For everyone True stories: Fostering critical thinking one tale at a time

As Melbourne surpasses the world record for the number of days in lockdown, gets shaken up by an earthquake, and endures some pretty ugly protests, I’m left pondering how we can work together to make sense of all that has happened and how to learn from our mistakes so it doesn’t happen again. 

Every adult marching in a protest or sharing their conspiracy theories online came through an education system that evidently did not prepare them for a global pandemic. Perhaps they have been taught to value individual liberty over their responsibility to others. Perhaps they learned to follow rules and trust science only when it benefited them. Whatever their education looked like, the pandemic sent them searching for answers and someone to blame in an ocean of online information where every fact comes with ten more to contradict it. No wonder some clung to the small islands of certainty they discovered, no matter how unfounded.  

Teachers are frontline workers when it comes to building healthy communities. That means we have a responsibility to help students navigate this sea of information. Fortunately, we already have all the tools we need. Both the Victorian and Australian curriculum authorities define four General Capabilities, designed to ensure that every student graduates from high school with the compassion and understanding they need to live in a functioning democracy. But tools are only effective if used properly, and schools are trying to cover the General Capabilities in the same way we approach the rest of the curriculum: by delivering and assessing each strand independently. 

Evidently, it isn’t working. Perhaps if we called them Integrated Capabilities it would clarify how complex skills, such as critical thinking and ethical decision-making, need to occur across all subjects simultaneously. It might sound like an impossible task, but what if I told you there was a single resource that consolidates all aspects of the General Capabilities into one engaging and student-focused activity? Don’t worry, it’s not a virtual reality game. After the last two years, we all need a break from our screens.

Perhaps it is time we shift our focus from whole-school literacy to a whole-school literature policy.

The answer, of course, is books. Or to be more precise, stories. Neil Gaiman once said that “a book is a little empathy machine” but I think he was selling them short. From the longest epic to the shortest flash-fiction, stories not only teach us how to think critically and creatively – they build our capacity to act ethically: personally, socially and interculturally.

Now, before you get carried away thinking I’m arguing for a state-sanctioned list of ideologically approved texts to force-feed to our students, what I’m actually suggesting is a more ancient form of learning. Sharing stories is one of the ‘8 Ways of Knowing’ that underpin Indigenous Pedagogies. Perhaps it is time we shift our focus from whole-school literacy to a whole-school literature policy.

Imagine if every teacher in every class found a relevant short story to help their students construct a deeper understanding of a given topic. If you’re teaching Maths, try Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Science? Try the play Oxygen by Roald Hoffman. Physics teachers have it easy with just about any sci-fi short story ever published.

Outdoor Education teachers could start with To Build a Fire by Jack London. History teachers? Try The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Art or Media teachers could share The Difficulties Involved in Photographing Nix Olympica by Brian Aldiss. Legal Studies? The Bet by Anton Chekhov. Psychology? Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Even Food Tech has The Manager of ‘The Kremlin’ by Evelyn Waugh.

Don’t make reading these stories an assessment task with a reflective essay. Just make them available, mention what each has meant to you, and ask students to share how the stories have shaped the way they think about what they’re learning. Then, when they do their summative task at the end of term, watch for the growing complexity in their answers. Embed the relevant strands from the General Capabilities into the assessment rubric and let the Gutman charts do the rest.

Sharing stories forces us to think creatively, ethically and, most importantly, critically. Ironically, in our age of fake news, fiction is the best path to truth. For more ideas, see shortstoryguide.com.

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