Teaching World Population Growth Trends

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I’ve found in my teaching of geography that one of the best ways to begin a new topic that requires some level of background knowledge is to use minimal lecturing and instead use an activity to get students thinking. In particular, an activity that has students use data to draw simple conclusions about a condition or situation is useful in achieving this goal.

Here is how I tackled introducing a unit on population issues with my Level 3 World Geography students.

The purpose of the outcome is stated clearly at the top of the page and, while this is something students will learn to do over the course of a few classes and they may not yet “be there” in terms of knowledge, the activity sets them in the right direction.

Understanding data and using it to draw conclusions, fuel future learning, and scaffold inquiry is an important part of social studies education. Here students use historical population data to plot a line graph illustrating trends over the last 2,000 years.

The second side of the page is dedicated to early analysis of the data that allows students to determine for themselves two primary population trends:

  1. a population explosion occurred globally after 1600, and
  2. since 1980, global population growth has begun to slow down.

These inferences from the data then allow students the opportunity to brainstorm reasons why population might increase or decrease, and how these changes can influence quality of life. These factors are the meat of the early part of the unit and will eventually lead into an exploration of possible responses to issues resulting from population change.

Technology and Carrying Capacity: The Cornucopian Thesis

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A major topic of focus in human geography is sustainability, which is not the least bit surprising with the increases in resource use and material output that have occurred in the last two centuries. The issue of population growth has magnified concerns about responsible use of the environment and meeting the needs and wants of ever larger numbers of people in the world. As globalization continues to march forward and countries reach for higher economic goals, new technology will be developed to improve quality of life for people the world over (to varying degrees). But what happens when new technology results in increases in population, challenging countries to meet the needs of more and more citizens?

Carrying Capacity and the Cornucopians

Carrying capacity is a term used by demographers to refer to the maximum population that can be sustained by the earth’s resources. One thing we know from historical study is that new technology can have a dramatic impact on the carrying capacity of the planet and there are conflicting theories that help show the great differences in perspective on this impact. In this post I will focus on the historical context of the Cornucopian Thesis as a conceptual model of technological development and sustainability.

Cornucopians believe that new technology and scientific advancement will make humans more efficient resource users; not only will we be better able to extract and use those natural materials we find in abundance now, but new developments in technology will allow us access to resources in the future that we currently cannot obtain (Clark & Wallace, p. 35). This is a positive view of sustainability in that as we become more technologically advanced, we will have access to new resources to meet our ever growing needs as a species.

There are any number of examples that help describe this theory, but the following is enough to help us get the idea: our economy is at present highly reliant on oil and petroleum products. Everything from transportation in the form of cars and aircraft, to the production of plastics, to fertilizers to increase food production involve the use of this non-renewable resource. Cornucopians argue that new sources of energy will be developed to replace petroleum, and we can already see this happening in the form of solar, wind, tidal, hydroelectric, geothermal, bioenergy and other alternative sources being funded in recent decades (About Renewable Energy). For example, the graph below shows the growing importance of wind energy, as the second fastest growing renewable energy source in Canada (still far behind hydroelectricity, however).

Installed Wind Power Capacity in Canada

Installed Wind Power Capacity in Canada (in megawatts). Source: Natural Resources Canada.

While the cornucopian thesis may be controversial as a reliable predictor of future human success, as population continues to grow, there are historical precedents to support its use.

Hunter-Gatherer Technologies

If we go back to the earliest period in the history of modern humans – the late Paleolithic Era – we see the earliest examples of technology increasing earth’s carrying capacity. Our prehistoric ancestors were nomadic peoples, meaning they travelled from place to place to take advantage of favourable climate and geography at various times of the year. As hunter-gatherers, they followed herds of animals and gathered fruits, berries, and other vegetation they could use as food supplies. Due to the relative difficulty in acquiring food this way, social groups tended to be roughly 25 members in size (Elshaikh, 2017), but could sometimes be as populous as 70 (Beck et al., 2007).

At first, the carrying capacity of the earth would be relatively low, as without sophisticated tools for hunting it would be exceedingly difficult to provide enough food to dramatically increase the population. As these early humans developed better use of stone tools for cutting, slashing, stabbing, and shooting their prey from a distance, the population size that could be supported would increase. Estimating the total population of Early Modern Humans is quite difficult, but by 10,000 BCE there may have been as many as 1-10 million (US Census Bureau, 2017), suggesting that this was the carrying capacity of the earth at the time.

