Pupils’ critical view of literature education

There is a tension between what pupils feel is at the core of literature, and how literature is actually taught in Norwegian class in school. These were the findings of a study of high achieving upper secondary school graduates.

Teenage boy reading in class. High achieving pupils experience a tension between what they perceive is at the core of literature as a subject, and how it is actually taught in school.

The Norwegian school is changing, and there is an ongoing discussion relating to the content and objective of the school of the future. This discussion also applies to the literature education within the subject of Norwegian. As for most subjects, there is an ongoing negotiation between tradition and new trends in the discipline.

“There are many different understandings of what the essence of literature education in school should be. Although the discipline is continually evolving and under discussion, it is, like all disciplines, characterised by a relatively stable and recognisable core”, explains PhD Research Fellow Aslaug Fodstad Gourvennec at the Reading Centre, University of Stavanger

As part of her doctoral thesis, Gourvennec has interviewed high achieving Norwegian secondary school graduates. She found that these pupils experience a tension between the literature education in Norwegian class, and what they perceive as the core of the subject.

The study is described in the article ”Litteraturfaglig praksis: Avgangselevers retrospektive blikk på arbeid med litterære tekster i videregående skole” (Literary practice: graduates’ views on working with literary texts in upper secondary school) (Nordic Journal of Literacy Research,   

“The pupils percieve that the core values in literature education are connected with the role of the text, the reader's role, and the interaction between the text, the reader and other readers.

“However, they find that the instruction is often centred on knowledge of the history of literature, and tools for analysing text. They express that there often is little time allowed for working on texts, and that they are evaluated frequently. Even though the pupils recognise the value of both the history of literature and literary analytical tools, their experience is that these frames sometimes lead them away from the process of meeting and understanding the literary text”, says Gourvennec.

Subject frames that open and close

The 12 graduates that Gourvennec interviewed in the study were about to complete three years at an upper secondary school that was renowned for high entrance requirements and a strong academic tradition.

“These high achieving graduates are probably not representative of Norwegian pupils in general. Nevertheless, it is worth taking note of their perspective, as they are examples of pupils interested in entering an academic community after thirteen years of education, says Gourvennec.

“We can therefore assume that they are aware of which frames in the teaching practice that invite them to be participants in the literary practice, and which stand in the way for their participation. These pupils provide important thoughts on the type of participation, actions and resources in the teaching of literature that bring them toward what they perceive as the subject core, and what lead them away from it.”

In two group interviews, the pupils were asked to describe how they viewed the last three years of literary education in school. They talked about their own development, and described a memorable experience with a text. They were also asked how they preferred to work in class.

Read the original article in Nordic Journal of Literacy Research.

Participants in a community

The study shows how the pupils perceive the disciplinary core, by reflecting on how the instruction was organised, the academic framesfor their literary education, and their experiences with specific texts.

It was clear that the pupils regarded themselves, their fellow pupils and the teacher as participants in an academic community. Even though they appreciated working with texts on their own in the beginning of the process, they said that classroom discussions about texts provided important feedback, with the teacher having an important role. They found that this provided a deeper understanding and new interpretations of the texts that they had read.

“The pupils also mentioned the importance of taking time to understand a text. Even though I did not question them specifically about the use of time, or about evaluations, most of them stressed that tests and exams are difficult due to time restrictions”, says Gourvennec.

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Problematic frames

Most pupils in upper secondary school are familiar with methods and “recipes” for analysing text. The idea behind such methods is that they should be adapted for each individual text and that they should be used to support understanding as the pupils develop during their school years.

Although some of the pupils in the study say that they during upper secondary school managed to break away from the categoric and formulaic use of methods for analysis, many pupils find these “cookbook recipes” problematic when approaching a text.

“They bring to view the conflict between needing to break away from the cookbook-recipe of analysing texts, and at the same time fulfilling school and teaching requirements. They percieve that the instruction requires them to have “the right answer”, and that their own perception of the text will be subordinate to an established blueprint.

In addition, some of the pupils are critical of what they perceive as “mechanical” methods. They feel pressurised into connecting the literary devises to the theme of the text, including texts where they believe that such a connection does not actually exist.

“For example, when you come across a text that does not have a theme, then you do not know how to find the value in the text. And that is quite sad. We have tools and methods of interpreting texts, but we have not been made aware that these do not always fit”, explains one of the girls in the interview.

“Thus, she points out the tension between the recipe-type procedure that is practised and the wide-ranging and diverse literary text world”, says Gourvennec.

Read the original article in Nordic Journal of Literacy Research.

When the text is assigned a supporting role

The place of literary history in literature education is another example of an academic framework with which the pupils have a two-sided relationship. They accept that literature history provides an important basis for interpreting and understanding texts. At the same time, they find that this type of knowledge can dominate other approaches to texts.

“You miss out, to a certain extent, on what makes the text unique. You put it into a category and only reflect on this category”, says one of the girls. In other words, she highlights the fact that literature history can be assigned the leading role when reading, while the text itself is assigned a supporting role as an example of a text that is typical of its time or author.

Searching for challenging texts

The pupils in the study have different starting points, but they all highlight the same core values within literature, Gourvennec explains.

“It is important for them to spend time exploring the text and discussing it with others, based on their experience and subject-specific knowledge. Thus, they are part of an academic community where they interpret and gain an understanding of literary texts. This is contrasted with following set recipes and reproducing conclusions known beforehand.

It became clear that the pupils valued meeting texts that were challenging in different ways and that required some effort to understand[. Several of the pupils said that by working hard over a long period, they developed a close relationship with texts they initially thought were incomprehensible, demanding, or even daunting. Such texts gave them greater insight into what literary fiction is all about.

“When I first read it, the text didn’t mean anything to me. But when I put the pieces together, then suddenly the meaning became clear, and it was so much fun. There were so many aspects to it; aspects that I had never thought a text could evoke”, one pupil said.

“The pupils experience that interpreting known texts can be somewhat unchallenging, because they are familiar with how others have interpreted them, and they feel bound by these interpretations. However, upon meeting lesser-known texts and authors, they can no longer reproduce someone else’s interpretations. Instead, the text provides the pupils with a real challenge, where the participation of the reader actually plays a role. In this way, the pupils are being invited to participate in an academic community”, Gourvennec explains.

She highlights the importance of giving the pupils the opportunity to participate in this community.

“Understanding upper secondary school graduates as participants in a literary community is important. When we challenge pupils—irrespective of their age, grades or specialization—we are taking them seriously by inviting them into this community and giving them the opportunity to develop within this community. If we dare to take the pupils seriously, we must also dare to listen to their experiences of thirteen years of literature education.”

Read the original article in Nordic Journal of Literacy Research.

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Aslaug Fodstad Gourvennec

Aslaug Fodstad Gourvennec