Fact and fiction in the classroom


As the Blackadder debate rumbles on, child psychologist Karen Sullivan looks at how fiction can have a vital role to play in helping children to learn.

A short while ago, taking the matter of the fictionalisation of history beyond the Blackadder debate, literary editor of The Independent, Arifa Akbar, wrote a piece called The most memorable history lesson on war is found in fiction.

Speaking specifically about the Great War, she said: “What fiction inspired by the Great War has done – and continues to do – is to bring back the smells, sounds, and electrifying sensations of the front line; the filth and terror of the trenches; and, alongside that, just as validly, the duller terror at the home front. These fictions take you back there; they make you care.”

This is an important message, particularly in the context of how history is taught. Fiction takes us beyond a catalogue of events and encourages us to see the people behind them. Not only does this bring history alive but, as Ms Akbar suggests, makes it memorable in a way that few history texts can ever do. It also provides us with insight into the emotions that lie beneath the actions, and not only from one perspective.

This summer I read the short novel Under the Sun, by Justin Kerr-Smiley, set in a Japanese POW camp. An unlikely friendship develops between English prisoner and Japanese captor, that allows us to view the men behind the war. It is, perhaps, the element of humanity that is missing in history texts and classes, and this is not only crucial to a full understanding of any subject, and an ability to put it into context, but essential for it to become memorable.

Learning that millions of people died in a war does nothing to spark understanding or compassion, or portray the human cost of war. Fiction does this. At one point in the book, the English captain asks his captor why Japan won’t surrender after Hiroshima, clearly puzzled that such dramatic action hasn’t had the desired effect. His captor says: “If the same happened to you. If Manchester or Liverpool had been destroyed, would Britain surrender without a fight?”

Such a simple scene causes us to stop and examine the Japanese resistance from a different perspective. We teach loyalty and patriotism in our history classes, and most usually from our own perspective. How much deeper the learning would be if we could develop understandings of historical events that would produce tolerance and guide future action.

Like most people, I learned about the tunnels and trenches of the Great War through history books, but nothing could have taught me more about the conditions, the unremitting and passionate patriotism, the doubts, the failed and successful strategies, than Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong trilogy. 

In terms of learning, it’s important to note that fiction has a narrative structure, which studies have found increases learning and long-term retention because it helps our brains to organise information. Research has also found that fiction produces mental imagery, evoking emotions and focusing attention, all of which enhance memory, learning and our ability to extrapolate information. 

Moreover, fiction provides us with a point of discussion that can lead to even greater understanding, because it invests emotion into events and often creates a passionate viewpoint in the reader. A passionate perspective will drive any debate, and organising thoughts to produce a strong argument is one of the most powerful tools for learning there is.

Most educators use a variety of tools and media to enhance history lessons, and aid learning; adding more fiction to the mix may be just what we need to enliven the subject, encourage understanding and emotional development, and help us see the world – and world events – in a completely different way.


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