Recently, disturbing media reports about education have been popping up regularly. As I write this, a heated debate rages in the Netherlands over whether or not to ban smartphones in the classroom. Students can no longer concentrate! Attention has also been focused for some time on the poor PISA literacy scores of Dutch children. Students can’t read anymore! Recently, a report came out that indicated that a large proportion of vmbo students in the Netherlands place little value on democracy. And then a week later the sequel to that followed: our pupils no longer know what the Holocaust was! Education, in short, is generally written about in dystopian rather than in utopian terms.
It is notable that many of the crisis reports involve issues around literacy (reading skills, media literacy), issues related to citizenship and identity (and how little that is developed in students) and issues that deal with difficulties in dealing with the impact of digitalization on education. For example, the arrival of ChatGPT, a writing robot that can generate papers, essays, speeches and answers to take-home exams that are unique (and therefore undetectable by plagiarism software), has major implications for education and for educating writing skills in particular.
ChatGPT emerges in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that has intensely confronted us with the gains and losses of digitalization. During the pandemic, we learned a lot about how to develop good (blended) education and we gained experience teaching with Zoom & Teams, examining in Canvas & TestVision, and recording knowledge clips; but we also saw that online education brought losses: the pandemic produced a generation of pupils and students who experience more mental health issues than generations before them.
The endless stream of crisis reports about education give the impression that something fundamental is going on in the domain of education. Especially since the complaints span the entire realm of education. Sometimes it is about the fact that students possess less knowledge than before. Do students still have sufficient knowledge of the world, knowledge of history, knowledge of cultural and literary heritage? Sometimes the emphasis is more on the lack of skills that students would have. Pupils and students are said to be deficient in reading and writing skills, in digital and media literacy, and in critical thinking and reasoning. Finally, we also hear complaints about our students’ attitudes. Are they resilient enough? Are they leaving our education system adequately equipped for the world they are entering? Does our education provide them enough tools for their character building?
Many of these problems – which are common to all levels of education in primary and secondary schools and universities – are reflected in discussions about Dutch Language and Culture as a domain in secondary school education in the Netherlands, in which I have become increasingly involved in recent years. In those discussions, I have worked – together with other colleagues united in the so-called ‘Meesterschapsteam Nederlands’ – on a dream of new learning outcomes, a new curriculum and a new central exam for the domain of Dutch Language and Culture (Bax and Witte, 2023).
Since 2016, the ‘Meesterschapsteam Nederlands’ has been pointing out that there is a need for more knowledge and insight (current knowledge about Dutch language and literature, about communication, media and culture) and more attention to complex skills such as writing skills, creativity and reasoning (Meesterschapsteam, 2016, 2018, 2021). The report Bewuste geletterdheid in perspectief: kennis, vaardigheden, en inzichten (maart 2021) offers starting points for teachers to get their students to (critically) think, reason, and argue about all sorts of insights (or: big ideas) relating to language, literature and communication. In the report, we show that in teaching Dutch Language and Culture, we can have students acquire insights about language, literature and communication from four distinguishable perspectives (a systems perspective, an individual perspective, a sociocultural perspective and a historical perspective). In the report, we broadly formulated the corresponding knowledge, skills and insights from each of these four perspectives. All this was aimed at integrating the different components (‘domains’) of the domain.
How badly these changes are needed is made clear in the book Omdat lezen loont (Van Dijk et al, 2022), published in late 2022. The editors of the book show that we are facing a serious reading crisis; the Netherlands is dropping rapidly in international surveys in which reading skills are tested (such as PIRLS and PISA), young people indicate in surveys that they read little and do not consider reading important either, and reading no longer seems to play a natural role in all teacher training programs. In the domain of literature education in particular problems occur as well (Bax, 2017, Bax et al, 2018, Witte et al, 2018). The various authors of Omdat lezen loont argue for an action plan for improving reading skills education in the Netherlands, including the elimination of the gap between reading non-fictional texts (as tested, for example, in the central exam in the Netherlands) and the reading skills that are central to literature education and fiction reading (Van Dijk et al, 2022). At the end of the book, we find a long list of recommendations that together can be considered a master plan for improving reading skills, not only in education but in society as a whole.
