17 December, 2012

Is Non-Fiction Better For Us?

My attention was caught recently by this article in The Telegraph about how "Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of 'informational texts'." Informational texts, apparently, are things such as manuals and inventories. These new standards are being part-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

When entering the "real world" as adults, the children of today will come across far more non-fiction than fiction. Reading a bus timetable, filling out job applications, understanding electricity bills - these are the fundamental reasons we teach children to read. But does that mean schools should be spending less time on fiction and more on non-fiction?

Non-fiction, of course, comes in many forms. Some of these are very similar to fiction: they tell a compelling story that grips the reader (this is particularly true of the extraordinarily popular so-called 'misery memoirs'). The only difference is that the reader also knows that they are true. Reading well-written non-fiction can be brilliant. One of my favourite books - the story of civilisation and why certain populations ended up with all the power - is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. And there are great books for children too. Just look at the Horrible Histories books - non-fiction that has captivated successive generations of children.

So non-fiction is good. But what about fiction. Is fiction actually important? Of course it brings a lot of joy and is wonderful escapism for adults and children alike, but why actually teach it?

There will be some kids at school who love reading fiction and, if they struggle with other areas of schooling, it might be what saves their education. So for them, it has an obvious, tangible benefit. But I would say that it has benefits for all children. A lot of cultural references come from famous books and, in my opinion, fiction encourages development. I wouldn't want to live in a world where the adults were once teenagers who never had to use their imagination; whose sole entertainment came as a complete package on a screen - images and sounds spoonfed to them, rather than created in their heads from words on a page. Fiction - both reading and writing it - discourages lazy thinking.

I have nothing against non-fiction being taught in schools. I think it's a good thing for children to read examples of concise and interesting non-fiction that they can learn from. I'm just not sure plant inventories and manuals are really necessary. You can teach a kid to write an essay; you can't teach them to love learning. Children can leave school merely educated, or they can leave inspired as well. 

What do you think? Is fiction actually important? Or is it a luxury? 

10 comments:

  1. Wow. Manuals and inventories. Yawn. That's a great way to make them bored. Of course maybe it'd be good for the boys. So they don't grow into men who refuse to read the manual when they put something together. ;)

    I have to agree with you. Fiction is very important. Reading also helps you become a better reader. And then maybe a better writer.

    I guess I don't understand how teaching kids how to read a manual does much. Can you imagine sitting in class for several days looking at some manual to put something together.

    I don't get it. Here's a manual. Start at the beginning. Follow the directions. Read the numbers in order.

    Am I missing something? Is there more to teaching how to read a manual?

    I agree that some life skills should be taught in class, but I struggle seeing how this makes you a better reader/writer. This stuff belongs in trade classes, not English.

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    1. I think the idea is to get kids good at writing concisely and technically, which is probably a good idea. But I'm not sure the best way round it is to bore the pants off them! I had no lessons in that which meant I struggled with one assignment in my first year at university, but that one assignment was all it took to teach me!

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  2. Fiction engages the imagination and gives us private worlds of our own creation. That kind of creativity is a valuable skill for life. It also aids problem solving and helps develop a richer inner life. Also, through fiction, children may encounter challenging emotional situations for the first time (e.g. grief) and read about positive ways of dealing with it.

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    1. I agree. My mum always used to read "Badger's Parting Gift" to the children in her class when one of them had had a grandparent who had died and it really helped. Ditto there's loads of books out there about how both parents still love you following a divorce etc. Fiction is a safe way for children to explore challenging situations.

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  3. Oh dear - this is desperate. Fiction isn't a luxury, it's necessary for development; for being a proper person. For building an individual who is more than two-dimensional. Through fiction we explore, we extend our own individual worlds, we experience parts of life that we might not (and perhaps should not!) get a chance to experience first hand. Fiction enables us to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and live their life, make their choices and see what happens; we can learn so much more than plot development. Fiction takes us away from the mundane and ordinary and gives us excitement and the extraordinary. Through fiction we can let our imagination build pictures and expressions and reactions and events and each time we flex our imagination it gets a bit stronger. We can take part safely in the full spectrum of emotions. We become more empathetic, intuitive, creative. Fiction allows us to become acquainted with a variety of people we'll never meet, and opens our minds to different points of view and behaviour. It broadens horizons. We can soak up wisdom, humour, extravagant fantasy or intricate word play. We can go to dark places and come back safely and we can dream dreams and be inspired. And we can sit down and listen to a good story.
    Sorry. Rant over.
    Ahem. Touched a nerve there. :-)

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    1. It's good that people are passionate about fiction. Good for you! I agree with every word :) I think experiencing things that we wouldn't normally AND seeing characters that are experiencing the very things we do are both so important. Both adults and children are enriched by fiction. (Although I should point out they aren't planning to cut fiction from the curriculum completely!)

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  4. This is desperately worrying. We already have an uphill struggle to get youngsters to imagine (ie understand) the results of their actions and their effect on other people. Probably 50% of the population is already imagination-challenged. Many sneer at the way schools dissect literature with their pupils and, yes, there are good and bad ways of doing it. But if it is never done in school ~ and you can bet your life that few will do it at home ~ how will a child grow up thinking beyond himself and his present needs? It is vital that the formative teenage years continue to be full of fables, myths and cautionary tales to endorse our humanity, challenge our values and develop our capacity for compassion. And on a purely practical note, are not other subjects, science, geography, history etc, making use of 'informational texts'? Why do all subjects have to be the same? Pity the poor dreamer! Ceve

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    1. I think that's it - the lessons learned by non-fiction are good lessons to learn, but they can be learned elsewhere at school. I learned concise, technical writing in science. Nowhere else in the curriculum are kids going to learn to imagine in the same way as they can with fiction.

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  5. I've been watching interviews with Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) recently and he has a lot to say about this matter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDQs9YljpMg He's even campaigning to the Canadaian president by sending a fiction novel to him per fortnight with a personal note: http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/ Really interesting :-)

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  6. Check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDQs9YljpMg and http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca/ Inspiring stuff! x

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