The Use of Fiction as a Didactic Tool to Examine Existential Problems

Article excerpt

         Recent geopolitical events have changed the naive way in which
         many teenagers view the world. In particular, it has called
         into question many of the moral and ethical foundations we take
         for granted as norms of a functioning society. In the wake of
         these events, it is important for teachers to allow students,
         in particular the gifted, to voice their thoughts and
         critically examine issues pertinent to society and life. The
         study of literature through the prism of critical thinking can
         allow the student to experience its cohesiveness to life.
         Literature can be practical, inspirational, appealing,
         stimulating, and educational if approached with this purpose in
         mind. In this paper, we describe how gifted high school
         seniors at a rural Midwestern public school discerned the
         nature of "truths" about society and life by critically
         examining a simple contemporary novel. Vignettes of student
         discussions that illustrate critical thinking and express
         "controversial" views are presented along with commentaries. We
         also discuss the implications of using fiction as a didactic
         tool to examine existential problems in the high school
         classroom.

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"Truth is a pathless land."

--J. Krishnamurthi

Ideally, the goal of learning is to extend vision, to broaden perspective, and to bring out coherence and unity among the disciplines. A student whose learning experiences in school involve the mindless regurgitation of facts, figures, and formulae that lack meaning and do not add beauty to the world experiences an existential void. The standard rationale that education means fulfillment begs the question: How can education fill the void experienced by students in the wake of recent catastrophic geopolitical events, especially gifted students who are capable of thinking critically? It is well known that gifted individuals are highly skilled at processing information by separating relevant from irrelevant information, combining isolated pieces of information into a unified whole, and drawing inferences from the newly acquired information (Lipman & Sharp, 1980; Paul, Binker, Martine, & Adamson, 1995; Sriraman, 2003; Sternberg & Wagner, 1982). Dewey (1933) said the purpose of education should be to allow students the capacity of active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends. (p. 118)

It is very often the case that instruction in the regular classroom is not differentiated to meet the gifted student's capacity for higher level thinking (Marland, 1972; Sriraman, 2002; Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, & Salvin, 1993). Most regular instructional settings rarely provide a forum or a platform through which gifted students can express their critical thinking abilities. In our experience as classroom teachers and gifted coordinators, high school teachers who claim to differentiate the curriculum in their classrooms usually find it hard to add substantial depth to the content being covered. This may be attributed to the lack of general interest in a mixed-ability classroom, curricula and classroom logistics, and lack of proper teacher training in the area of gifted education (Passow, 1982; Winebrenner, 1992). Gifted students in the regular high school classroom setting are also prone to hide their intellectual capacity for social reasons and identify their academic talent as being a source of envy (Masse & Gagne, 2002). For instance, expressing a controversial, but well-reasoned, viewpoint in a literature classroom discussion can result in the spread of malicious rumors about the gifted individual, thus creating a negative social environment for him or her in school (Neu, 1980). …