Reading, analyzing and interpreting literature and, put more broadly and ambitiously, learning to read the world in a literary way, is of great social importance (Korsten, 2006; Bax, 2017; Bax et al, 2018; Van Dijk et al, 2022). There are now several researchers who have shown that confronting others, other worlds and other worldviews, helps students increase their empathy and critical thinking skills (Schrijvers et al, 2016; Koopman, 2016; Schrijvers, 2019; Koek, 2022). Good literary education helps students adopt analytical and interpretive attitudes toward literary texts and the other cultural products they encounter in their lives.
Increasingly, moreover, these skills will become intermedial skills: stories and poems also present themselves to us in other forms and in other media. Especially in the information age in which we now find ourselves, training in and reflection on interpretation is more important than ever. The confrontation with deviant, alienating or disruptive stories and forms of language use not only enhances the language and reading skills of our students, but also teaches them to better make sense of the web of stories that surrounds them (in various media).
The confrontation with historical literature teaches students to make cultural-historical sense of their own world and provides insight into their own position in the world (Bax et al, 2022; D’Hoker, 2022). And precisely the distance in time and culture provides an opening to be able to address similarities with sensitive contemporary themes (migration, inequality, environment, identity) in historical literature with more distance and from a different perspective: literature of all times as the surge of universal themes. In this broad view, literary history contributes to students’ intercultural competence and citizenship formation and makes its own contribution to the target domains of education as derived from Biesta’s work (qualification, socialization and subjectification). This idea is connected to a long tradition in literary studies that connect reading of literature to the development of critical thinking and discussing personal, moral and ethical issues that are at stake in literary texts (Booth, 1988; Nussbaum, 1990; Hakemulder 2000).
Understanding literature from four perspectives
Literature can be thought of as a system: literature has many different manifestations. Language is employed in a systematic way to create a world of words, which relates to reality in intriguing ways.
Literature is experienced and understood individually: literature appeals to individual characteristics of the reader, and to his knowledge of prevailing views in society and backgrounds of the texts.
Literature interacts with socio-cultural contexts: literature functions in different contexts in different places and in different times, and therefore its definition and manifestations are changeable and variable.
Literature is cultural heritage and changes over time: literature evolves over time and belongs to the cultural heritage. As such, literature is valuable, living and dynamic and requires maintenance and research.
Students will gain insights in literary historical reasoning primarily from the fourth, historical perspective, although it is never completely separate from the other perspectives. For example, in a lesson series on the novel De Donkere kamer van Damocles (1959) [The Dark Room of Damocles], the question of how the construction of the text (systems perspective) affects the reading experience of the individual reader (individual perspective) can hardly be missing. Students can gain an understanding from the historical perspective that literary forms, genres and movements change over time, in conjunction with changing social and literary conventions and the rise of new media. Or that what people label "literature" can vary from period to period. Students thus gain an understanding that literary history is a construct that changes as literary works function in their cultural-historical contexts and people interact with literature.
With my colleague Erwin Mantingh of Utrecht University and various PhD students, we are working on a method for educational design in which reasoning with and about literary texts is the starting point. This implies more than teaching students literary reading skills and literary-historical knowledge. The choice of the term reasoning makes the acquisition of insights central to the educational design principles that are at stake (Bax et al, 2019, 2022).
Our concept of ‘literary historical reasoning’ is based on the concept of ‘historical reasoning’ that is used in history education (Van Drie and Van Boxtel, 2008, Van Boxtel and Van Drie, 2018). In Bax and Mantingh (2019), we show that in ‘literary historical reasoning’, the literary text is central and we teach students to think about that text from different perspectives. Literary historical reasoning assumes that every literary text can be seen as a crossroads at which several roads converge. Those roads are the texts and concepts to which the text can be connected. One road (the ‘contextual’ or ‘synchronic’ perspective) then consists of texts and concepts we encounter in the time in which the text was made. The other way (the ‘diachronic’ perspective) is the opposite: a text can also be compared to texts and concepts located in other times and places. (Slings, 2000 and 2007).
Each text can be synchronously connected to the work and authorship of contemporaries, as well as to the cultural-historical context in which the text appeared. The literary text then acts as a lens through which we can look at the entire cultural and literary period in which the text originated. Links can be made with other canonical texts, but also with non-canonical texts, with political and historical developments, with literature in other language areas.
