Academic journal article Style

"Thanks to All at Once and to Each One": Continuing the Conversation

Academic journal article Style

"Thanks to All at Once and to Each One": Continuing the Conversation

Article excerpt

We are flattered by the responses we've received to "Euclid at the Core"--by the resonances our article has found even with people who do not share our basic starting points, by the way our colleagues (some long-time friends, others we've never met) have amplified and refined and questioned our ideas, and by the insightful pedagogical suggestions that, in Sheridan Blau's words, "extend the reach" of our initial essay. We don't have space, unfortunately, to honor everything that's been said in these eleven brief but rich essays. We'd therefore like to focus on two areas. First, we'll address three stubborn and significant challenges to our argument. These issues interlock in many ways, but we'll try to separate them for clarity's sake. Then, we'll turn to some practical consequences we did not have space to address in our initial article.

"Our Warranted Quarrel": Challenges

1. "To Find the Heart's Construction": The Centrality of mind-reading (or Theory of Mind)

Recognizing the Common Core's theoretical weakness, we took mind-reading (or, as it is also known, Theory of Mind [ToM]) as the foundation for our pedagogy. Especially in the light of Lisa Zunshine's response, we are increasingly confident in our decision. Zunshine first introduced us to the literary significance of ToM in Why We Read Fiction, where she argued that "Theory of Mind makes reading fiction possible" (35). Her response here draws on science to show the reverse is also true--reading fiction hones ToM skills more than non-fiction. In light of literary and scientific emphasis on the unique capacity of fiction to improve ToM, Common Core's mandate to reduce fiction in classrooms is frightening.

Zunshine refers to an important 2004 study by psychologists Joan Peskin and Janet Wilde Astington to show "The Common Core Standards' goal of fostering complex thinking in K-12 students" will not be achieved unless they rethink their view of fiction. Peskin and Astington conducted a four week study of two groups of kindergarten age children; parents, teachers, and research assistants read the same 70 books to each child in both groups. Peskin and Astington, however, added metacognitive words (know, guess, remember) to the texts of one group. As Zunshine puts it, "Children introduced to explicit metacognitive terms did start using them more, but they used them incorrectly." The students not exposed to metacognitive language actually demonstrated better understandings of those words. Reading texts rich in metacognitive challenges--fictional texts--improves young children's vocabularies and critical thinking skills more than texts which explicitly use those terms. Zunshine's explanation of this study also provides important foundation for a pedagogical intervention we make below.

The recent work of psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano offers more scientific support for the unique cognitive value of fiction. In a series of five studies, they found that reading fiction immediately increases ToM in adults, more than reading non-fiction does. This research is of crucial importance to educators, since it provides significant grounds for questioning the Common Core's commitment to reducing the amount of imaginative literature in the curriculum.

As we said in our original essay, our primary grounding is in "cognitive narrative theory (as distinct from actual cognitive science)," and we are not about to pretend psychological expertise. Still, it's worth considering the possibility that the Common Core not only lacks a basis in literary theory but also, as Zunshine's contribution suggests, lacks grounding in scientific theory as well.

Of course, not everyone is as enthusiastic about our recentering as Zunshine is. Some of the disagreements seem to us superficial, because the proposed alternatives, whatever their terminology, ultimately fall back on mind-reading skills. Certainly, Michael W. Smith's emphasis on living through a character's experience involves mind-reading to a high degree; mind-reading is central to the way fiction allows us "to try on new ways of thinking. …

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