Neolithic Revolution

One of the most significant changes in human life came with the first developments in agriculture between 10,000-12,000 years ago. This caused groups of humans to shift from a food-gathering economy to a food-producing economy, greatly increasing their chances of survival and improving food security. Early technologies would have included stone plows for cultivating the land, rudimentary irrigation systems consisting of ditches dug in the earth, and primitive granaries for storing cereals like wheat. These technologies were vital in allowing humans to generate food surpluses, as now they could produce more food than they ever had, while being able to store it for later use, thus providing conditions that would allow the population to grow considerably. Since people now had to settle more or less in one place in order to farm, we see establishment of the first settlements and towns. The people of these earliest towns likely used a combination of farming and hunter-gatherer activity to sustain themselves (Violatti, 2014).

It is estimated on the low end that the human population of the earth increased from 1 million in 10,000 BCE to nearly 14 million by 3,000 BCE, or the beginning of the Ancient Era (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). That’s a staggering increase in just seven thousand years, showing again how changes in technology and new innovations can directly impact carrying capacity.

The Industrial Revolution

While the development of agriculture, which spawned the Neolithic Revolution, is considered to be the more significant innovation in human history, the dramatic changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries are a very close second. Though this may be the case, the earth’s carrying capacity still changed considerably. A second agricultural revolution took place in the 1700s as new technologies (e.g., the seed drill, mechanized harvesters, selective breeding of livestock, enclosure farming, etc.) made it even easier to produce more food from the same land area that was available years before. This combined with new sources of energy, especially coal and steam power, would begin to replace man and animal power, resulting in far more efficient resource use and goods production (Clarke & Wallace, p. 63). People would begin to flock from rural areas, where fewer farm hands were needed, to Urban centres to find work in factories. These new production facilities would rely on greater resource extraction made possible by coal and steam energy.

To add to these farming developments, other technologies and techniques had important influences on human life during the 18th and 19th centuries and, in particular, medical advancements were crucial to human population growth. In the late 1700s, an English country doctor, Edward Jenner, discovered that farmers exposed to cowpox, a mild viral infection, would be protected against the far more deadly smallpox, thus paving the way for the use of vaccinations to protect against infectious disease. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor working in Austria, discovered that regular hand washing and rudimentary sanitation in medical procedures could greatly reduce mortality rates in hospitals, leading to an early understanding of germ theory. Such discoveries we now take for granted, but at the time these contributed to a greatly reduced death rate, which, combined with increases in food production, caused the population to double in just over 100 years (Clarke & Wallace, p. 57).

Carrying Capacity Today

The changes that have occurred in carrying capacity over the millennia no doubt provide support for the cornucopian conceptual model of earth and its resources. Even during the 20th century there were further advances in food production as industrialized nations tripled production, mostly due to synthetic fertilizers and new combine harvesters (Shariatmadari, 2009). We should not forget to mention the Green Revolution that saw new disease resistant varieties of crops and more efficient agricultural methods brought to countries like Mexico and India in the mid 1900s.

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World Population Growth. Source: Barcelona Field Studies Centre.

The fact remains, however, that though technology has worked for us in the past and has done wonders for sustaining the human race, the rate of population growth over the last two centuries has been truly remarkable and threatens to push us to the limits of earth’s productive capacity. We have seen commercial fisheries collapse as a result of overexploitation, forests severely clearcut, and large bodies of fresh water drained to a fraction of their former size. Some believe our success as a species has brought the world and its resources to the brink. The question yet remains: how confident are we that going forward we will be able to improve innovation and create new technologies that adequately increase earth’s carrying capacity to meet the future needs of our growing population?

Sources

Barcelona Field Studies Centre (2017). Population Change. Retrieved from  https://geographyfieldwork.com/PopulationChange.htm

Beck, Roger B., Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka (2007). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, Ill.: McDougal Littell.

Clark, B., & Wallace, J. (2009). Global Connections: Canadian and World Issues (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Pearson.