At the same time, any literary history text can be considered diachronically based on a frame or a theme. We develop diachronic frames that allow students to connect texts through time. These are texts that are similar because they can be linked to the same literary period through time (realism, naturalism), or because the theme of the books is similar (texts about love, about loneliness, about personal trauma) or because they have similarities in literary form (different texts with unreliable narration), or because they can be read from a similar political or ideological frame (feminism, postcolonialism, ecocriticism). From such a diachronic perspective, students gain insight into the (dis)continuity of history.
In ‘literary historical reasoning’, knowledge and skills are connected in a meaningful way. Students learn to employ information about the past (literary-historical knowledge) as they engage with historical literary texts. That engagement can take different forms: students can describe, analyze and interpret historical literary texts, they can compare them to other texts, concepts and movements, and they can formulate an opinion or reasoning about those texts and the issues surrounding them. In the process, they gain insight into the interaction between texts, writers, readers and contexts and about how we can make meaning of literary texts.
I started this essay with the accumulation of crises that we see sweeping across education. These crises make it necessary for teachers to think about complex issues related to citizenship, their (digital) media literacy and their literacy awareness. Deepening and broadening educational design principles about reasoning plays an important role in my dreams for the domain of Dutch Language and Culture, for fruitful developments in literature education and for a large societal action plan for reading skills education. There is every reason to connect design principles for critical thinking and reasoning students’ their development in the domain of citizenship and character, to their (digital) media literacy and to their literacy awareness.
In the last years, we see that reasoning and critical thinking are gaining considerable ground in research in the field of pedagogical content knowledge (see, for example, Dera et al, 2023). This research shows that domain-specific reasoning can be transposed to other domains in education. Literary-historical reasoning is one of many possible forms of reasoning, and it is itself a concept that has traveled to literary education from research in the domain of history education. Several PhD students are or will be working in the coming years on research topics related to critical thinking and reasoning. In her ongoing doctoral research, Renate van Keulen (2021) uses educational design research in which design principles for literary historical reasoning are combined with design principles for gamification to come to a lesson series about the novel De donkere kamer van Damocles of Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans. In Gepco de Jong’s ongoing doctoral research, the emphasis is less on the historical, but an educational intervention will be designed and evaluated for critical thinking about literary texts that address pressing social issues. And from September 2023 onwards, Eline Peeters will work on a doctoral research project in which an educational design for ‘literature and intermediality’ will be developed, in which students reason about insights in the relationship between author and text and the media culture in which they perform. The idea is that the educational design for ‘literature and intermediality’ will not only lead to improved literary reading skills, but will also contribute to students’ digital and media literacy.
All of these research projects build bridges between educational domains inside and outside Dutch Language and Culture. For example, we link up with the work of Peter-Arno Coppen and Jimmy van Rijt on reasoning about linguistic insights (Coppen et al, 2019, Van Rijt et al, 2019, Van Rijt, 2020), in the domain of the arts Tilburg University and Fontys Hogeschool van de Kunsten are working together to design teaching materials around so-called big ideas (Mitchell et al, 2016; School and Bax, 2022). And also, in other domains such as philosophy, social studies, economics and management & organization, we see that domain-specific reasoning is increasingly being considered as a good opportunity to make the domains more attractive, challenging and (most of all) meaningful for students in secondary schools.
In the coming years we will work hard to make our dreams come true. Therefore, starting in 2023, we will work at the Tilburg Center of the Learning Sciences on a research program for the benefit of education in which educational design research into domain-specific reasoning will play a crucial role (Plomp and Nieveen, 2013). Our research will be guided by questions about the characteristics of evidence-informed educational design (in different domains & disciplines) that contributes to our students’ literacy awareness, their (digital) media literacy and their development in the domain of citizenship and character and the way teachers develop themselves in these educational design principles. Our research will hopefully inspire the workshops, professional learning communities and teacher development teams in which we will develop new educational material with and for teachers. In this way, we hope to bring the dream closer that we formulated as the mission of our new (inter-)department. We want to work on the dream of a rich, evidence-informed, ever-improving educational culture in which wise, aware, curious and caring pupils, students, teachers and researchers (from various disciplines) create a good, sustainable, democratic, fair and just human future society.
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