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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

One More Effort at Explaining the “New Knowledge” Claim — Bracketology

I am writing this Sunday night, just a couple of hours after America learned which 68 teams would be invited to compete for the NCAA Division One Men’s Basketball championship. For weeks, millions of Americans have been thinking about this, listening to experts opine on who was In/Out or On the Bubble (possibly in or out, depending the next game that team was to play). Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars have been spent on getting the very best possible information on these possible contestants. Because now, billions more will be bet — from Las Vegas to office pools — on who will win each contest, who will be upset, who will make the Sweet 16; the Great 8; the Final 4 — and who will be crowned champion. In other words our nation has been involved in a vast game of educated guesswork so that it may speculate on the outcome of March Madness.

As a nation we love to get expert estimates and projections about what is about to happen — in American Idol, in Survivor, in guessing which team will pick which player in the NFL, or NBA, or NLB draft and — in fiction — in The Hunger games. The fun of a contest is handicapping the outcome as much as it is having your favorite person or team win. I am saying that that same thrill, that same mix of expertise, insight, intelligence can be applied to the past, to nature, to physics, to all of the fields of nonfiction. We can engage young people in thinking about what cannot be known — as, until tonight, it was impossible to know who would be selected (outside of the teams that had earned automatic bids), and until the end of the tournament, it will be impossible to be certain who will cut down the last nets — the honor which goes to the victorious team. Today was the day when the many possible futures collapsed into the concrete present. In nonfiction books we can approach the past in the same questing spririt — studying what is known as carefully as the ESPN experts study teams and brackets, but then venturing to speculate beyond that. I am saying there is a thrill in that kind of competitive questing for answers, and if we harness it, we can make nonfiction exciting.

The Boys Reading Group which I worked with in Florida really got excited it when they were studying the stats on teams competing in upcoming events, and thus trying to outdo each other as experts so they could predict who would win. Reading was a tool to gain expertise so you could make better educated guesses. I think some of the NF books we offer to young people should partake of that same spirit.

I must say I find it odd that some of my critics should caution that NF needs to be well sourced and documented — I led the way in providing full citations in my books, and some people criticized me then for offering too much back matter. So I am certainly not one who ignores the need to be grounded as solidly as possible in the known. But it is because I do read everything I can, and consult with experts, that I feel free to say what I think may be so beyond what the books and experts say. And I want to make the place for that deeply rigorous and well-grounded leap into the unknown.

If the entire nation can spend its days guessing who will play in the NCAAs, NF authors have something to learn: people love informed speculation. And I do, once again, think the children’s book community needs to examine its fear, hesitation, and resistence to this form of potentially thrilling intellectual exploration.

Comments

  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I have been reading all the discussion of “New Knowledge” with great interest. My particular interest stems from my work with children who often see knowledge, to use Marc’s term, as “settled.” There’s no place in it for their ideas. There’s nothing to do but memorize it. When books present knowledge as settled, children don’t see the steps needed to construct it. Clearly, authors mentioned in this discussion–Jim Murphy, Russell Freedman, for example–are authors who do considerable research and thinking in order to shape their books. This is not the issue. The issue is that young readers are not aware of it.

    The issue of knowledge as static is one that has been discussed by educators like Robert Bain and me. As we see it, the trade books are so well written that the struggle to shape the information is gone. I am not saying that all nonfiction authors need to share everything about their researching, thinking and speculating. I am saying that when they do, it opens up subjects like science, mathematics, and social studies in new ways for children. They see real people solving real problems.

    Currently there is a movement afoot called disciplinary literacy. And while you may not care for educational “trends,” this one is important. Our students need to know how to interpret what they read–how scientists, historians, mathematicians and others deal with information and inquiry. When books like Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak show students that even something as old as Stonehenge is still being studied and how these studies are moving forward, readers learn about the process of knowledge development. This is invaluable. These books make problem solving visible for children.

    Currently I am sharing THE HIVE DETECTIVES by Loree Griffin Burns with two classes of fifth graders. These students love this book because they are intrigued by how the scientists are approaching the problem of colony collapse disorder or CCD. This book, part of the Scientists in the Field Series, is making a big impact on the children’s thinking about how scientists solve problems. At the same time they are learning about an important issue.

    In my view, “the literature of inquiry” (a term I used in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Children’s Literature) matters. It is making a huge difference to children’s understanding of how knowledge is created.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks for re-framing the issues. Yes the question is not — do, or have, many great NF authors done original research and thinking, but, rather, have we as a community heralded process — new work, new thought — or have we leaned to the settled and the reliable?

  3. Myra, I agree with all that you have said, particularly about the model nonfiction tradebooks provide for disciplinary literacy. How can we best help children to read nonfiction that contains research that is always incomplete, unfinished, even as it appears in books that “feel” complete? And how do we, in turn, show students how to use these nonfiction trade books as mentor texts for their own research? How can they develop an internal barometer that tells them when they can stop doing research and synthesize what they’ve uncovered while still realizing that there is always more to be done? I like the NY Times blog “Scientists at Work.” Much like the Scientists in the Field books for children, it allows readers to glimpse scientists doing their work. It’s all work-in-progress, which is a valuable model. For those who don’t read The Times, it’s at: http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/fisher-tracks-through-suburbia/?hp .

    Marc, you often use this blog to talk about your research and the dilemmas you face as you try to make connections across artifacts and evidence. The INK blog does parallel work. But it would be interesting to blog about a book’s research from the very start, particularly if some of the primary source material is in the public domain or can be linked to where it’s housed online. In effect, the whole process of building the book, the shifts in thinking, can be mapped out for young readers/writers/researchers. The challenge for me, again, is voice, as I noted in my comments about the author’s note. How can all of this be written at a level not for the adults working with children, but for the children themselves?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I have long liked that idea — of an author being in touch with a class or classes as s/he researches a book — with perhaps a Skype element as well. Unfortunately the books I am working on right now are just at the opposite end — finishing up. But I would be very interested in doing something like that, as, I bet, would other authors.

  5. I have been following this debate with great interest as a reader, as a parent, and as a nonfiction author. Marc, you’ve done a great job clarifying and sharing your opinion here and in your previous posts on the topic, and I thank you for that. Myra and Mary Anne, I appreciate what you’ve added to the conversation here, too. When I was a child, I distinctly remember being told (by implication, if not directly) that everything interesting had already been discovered. Talk about depressing! I love the “new” models of inquiry, of disciplinary literacy, and of kids as participants in the creation of knowledge, even before they are adults or “experts”. My kids _know_ they have something to contribute to the world, and they actively seek outlets for their knowledge as well as inputs. It’s a beautiful thing. :)

  6. Marc Aronson says:

    thanks — I had the same experience as a child and am determined to bring as many young people as possible into the game of inquiry and new discoveries