Beyond Counting: An ESL Class on Population Change

Beyond Counting
An ESL Class on Population Change

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 2,831 views

The old adage reminds us that, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Well, that sounds true enough, but I’ve always thought we were selling ourselves short. Surely, there must be a way to incentivize the horse to drink, right? Something we can do which makes it more likely, or even inevitable that he won’t simply, stubbornly stand there by the river?

I’m a big fan of incentivizing certain behaviors in the classroom, and my favorite behavior is the holy grail of ESL teaching: spontaneous, accurate, idiomatic language production. I sat down early last year and made a list of the things I’d like to see more (and less) of in my classroom; this was the number one target, the main focus of my classes. I wanted my students to want to talk a lot - to me and each other - using high-level target language and sophisticated structures.

The Philosophy of Elicitation

The easiest way is to ask questions, and I’m all in favor of that, but I’ve found that the most natural language production comes when the students are speaking with each other. New teachers learn all about ‘interaction patterns’ which define the direction of communication: teacher to student (T-S), student to teacher (S-T), and student to student (S-S). If this is new to you, consider these examples:

T-S: Presentation, error correction, pronunciation set-up, ‘feeding in’
S-T: Feedback after exercises, questions, clarifications, opinions
S-S: Pairwork and groupwork; discussions which don’t necessarily involve the teacher at all

With the importance of S-S interaction in mind, I brainstormed subject matter for the coming semester of my ‘Contemporary Topics’ course, and hit upon several areas which were likely to spur vibrant student-to-student interaction. An obvious one - third on my list, after the 2016 election and issues relating to climate change - was population.

5 Ideas for an ESL Class on Population Change

  1. 1

    Context: Begin with Numbers

    Any new topic needs some context, but I prefer not to show up to the classroom, set down my bag, open my lesson plan and announce, “Today, we’re going to talk about population!” I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a declaration; how about we begin with a question, instead? Or, better yet, a puzzle?

    I grow every day, but I cannot be farmed.
    I am important to humanity, but have only recently been studied.
    I increase where there is poverty, and decrease where there is plenty.
    Some people think I should be controlled, but no one knows how.

    I wrote this on the board, along with the question, “Who or what am I?”

    It actually took my students a few seconds, but they latched onto the topic of population quite quickly. Now, I wanted to add detail to this emerging topic context, so I sent the students to the Internet, dividing them into pairs and small groups to research the following questions:

    1. What is the current world population?
    2. What is the population of your country and the city of your birth?
    3. Which are the world’s five largest population centers?

    The third question always spurs amazement, as the majority of my students encounter the names of absolutely massive Chinese cities of which they’ve never heard: Chengdu, Chongqing and Wuhan (which, according to some estimates, has at least 30 million inhabitants).

    I then set an initial question for quick answers (i.e. without discussing the question in pairwork); Has the world reached its carrying capacity?

    This a good way of introducing this expression and helping my students to think of the Earth as a vessel carrying billions of passengers, all of whom rely on the Earth for everything. About half of my students worried that our carrying capacity has indeed been reached, while the others were confident that our food supplies could be stretched and farming made more efficient. Just these initial interactions showed me that my students have - as usual - thought pretty deeply about the topic in their first language. All I needed to do was equip them for a detailed discussion in English, and we’d have a fertile and controversial topic area, nicely set up and ready for some engaging practice.

