Developing Empathy - The Value of a Good Book
Research has shown that reading literary fiction, taking in stories that make you think, that challenge you to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, increases your empathy. I doubt that surprises anyone who's reading this blog. If you've worked with children then you know just how powerful stories and imagination can be. But it's still important to have evidence we can point at to defend literature in the classroom.
Literature, along with the other arts, is often treated as one of the 'nice to haves' of education. Politicians want us to teach English, but that's all about spelling and grammar rules, the parts that will supposedly make you employable. But English is about so much more than that. Literature can transform the way we think, pushing us to feel as others do, to recognise their motives and emotions, to help us relate to our fellow human beings.
The study, by the New School for Social Research in New York, found that reading books off the Amazon bestseller list didn't have the same benefit as prize winning literature. Having read two whole Dan Brown novels, I'm not surprised, though I wonder how much that's about the texts themselves rather than how we approach them. Surely any book can help develop empathy and understanding, if the right questions are raised about it. Some books may be more powerful than others, but with the aid a teacher children can find meaning in all sorts of stories. And of course one of the benefits of teaching literature in the classroom is that we can point children towards books that will help with this, books they might not normally consider, that might seem daunting without support. I would never have touched The Mayor of Casterbridge if it hadn't been on my school syllabus, never mind getting through to the end of it. But with the help of my English teacher it moved and fascinated me.
School shouldn't just be about learning facts and skills. It should include learning how to deal with our emotions and how to relate to other people. Literature plays a vital role in achieving that.
Photo by Casey Fleser voa Flickr creative commons
About Andrew Knighton
I'm a writer and ex-teacher. You can find more of my writing on education at: http://www.degreediary.com/bloggers/27 I also have a blog on reading and writing: https://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/