Grant Wiggins of Understanding By Design fame made some serious waves in the online education commmunity. Essentially he made a claim that fiction shold be banned from English/Language Arts (ELA) curriculum. It’s a fairly short post and it comes out pretty strongly against fiction, and has garnered some pretty vitriolic response. It makes sense that people (particularly ELA educators) would rail against this idea.
Fiction, be it novels, poetry, or short fiction holds a very strong place in ELA curriculum around the country, and Wiggins makes the claim that we should remove it in favor of non-fiction. His argument is that “the reading all of us are required to do in our adult responsibilities involves heavy doses of nonfiction, for which our students are totally unprepared” and ” the required readings in most English classes do not serve males at all.” Strong statements that are pretty much guaranteed to make people angry.
Step back though. Read his post again. Is this really the kind of argument that you would expect from the man who asks us to use backward design when creating lessons? This is brash, provocative, and has fairly limited evidence. This is an intentionally inflammatory statement in the model of A Modest Proposal. Wiggins is not arguing for the removal of all fiction any more than Swift wanted the Irish to eat their children. Then what is he doing?
By my reading Wiggins is asking us to examine our assumptions in ELA curriculum. Why does fiction get such an honored position? Where is the time spent working with speechwriting, presuasive writing, or informational news writing? One could easily argue as well that ELA would serve our students well by teaching methods for communicating effectively through blogs and social media.
Wiggins isright to question the types of fiction we traditionally use. Why does one book make it into the educational canon when others do not? There is an enormous amount of available literature to use for education, but we traditionally use an extremely small slice. Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Steinbeck, Orwell, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald, and Salinger. Why do these authors and their books make the cut when others do not? Educators could stretch themselves to add more non-canonical texts and add variety to the ELA curriculum. Text selection is just as important in an English class as it is in a research paper.
Near the end of his post Wiggins makes the claim that students are not appropriately prepared to conduct research and write research papers. I completely agree with Wiggins here, and I also agree that part of the solution is to increase the non-fiction, and non-textbook, reading that students do. This is not the sole responsibility of the English classroom though.
All teachers, and particularly core academic teachers, need to take the responsibility for writing on their shoulders. Social Studies needs to teach how to write for history and politics. Science needs to teach writing lab reports. Math needs to teach writing for mathematical analysis. No class is exempt from teaching writing, but far too often we say “this isn’t English, I don’t need to teach writing.” This attitude is what hurts our students more than teaching books they’re not particularly interested in.
Don’t take Wiggins so seriously, but do take a moment and reflect on the pedagogical choices you make. Why did you choose this text? Why is this assignment relevant and meaningful? If you can’t answer these questions maybe you should make some new choices.