  2. 2

    Add and Check Vocabulary

    Yet again, I’ll reiterate my belief that most of our students know more than most teachers think they know. I experience daily evidence of this abiding truth, and I have come to rely on it to cut down on my Teacher Talking Time (TTT). Instead of telling my students what words mean, we figure them out together:

    Teacher: Jorge, you can be our example.
    Jorge: Really? Thank you teacher. [Laughing]
    Teacher: How many siblings do you have?
    Jorge: [Glances to a classmate for help with ‘siblings’]
    Teacher: [Jumps in to prevent them translating for each other.] Help him, sure, but only in English, right?
    Student 2: Like, brothers and sisters.
    Jorge: Oh, I have one sister. Older sister.
    Teacher: OK, so your parents are two people, and they have two children. We can say they have exactly replaced themselves. See what I mean?
    Student 3: One for one. Yeah.
    Teacher: So, the replacement rate [writes this on the board] in your family is one-to-one. Is that true of most families, in the world?
    Students: No! / Maybe it’s higher in some places
    Teacher: Exactly. And that’s why we have population growth; parents leave behind more than two children. They replace themselves, but also create additional people [gesturing to himself, and then evoking three imaginary children of different ages]
    Student 4: In my country, only one.
    Student 6: You mean, today? Now? Is changing, no?
    Teacher: That’s true, the One Child Policy is changing. We’ll get to that soon.

    We’re half way there. The students have heard and written down the expression ‘replacement rate’, but not yet chosen to say it. For me, the learning process isn’t finished until we’ve had some kind of production; passively absorbing the word is insufficient. This is difficult for the teacher, and there’s a real skill in figuring out how to incentivize someone to say something - to make the horse drink - especially if it’s a rather abstract or philosophical concept. Here’s how I handled it; first, I checked ‘demographic’, which we’d learned earlier during another class, and then made sure that I heard the students say ‘replacement rate’:

    Teacher: Let’s take a look at Japan.
    Yoshi: Yay!
    Teacher: I thought you might like that! Tell me about Japan’s birth rate, Yoshi.
    Yoshi: Um. It’s different now from before. Now most families have few children.
    Teacher: Oh, really? So, is the population still growing?
    Yoshi: Slowly. And only the old people.
    Teacher: Sounds like a big demographic change [Writes on the board]. Remember this one?
    Student 2: Categories of people. Ages and genders.
    Teacher: [Big thumbs up]. Nice.
    Student 6: Same kind of word as ‘democracy’?
    Teacher: Exactly, the same root.
    Student 6: Cool.
    Teacher: [Laughing.] So, what can say about Japan’s replacement rate?
    Yoshi: It’s very low. Not everyone is replaced when they die.
    Teacher: Not everyone is….? [Eliciting ‘replaced’ to very quickly reinforce our work on /r/ pronunciation]
    Yoshi: Replaced?
    Teacher: [Applauding]. Good ‘r’ sound, and a very concise summary, thank you! That’s Japan, but what about Chad, or Nigeria?
    Student 2: We found the replacement rate is very high. More people are birth than people are die.
    Teacher: [Skipping the grammatical error correction until a few moments later; one-to-one was better in this context.] So, we have a big variety of replacement rates around the world. What makes them all different? [Open gesture]
    Students: Economy / Culture / Environment / Religion / Lucky or unlucky
  3. 3

    Jumping into the Deep End: Research

    I’m a very lucky teacher. I can rely on my students (who, admittedly, are remarkably mature for their years) to research and summarize complex topics using the Internet, with minimal supervision and while using only English. Honestly, it’s a kind of pedagogical paradise; all the discipline problems are gone, and we can focus on producing tons of high-quality English together while I experiment with methods and techniques to get the best out of my group.

    I asked the students to prepare short ‘case studies’ about recent population changes in China, India, Nigeria and Japan. In small groups, they carried out research and took lots of notes before designing a brief presentation on what they’d found. The whole thing took about 35 minutes, with each section given a rough schedule:

    1. Searching and isolating good sources of data 5 mins
    2. Reading and taking notes 10 mins
    3. Discussing your findings with the group 5 mins +
    4. Crafting the final briefing for the class; 10 mins
    5. Practicing and asking for help (if needed) 5 mins

    There was just time for each group to present before we finished our first class on this topic. Throughout the presentations, I was listening for (and vigorously encouraging) use of the target language, and it emerged consistently, largely because it was necessary given the topic area and the population phenomena my students had found in their case studies. The horse was happily drinking, of its own accord: mission accomplished.

