in this pedagogical field. Forced contrasting or modernizing of the content or theme of an older, literary-historical text is opposed (e.g. Geljon, 1994). Instead a well-considered historicizing of the literary-history text, trying to retain the historical nature of older, literary texts is advocated. This can be observed in many canon-centered textbooks throughout the past decades (Verboord & Van Rees, 2009). 

This PhD study intends to revitalize historical literature education for the 21st century by outlining an innovative pedagogy for historical literature education, designing and testing an effective learning unit for the 11th Grade. The central research question is whether an innovative, differentiated lesson series on historical literature, based on pedagogy from the fields of history and literature, can stimulate the literary-historical competence of secondary students and their motivation for literary history.

The core of the empirical research are  experimental studies in the 11th Grade of secondary education in the Netherlands. Two experiments (n = 200), an intervention and its replication, test the effects of the intervention. These experiments are preceded by a literature study, design-based research and a study on relevant, educational, measuring instruments.

The project is supervised by Gert Rijlaarsdam (University of Amsterdam/Antwerp) and Theo Witte (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen).

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