Exploring Science Fictional Futures With Secondary Students: Practicing Critical Literacy

Exploring Science Fictional Futures With Secondary Students: Practicing Critical Literacy

Brittany Tomin (York University, Canada) and Jennifer Jenson (University of British Columbia, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4721-2.ch005
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Science fiction (SF), while enjoying unprecedented success in popular culture, continues to be an under-utilized resource in K-12 education. This chapter details the results of an in-school study on the use of SF in secondary school courses, examining how SF can be used as a pedagogical tool by educators to help students explore fictional futures in the context of contemporary issues, with a particular focus on developing critical thinking and critical literacy competencies. This study was designed to address the gap in pedagogical resources on teaching SF, and the dearth of research on potential benefits of teaching with SF in secondary English classrooms in particular. The aim of this chapter will therefore be to provide a research-informed overview of the benefits of integrating SF texts into secondary English classrooms, and to offer suggestions for educators.
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Science Fiction (SF) is often characterized by its most common tropes: aliens, time travel, flying cars, and robots. As such, SF is typically viewed as genre fiction, written for its popular associations and pre-existing fan base, and thus has a history of being thrust to the margins of academic discourse in literary fields (Westfahl & Slusser, 2002). As it is considered ‘pop culture,’ reinforced by its modern beginnings in pulp magazines of the early 20th century (Luckhurst, 2005), SF has struggled to reach ‘mainstream’ English language curricula. However, beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), SF has served as a vehicle for understanding the relationship that society has with technology, science, and social change. Popular texts that utilize science fictional modes of thinking are therefore currently enjoying unprecedented popularity, as we struggle to understand our relationship with an era of accelerated change and profound future uncertainty (Disch, 1998; Kaku, 2011).

This chapter is informed by the demands on 21st century learners to develop the critical thinking and critical literacy skills necessary to help them navigate change, both in the present and in uncertain futures. As shifts in political, environmental, and social contexts occur at an accelerated pace, formal educational systems are increasingly unable to anticipate students’ future needs, making it necessary for schools to provide space for young people to build capacities for adapting to and finding their place in an ever-evolving world. Approaches to literacy must similarly change to reflect the interconnected, increasingly complex society that 21st century learners will be, and are, a part of. Currently, critical thinking and critical literacy practices have been prioritized (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007), although much work still remains to clarify how teachers in K-12 educational contexts should best address these demands. Critical literacy is often positioned as a framework for linking literacy practices to civic education through exposure to and critique of different societies and ways of being through literature, with reading experiences acting as a springboard for student action as they begin to imagine and move towards a more just world. One way that educators can respond to this call towards critical literacy is through selecting texts which highlight a range of perspectives and address issues of present concern, many of which often fall outside the purview of canonical texts. Viewing SF as a “locus of radical alterity to the mundane status quo” (Freedman, 2000, p. 55) through representations of difference in myriad possible futures, SF is uniquely suited to support critical literacy pedagogies that engage students in both literacy learning and civic education. This chapter will thus establish the definitional parameters for using SF as a driver of social change and critique and offer educators and other readers various ways of framing SF as a pedagogical tool in literacy learning.

Following an overview of critical thinking, critical literacy, and definitional and stylistic parameters for SF, this chapter presents findings from an in-school study, which was designed to explore how SF can be used in secondary English classrooms to build students’ critical thinking and critical literacy capacities in the context of 21st century issues that are central to students’ understanding of the present. Through findings from this study, the authors will make suggestions for best practices for educators interested in using SF to facilitate students’ ongoing development of critical literacy skills. The chapter will conclude with identifying opportunities for future research and teaching based on participants’ suggestions.


Critical thinking is regarded in contemporary educational scholarship as one of the key skills or competencies that students in the 21st century require (Kivunja, 2014; Moore & Parker, 2012). Through its connection to critical literacy, language arts teachers are often tasked with developing this skill with students. However, as illustrated by the Ontario curriculum which framed the study (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007), teachers are often left to determine how to meet these needs in their individual classrooms. While text selection provides one approach to teaching towards critical literacy practices, due in part to its relegation as a ‘popular genre’ (Westfahl & Slusser, 2002) there is a lack of resources on teaching SF in K-12 classrooms. This means that, although SF is an ideal genre for developing critical reading capacities in students, it is heavily underutilized.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Novel Study Unit: A unit of teaching designed around a novel which the entire class reads together. Novel study units typically involve both directed and independent student engagement with the novel, often involves discussion at key points in the text, and typically culminates in an in-depth exploration of significant themes and/or real-life connections found in the novel.

Pedagogy: The approach educators take to the design and implementation of teaching tools, informed by an underlying philosophy regarding the nature of learning and effective approaches to teaching.

21st Century Learning: An umbrella term encompassing the skills deemed necessary for productive participation in 21 st century society, spanning communicative, collaborative, and creative competencies related to emergent technologies alongside critical thinking capacities.

Genre-Based Approach: An approach to teaching which emphasizes the form a text takes, with attention paid to how unique characteristics different functional and stylistic forms have impact possible interpretations.

Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL): An instructional design approach which begins by establishing self-directed student interest in a broad topic, where the teacher facilitates the development of areas of inquiry and guides students through the process of pursuing knowledge rooted in personal curiosity. Students find different ways of answering their inquiry questions, including examining existing sources, developing experiments, and testing hypotheses, or exploring connections to real world contexts.

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