  4. 4

    Going Further: Prediction and Imagination

    In our second class, I took the topic out for a spin. With the vocabulary pre-installed (and briefly checked during a 90-second review session) I knew we could discuss pretty much any aspect of this topic. First, I asked for my students’ predictions as to the world’s population in 2030, 2050 and 2100. But I wanted something more than a simple, numerical guess; in each case, I asked my students to prepare justifications for the number they gave me. It went like this:

    Teacher: OK, what’s next? 2100AD… Wow, that sounds like a long way in the future, but many of you will still be alive then, won’t you?
    Student 3: Maybe! / Hope so / And you, teacher!
    Teacher: Well, I’ll be a hundred and twenty-three. A little ambitious, perhaps. But, let’s hear it from group three: how many people will be alive on the Earth in 2100?
    Student 4: We think maybe eleven billions.
    Teacher: Eleven? OK, I understand. Careful, though. With a number in front, million and billion are always singular.
    Student 4: Ah, yeah. Eleven billion.
    Teacher: Interesting answer. But what will I ask next, gang? [Open gesture]
    Students: [All together.] Why so? [Laughing; they often do this impression of me, and one of my most common questions, complete with formal British pronunciation.]
    Student 5: Because we think climate change will slow down development and make it more difficult for people to access healthcare.
    Teacher: [Waiting.] That was awesome! Don’t stop! [‘Carry on’ gesture.]
    Student 5: If women don’t have pills, or something like, maybe there will be many babies.
    Teacher: [Seeing a vocabulary opportunity] OK, I’m with you. What kind of pills do you mean?
    Student 5: [Glancing to a friend, but remembers not to ask for translation.] I don’t know in English…
    Jorge: Is same in Spanish? Contraception?
    Teacher: Thanks, Jorge. Write that on the board for us, would you?

    It didn’t stop there. In each case, I asked for more and more detail about why the group had made their prediction, and the target language emerged, again and again. Our horse was now happily drinking its fill of water, and no one was even trying to make it do anything.

  5. 5

    The Big Enchilada: Policy

    I found a general agreement that there are either too many people in the world already, or that there soon will be. So, as a final exercise to practice this content and let my students show off a bit (and who doesn’t love doing that?) I requested a set of policies which might help slow the rate of population growth. Having already taught and checked words such as contraception, ideas like the One Child Policy and installed an understanding of carrying capacity and the replacement rate, we were in a strong position to tackle policy questions. Here were my hints to the class before they began:

    • Local, regional (or even global) laws about having a family
    • Euthanasia? Voluntary or compulsory?
    • Life extension and improving medical care
    • Globalization and changes in the economy
    • Climate change

    My students latched on to each one of these and tried to create policies which might help. They produced an intriguing mix:

    • Prohibition: Single-child policies, and in one case obligatory sterilization for families with more than two children
    • Incentive: Married couples with advanced degrees may have more than one child
    • Science: People may elect to be ‘frozen’ using cryogenics until the population reduces sufficiently for them to be ‘defrosted’ (to use my student’s memorable word) and rejoin society
    • Off-World Migration: The building of large space habitats and cities on the Moon and Mars to offer new living space for a growing populace.

It was truly fascinating.

Young people have both the creativity and the tendency to consider fresh approaches; the cryogenic idea was one I simply hadn’t imagined, and there were other legal approaches which were very nuanced and targeted. Our horse, entirely free now of obligation and duress, will drink contentedly until he is full. To put it another way, great language learning was happening, and I had only to direct a small portion of it. The atmosphere and routines which have proved so successful in my class took time to put into place, but I’m encouraged that my students’ excellent performances were based on a philosophical platform which I daily test, and never find wanting: ask, trust, delegate, inspire, and then provide the time for learning to flourish.

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