Elshaikh, Eman M. (2017). Paleolithic Societies in KhanAcademy.org. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/world-history-beginnings/origin-humans-early-societies/a/what-were-paleolithic-societies-like.

Natural Resources Canada (2016). About Renewable Energy. Retrieved from http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/renewable-electricity/7295

Shariatmadari, H. (director). (2009). How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth. Documentary Film.

U.S. Census Bureau (2017). Historical Estimates of World Population. Retreived from https://www.census.gov/population/international/data/worldpop/table_history.php

Violatti, C. (2014, August 05). Neolithic. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Neolithic/

Social Studies YouTube Channel

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I’ve put a little time in today updating the look of the website. The main reason is to make it look a little sleeker, more minimalist, and allow a clear and easy method of navigating from page to page without all the clutter that existed before. So far I like the new look better than the previous one, and hopefully it achieves the purpose I’ve just mentioned.

In the process of working on the site, I’ve also decided to add a YouTube account to the social media accounts I use regularly for sharing teaching ideas and course material. The idea here is probably less to create new videos, and more to compile playlists of videos relevant to the topics I teach in history and geography. I’ve started a few there, so click your way over there if you’d like to see the kinds of videos sources I use in my lessons. I’ll add more videos as I find them.

Finally, while I was at it, I spent a little time using a cool and simple app on my phone called Quik. It allows you to create slideshows and put them to music, creating neat little videos about whatever topic you like. I created a trailer for Social Studies at Gander Collegiate that provides a glimpse into what’s taught in my courses. It’s a first attempt, but perhaps it didn’t come out too badly.

Classroom Routine: Finding A Balance

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I recently read an article by Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) that discusses regular and consistent classroom procedures. He outlines, in a neat table format, what was agreed upon among the staff of a school where he had worked previously, and I must admit that it looks well put together with some good ideas (e.g., orderly lines of students, behaviour expectations posted on the board, targeted questioning for specific students, etc.). It should be noted that Tom’s article does clearly state in the title that the classroom procedures outlined are indeed suggestions and should not be taken to “straight-jacket” the teacher. I wonder, however, whether this kind of thing can be too regimented or rigid, creating an environment that fails to maximize learning.

Teachers vary widely in how they approach their own classrooms and how they structure their lessons. In my own school, you will find those who are highly regimented with students sitting in rows of desks, their lessons broken up into 5, 10, or 15 minute sections, lecturing and seat work. You will also find those with a more organic, or less rigid structure, including desks in pods, or no desks at all, group work and collaboration being the most common student activity, the teacher functioning as a facilitator rather than lecturer, and something different happening in every class. I should point out that I do not consider one method of organizing a classroom to be better or worse than the other, realizing that all teachers fall somewhere different on the structure / routine / organization spectrum.

I’ve found my own approach to classroom procedure and planning has changed a fair bit over the ten years I’ve been teaching. I began not really knowing what I was doing, or at least it felt that way due to my level of inexperience and relative isolation from others in the school (as much my fault as anyone else’s). I tried to do things in a highly structured way: 5 minutes for hellos and to take attendance, 15 or 20 minutes for lecture, 20 minutes for students to work on questions, and 15 minutes to go over said questions. This wasn’t a particularly bad plan, but I wasn’t really thinking about the students and how they experienced the lesson, as I was more concerned with what I was doing.

After a while, as I became more involved in the school and felt more a part of the staff, I began to look more at what other teachers were doing and trying to find a balance of some sort to help me guide my planning. I had recently been exposed to inquiry-based learning through curriculum development in social studies I had been involved with and loved the student-centred focus of such an approach. I found IBL made a rigid structure to class (at least how I envisioned it) difficult, as students work at different ability levels, tasks, and paces concurrently. I had to reduce how rigid I wanted class procedure to be if I wanted to allow for more time for student inquiry. This also meant my classroom would switch from teacher-centred to student-centred.

Today, I try to find a balance between routine, structure, and providing an environment that is conducive to learning. I see all these teachers on twitter who have the most unconventional classrooms that look exciting and fully supportive of inquiry or project-based learning models and I wonder “Why can’t it be like this in my own classroom?”. The answer is that it can be like this, but to an extent. Teaching high school with standardized exams and considerable amounts of course content places stress on teachers to deliver curriculum rather than have students explore it. Therefore, a large part of what I do now is trying to meld these two approaches together, by having a hybrid classroom of sorts: one that prepares students for standardized exams, while providing daily opportunities to challenge students with inquiry and process skills.

