The educational value of fiction

In a recent paper, a research team from Manchester University and the London School of Economics (LSE) makes a bold and very interesting hypothesis: that fiction, such as the novels The Kite Runner and The White Tiger, is a legitimate way for people to understand global issues like poverty and migration. It is usually the domain of academic reports and policies to cover developmental concerns.

In a Telegraph article, Dr Dennis Rodgers from Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institute explains that fiction “does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.” He continues: “And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.”

The paper argues that Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has “done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan (under the Taliban and thereafter) than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research.”

The paper offers the obvious caveat: that fictional works should be read alongside (not instead of) formal research “as valid contributions to our understandings of development. In this way, literary accounts can be seen – alongside other forms – as an important, accessible and useful way of understanding values and ideas in society.”

Why is this particularly interesting? For educational purposes, the value of fictional representations is legitimised. I’m not thinking of books though, but rather digital and cross-media representations, such as video games or alternate reality games (ARG). We are constantly trying to engage young people in current affairs that affect their world — this is one way to do that.

For some time ARG designers have been trying to understand the educational value of the games (we already know they are highly engaging for some players, but what are they learning?) This paper gives credence to the belief that the game play, when embedded in real world situations and stories (at which ARGs excel), is a legitimate context for learning. I think that when the game play is then tied back to reflective discussions in formal contexts (such as in the classroom), the learning is even more powerful.

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