Commentary / Japan

Newspapers play a critical role in education

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

With both Japan and the United States intent on developing critical thinking skills in students, schools are belatedly recognizing the role that newspapers can play. But much more still needs to be done to convince traditionalists who resist change.

The controversy is most on display in the U.S. in the form of the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. They decree that at least half of what students read in elementary and middle school should be nonfiction, with the share rising to 70 percent by the 12th grade.

Although newspapers are not the only source of nonfiction, what makes them unique are the opinion pages, which provide fresh and timely material that engages students. In the hands of a creative teacher, editorials, op-eds and letters to the editor provoke passionate responses that can then be turned into persuasive essays, using the respective models.

Increasing the time given to nonfiction has caused English teachers in particular to bemoan the change. They argue that fiction is the heart of the English curriculum. Of course, it is important. But if the goal is to prepare graduates for college and career, the case for informational, rather than literary, reading is overwhelming.

Japan faces a similar challenge. National guidelines started in 2011 were designed to teach students how to become aware of complex issues and analyze them. Newspapers by their very nature are ideal sources for achieving that goal. They provide students with the opportunity to recognize bias and identify credible evidence.

But there are two notable obstacles in Japan: the paucity of newspapers in school libraries and the lingering view that students should read only material that mirrors the treatment of topics in approved textbooks in order to avoid controversy.

What this position ignores is that young people in both Japan and the U.S. are maturing substantially much earlier than previous generations. For example, the age of first menstruation has dropped by at least two years since the beginning of the last century. So has the age of sexual activity. Moreover, the policy denies the easy accessibility of images and information that the Internet provides.

In short, students are far more sophisticated than ever. Attempting to shield them from the realities of life that newspapers cover on a daily basis is an exercise in futility. Further, restricting reading to textbooks deprives students of the opportunity to become better citizens through involvement with current issues.

If schools are to be venues for education, rather than centers of indoctrination, Japan and the U.S. have to disabuse themselves of outdated biological and cultural notions. Textbooks and reading lists are the products of committees, which are too easily swayed by pressure groups. Newspapers, in contrast, owe their existence to the publication of truth.

It’s time that they are given their proper place in the classroom. Students can handle what they read, and their writing will show it.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.