Does this affect the procedures and routines that occur within my classroom? Undoubtedly, yes. More and more I see students grasp the idea of the task we are working on during the week and come into class, collect their folders of work from the file box at the side of the room, textbook from a class set or other material required for their activity and start in on their own without me having to do an introductory talk, mini-lecture, or establishing procedures for the day. I spend more time checking with individual students about their progress with an activity and helping them work their way through it. This, in its own way, is a kind of procedure, but it does require students clearly understand what we are trying to do and to be motivated, at least a little, to do so.

Have I figured out the best way to go about organizing my classroom and establishing expectations for students? Probably not, but I have tried to do things differently than in the past for the purpose of improving my own practice and the experiences that students have with history and geography while they are with me for 60 minutes a day. There’s a balance to be found in how this kind of thing works and part of teaching, I think, is continually trying to find it.

Mark Smarter, Not Harder

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As teachers, we’ve all been there: spending hours after school marking papers and assignments, or correcting tests over the weekend. There’s been more than one occasion, in order to meet an end of term deadline, that I’ve taken marking with me on family vacations. There are a number of fun events or get-togethers with friends that have gone by the wayside in order that I put a dent in that constantly growing pile of papers.

When I was younger, I used to complain about all the marking. Sure, it’s probably the least fun part of the job, but it’s important for me to realize it’s a job I signed up for. I’ve come to view this common teaching task less as a burden and more as a way to gain insight into my students as learners and myself as an educator. In order to do this effectively, I decided it was vital my marking be smarter, not harder.

When I first entered the teaching profession, I believed that the more assessments I created, the more students would engage with course material and the more I marked, the better picture I would get of student learning. This was a recipe for disaster as I not only spent long nights marking, but an even greater amount of my time was dedicated to creating more assignments to fulfill what I thought was a worthwhile cause.

The solution I’ve found (at least to date) that helps address some of these concerns is to mark unit pieces in the following categories and ways:

  • Unit tests: tests are standard in most education systems and should function as a summative piece of work to illustrate what students can achieve after investigation, instruction, practice, and learning has already occurred. I prefer to keep the value of testing as low as possible to allow more emphasis on the learning and inquiry processes – I acknowledge this isn’t always up to the teacher and more and more I find evaluation schemes are dictated at the district level.
  • Unit assignment: A single assignment per unit, or one for two short units, is enough to allow students time to use inquiry and process skills together to apply what they’ve learned in class already. Assignments should allow students to connect concepts, consolidate information, or apply learning to novel situations. I’m a fan of using small group work (pairs) for these assessments, as they provide the opportunity to problem solve and research together, building communication and analytical skills through collaboration. I’ve also been applying analytical scoring scales with feedback as the primary method of marking.
  • Unit portfolio: A folder containing in-class activities students have worked on throughout the unit is vital to initial student exposure and engagement with new ideas and concepts, as it provides regular practice with specific sets of skills (not to mention it helps some students stay organized). As smaller pieces of work, these are quicker and easier to check for understanding (I may ask that 3 or 4 pieces be ready on a particular date, which I will check for level of detail, conceptual understanding, and analytical skills). I do not provide a mark for these individual pieces, but use them as formal assessment to inform my teaching and allow students to get into the material (I will provide written feedback, however, about the student’s general approach to the task or any significant issues with understanding). Folders are quick to assess and include a large amount and variety of student products. These may be completed  individually, but I prefer students to work together in groups of two or three.

Portfolio box to keep work from my 6 classes.

I used to give multiple assignments per unit and mark every in-class activity like it was an assignment or item from a test. By reducing the number of assignments and ensuring that each is well-designed, covering a range of skills and competencies, I’ve reduced the amount of correcting I do per unit. By using portfolios of work and focusing on feedback rather than numerical marks, I make every day activities relevant and informative (for myself and students) as pieces of assessment.

Smart marking is a great way to make this part of the job easier, more effective, and interesting. I’ve come to view correcting as a useful tool in my work, rather than a dreadful task. It can still be challenging to balance this with other work tasks and parts of my life, but it’s far less stressful than it used to be.