As co-director of Georgetown University’s Center for Research on Children in the U.S. and the parent of a middle-school student, I was indignant when I first heard that the Common Core State Standards for public schools wanted to increase the amount of nonfiction versus fiction starting in the third grade.
I wondered why on earth the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which developed the Common Core, would want to sabotage the joy of reading for children. As a lifelong lover of fiction, I worried that literature in our schools and the lives of our children would be diminished.
I have long admired parents who shared the melodic language of Dr. Seuss with their kids and later rushed to purchase each new Harry Potter book.
And I have applauded teachers who introduced students to the winged words and enduring wisdom of Shakespeare and to such treasured classics as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the Rye."
I feared that Charlotte Bronte, Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare and many other favorite authors were on the chopping block.
But later I learned that the “plot” to curb fiction was neither fiendish nor foolish. The Common Core’s nonfiction requirements are phased in over time, with younger children reading more fiction and older children reading more non-fiction.
Plus, the standards apply to the sum total of all courses, not to any particular course. So for high school seniors, 70 percent of all required reading must be non-fiction, but an English course on its own might still involve 90 percent fiction. The exact choice of reading materials remains, as always, in the hands of local schools.
But some questions remain. Are students better off reading more non-fiction in their classes? Are they better off reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction in their English courses? And will more non-fiction really solve our nation’s educational problems?
The business community has made a strong case for more nonfiction. As business leaders have repeatedly lamented, a disturbing number of American high school graduates are not truly “career-ready.” Many lack the critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential to so many work environments.
As the Business Roundtable, an association of the nation’s leading CEOs, puts it, “There is a persistent and growing mismatch between the skills that U.S. workers possess and the skills that U.S. businesses need.”
Tragically, many workers and would-be-workers struggle to decode complex texts and to draw actionable inferences from them. These texts are almost always non-fiction.
If we really want our high school and college graduates to have 21st-century work skills, then surely the ability to decipher instructional booklets, catalogues, memos, and legal documents should be among them. Arguably, reading non-fiction requires more focus, intensity, and discipline than reading a novel.
The latter captivates us and tells us many important things about human triumphs and challenges. But the former prepares us for our life’s work, especially important in these difficult economic times.
This is where creative teaching solves the dichotomy. Public school teachers can marry fiction and non-fiction by asking students to read factual material alongside a novel and help them place the novel in historic context. Instructors can help students assess the authenticity of a literary work’s plot and teach them how to distinguish between fact and fiction.
English teachers have already demonstrated some ingenuity in applying these insights. A teacher in Ohio combines John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" with contemporaneous newspaper articles on the New Deal.
In Massachusetts, a teacher is helping students to understand Holden Caulfield’s angst in "The Catcher in the Rye" by also using a psychology text. And a teacher in Florida combines "To Kill a Mockingbird" with a provocative speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Incidentally, many teachers were already doing this before the new Common Core standards came along. But I believe it will become more frequent, and that many teachers will find unique and clever ways to accomplish this.
Even if non-fiction represents only a small fraction of most English course reading lists, it will have served a useful purpose by helping students to glide gracefully from one medium to another and from one mind-set to another.
This kind of executive functioning should be nurtured and cultivated from an early age by parents and teachers alike. The ability to switch mental gears quickly is a valuable skill that is increasingly valuable in the digital age. It is also a sign of intellectual agility and adaptability that employers notice and value.
Realistically, more non-fiction in English classes and other classes alone will not catapult the U.S. to the front ranks of educational achievers. But this change illustrates a broader shift that lies at the heart of the Common Core, and that is the push for more critical thinking.
As our problems become more complex and as change becomes more rapid, we need workers who can recognize, define, and solve thorny problems after gathering relevant evidence that illuminates key alternatives.
We need citizens who can distinguish between valid and invalid evidence and between cogent and faulty arguments.
We need people who are able to look at problems and challenges from different points of view.
The same critical thinking skills that promote a strong economy also promote a strong democracy.
Those of us who teach for a living know how exciting it can be when students make unexpected connections between worlds that seldom intersect. Those connections can ignite a journey of intellectual discovery in ways that are both deep and practical.
Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Leo Tolstoy are among the many writers of fiction whose deep understanding of the world around them enhanced their novels. One never knows for sure, but I suspect they would have welcomed a dose of non-fiction in English, French, and Russian classrooms.
My daughter, the middle schooler, became a voracious reader, thanks to such authors as J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, and Veronica Roth.
I am grateful to these authors and to the teachers who cheerfully allowed her to read these works of fiction to fulfill school requirements. But a little non-fiction on the side strikes me as an excellent way to appreciate these and other authors.
Would Shakespeare have unsheathed his sword to fight against the Common Core standards? I like to think he would revel in the fact that news accounts, political speeches, social commentary and more offer a fresh perspective on some of the greatest fiction ever written.
William T. Gormley, a University Professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, is co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. (CROCUS) and author of Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy (Brookings 2012).