Fiction beats fact for study of history, says John Boyne

13th November 2015 at 00:00
Author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas says novels are a more engaging way for young pupils to learn

Reading historical fiction is much more effective for teaching younger pupils history than studying factual accounts, according to bestselling children’s author John Boyne.

“Fiction engages with young people by igniting their imaginations,” the writer of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a novel about the Holocaust – told TES.

“If the child reader goes on a journey with the character, and takes them through those events in history, then I think they’re more likely to be engaged with it. Non-fiction in the most part works when they’re older.”

As a schoolboy, Boyne read Ian Serraillier’s Second World War thriller, The Silver Sword. “It was much more interesting to me – and much more frightening, to be honest – than what we would read in the textbooks we used in school,” he said.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is already studied in many key stage 2 and 3 classrooms, though it tends to be used in English rather than history lessons.

Boyne was speaking to TES after the publication of his latest book for children, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain. The novel tells the story of Pierrot, a half-French, half-Austrian child who strikes up a friendship with a deaf Jewish boy. After Pierrot is orphaned, he is sent to live with his aunt in Austria – a housekeeper at the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat. By the time he is 15, Pierrot has become Pieter, a power-struck pet of the Nazi leaders.

“Because he’s a child, because he’s had a lonely upbringing and he’s been bullied, he sees a place where he will no longer be a victim,” Boyne said of Pierrot. “He puts aside his essential good nature to get to a place where he will be part of the bullies.

“We all have the capability inside ourselves to be easily corrupted – to lose sight of who we are. That’s effectively what an entire nation did.”

Respecting children

Such challenging territory is not new for Boyne. In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he famously told the story of the friendship between an Auschwitz concentration camp child inmate and the nine-year-old commandant’s son. “As a novelist, I always feel that there’s no subject that you can’t write about for any age,” Boyne said, “as long as you can write about it in a sensitive and careful way, where you’re not trying to terrify them.

“I don’t write children’s books any differently from the books I’ve written for adults. I don’t make the language any different.

“I want to make my sentences every bit as interesting and complex as the ones in my adult books. I’m not interested in simplifying things.

“I wouldn’t have any interest in writing down for young people. I wouldn’t know how to. The only difference is that I put a child in the centre of the story.”

Writing for children, Boyne said, is about respecting them, and appreciating their ability to understand and engage with a story. For this reason, he believes adults should not assume that all reading is equally valid – or that there should be, as former education secretary Michael Gove hoped, “a culture in which the more you read, the more you are celebrated”.

“People often say, ‘As long as you’re reading, it’s good’, but what’s the point of reading rubbish?” Boyne said. “There are so many better things you could do in life than read, say, Fifty Shades of Grey. You could learn a language, climb a mountain. Reading for its own sake is not worthwhile.”

He drew a comparison with eating: food is intrinsically important for staying alive, but if you eat nothing except McDonald’s meals, you may end up dying earlier anyway.

“Reading for its own sake – what’s the point of that, if people aren’t reading interesting or challenging books?” Boyne said. “Then you’re just reading any words on the page for the sake of reading words.”

John Boyne’s new novel, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, is published by Doubleday

Getting the balance right

Paula Kitching of the Historical Association agrees that fiction plays a valuable role in the teaching of history.

“We completely understand and value the role that fiction can have,” she says. “It’s one of the avenues into understanding a subject that’s full of rigour and depth. For us, it’s about a balance of both factual history and fictionalised versions of history.”

Ms Kitching adds that she would not hold back factual history until children are older. “Children and young people are very engaged individuals,” she says. “One size does not fit all.”

Further reading

Children’s historical fiction, as recommended by the Historical Association

Secondary

Sawbones by Catherine Johnson

Poppy by Mary Hooper

Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin

Primary

The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean

Song Hunter by Sally Prue

Billy’s Blitz by Barbara Mitchelhill

The Sacred Scarab by Gill Harvey

So-called “fat letters”, sent to parents of primary pupils to tell them if their child is overweight, should be scrapped or reformed, public health experts said this week. Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: “Our research finds that only one-fifth of parents find the ‘fat letter’ useful and we believe that the letter should be seen as the beginning of a dialogue with parents, not simply flagging whether their child is obese.”

Meanwhile, a list of 100 classical music recordings, which primary schools can access for free, has been developed by the ABRSM, the UK’s largest music education body, and Classic FM with support from the Department for Education. The online resource has been welcomed by schools minister Nick Gibb, who said the list was “a musical opening, which will inspire children to explore classical music further”.

TES revealed concern that the independent prep schools educating many primary-aged children have been turned into “exam factories”. Lord Lucas, editor-in-chief of The Good Schools Guide, is concerned that children’s final years at prep school have become “dominated” by intense preparation for tests to get into top selective schools. The Conservative peer called for a return to “trust” between preps and senior schools, where junior schools could “recommend” good students rather than relying on high-stakes tests.

The remarks came as the ATL teaching union published its survey of working conditions in independent schools, which reveals that teachers are working long hours with short lunch breaks. The poll shows that 41 per cent of teachers are getting only 20 minutes for lunch and many have no set contracted hours.

Meanwhile, in London, pupils at Eleanor Palmer Primary School in Tufnell Park were able to link up with the International Space Station and speak to American astronaut Kjell Lindgren as he hurtled through space, 400km above the Earth.

Forcing teenagers to wake up early could cause mental and public health issues, said the headmaster of the first British school to delay lessons until the afternoon. Hampton Court House, a private school in Surrey, introduced a new timetable for sixth-formers in September 2014, in light of research showing that teenagers have a “biological disposition to going to bed late and getting up late”. Guy Holloway said this week that teenagers who woke up for a traditional starting time were “chronically sleep deprived”, adding: “The cards really are stacked against them because they are overriding nature by getting up early in the morning, in order to be on time for school.”

According to businesses, the odds are stacked against teenagers in more ways than just their biological clocks. A survey of more than 3,500 business and education leaders shows that 69 per cent believe secondary schools are not doing enough to prepare young people for the world of work. The poll, published by the British Chambers of Commerce, shows that 78 per cent of respondents believe schools should teach students interview techniques and how to conduct themselves in interviews. The survey also reveals that the entry-level skills most valued by firms are communication (88 per cent), literacy (69 per cent), numeracy (64 per cent), computer literacy (56 per cent) and teamwork (53 per cent). But Tim Oates, director of research at exam board Cambridge Assessment, said calls from employers for pupils to leave school “work ready” were “absurd”.

Meanwhile, humanists are calling for legal intervention against a government decision to exclude “non-religious” views from the subject content of religious studies GCSE. Three humanist families, backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA), this week mounted a legal challenge against the move in the High Court in London. Officials at the BHA said the content upon which exam boards must base specifications did not allow for the in-depth study of a “non-religious world view”.

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