Newspapers as a tool for learning

April 12, 2011

A story in a local newspaper about a class using newspapers gave me the idea about this post. While I was writing this I read a blog post by Gilberto Dimenstein in the Revitalizing Cities blog in Harward Business Review. In the post he explained how he as a schoolboy made newspapers his personal textbooks. The post is also worth reading for the background information about Open City Labs.

Newspaper week in Finnish Schools

Ruusutorppa school, photo by Esa Helttula

Every year one week in February is the newspaper week in Finnish schools. During that week schools get free paper newspapers and free access to online papers. Every newspaper in the country is ready to provide free paper copies to schools. This year 200.000 papers were sent to schools. The program is completely free for schools. It is a community service from the newspapers to the schools and it is not restricted to one week. Schools can order free newspapers from any of the several Finnish newspaper houses at any time of the year.

During the newspaper week schoolchildren from all over Finland can submit their own stories about their schools to the biggest Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat. Dozens of stories by these "satellite reporters" appear in the daily paper and are seen by over a million readers.

Newspaper weeks are also in other countries, so this is not unique to Finland.

A 6th grade class replaces all textbooks with newspapers

One 6th grade class in the Ruusutorppa (rose croft house) comprehensive school in Espoo, Finland has had a “permanent newspaper week” since last fall. One student fetches the daily papers from the lobby as the first thing each morning. The daily paper will then form the basis for the teaching that day.

Children like the newspapers so much more than textbooks that they made a newspaper rap for a school event.

The historical role of newspapers in education

Newspapers have been used in education as long as they have been published.

“Much has been said and written on the utility of newspapers; but one principal advantage which might be derived from these publications has been neglected; we mean that of reading them in schools, and by the children in families. Try it for one session. Do you wish your child to improve in reading solely, give him a newspaper; it furnishes a variety, some parts of which must indelibly touch his fancy. Do you wish to instruct him in geography, nothing will so indelibly fix the relative situation of different places, as the stories and events published in the papers. In time, do you wish to have him acquainted with the manners of the country or city, the mode of doing business, public or private; or do you wish him to have a smattering of every kind of science useful and amusing, give him a newspaper. Newspapers are plenty and cheap, the cheapest book that can be bought, and the more you buy the better for your children, because every part furnishes valuable information.”

That quote appeared in Portland Eastern Herald of Maine on June 8, 1795. Source: NYT: The National Newspaper as a Tool for Educational Empowerment: Origins and Rationale. Earlier examples of using newspapers in education can be found 100 years earlier in Germany and other European countries.

Newspapers were a high-tech invention and their use in education shows that teachers have always been willing to seek new ways to use the latest technology. Imagine an invention in the 17th century that had fresh content every day that you could just flip through page by page. Newspapers were the iPad and Flipboard of the 17th century. Inventions just did not spread as fast back then. After first appearing in Germany newspapers began to circulate in other European countries years and decades later.

But newspapers are still useful.

Finnish PISA research finds a link between newspaper reading habits and learning

Finnish PISA experts professor Pirjo Linnakylä and doctor Antero Malin conducted research that was based on the Finnish PISA assessment in 2003. Finland was the top country in the reading portion of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000 and 2003. Finnish 9- and 14-year olds were already found to be the best readers in the World in a 1991 Reading Literacy Study by IEA.

The Finnish children who took part in the 2003 PISA assessment were also asked about their newspaper reading habits. The research aimed to answer how newspaper reading habits affected

  • reading skills and activity
  • math skills
  • natural sciences skills
  • problem solving skills
  • attitude towards learning
  • plans for further studies after elementary school

The study found that 85% of Finnish 15-olds read newpapers several times every month and only 2% did not read them at all. The more frequently students reported to read newspapers the better results they had in reading, math, natural sciences, and problem solving. The authors admitted that it is hard to know which is cause and which effect. Good students may want read more newspapers because it is so easy for them. The group that did not read newspapers at all had worse reading skills than the OECD average.

Reading fiction is also important

The students were divided into 5 groups based on their consumption of newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, and text messages/email. That division showed that reading only newspapers helped with PISA results, but reading also non-fiction litterature helped more and reading newspapers and fiction was most beneficial. Reading just short text messages and email was not beneficial.

Links to the research and some articles

Other factors

When looking at Finnish research about the importance of newspapers in mastering various subjects it must be remembered that one important group is completely missing: young people who do not read newspapers but read fiction and non-fiction. Newspapers are such an important tradition in Finland that even today they are read by most young people.

Still, people in Finland and everywhere read less and less newspapers and newspaper circulation is in decline in almost every country (The Evolution of News and Internet - pdf).