This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Teaching Children to Think

Time after time, the most important predictor of demographic phenomena is education. But this does not mean rote learning. It means learning to think--learning how to learn, to question things, and to put complex ideas together. All of the signs over the past years have suggested that the US and some of the other western nations--some of the leaders of the Enlightenment in earlier periods of time--have fallen behind in this regard. This week's Economist takes on this topic in a couple of different ways, including a review of a new book called "The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way," by Amanda Ripley.
Children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed. Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.
I grew up in this kind of an era when you were expected to succeed in school, teachers demanded rigorous work, and students were expected to keep up. The country seems to have given up on this idea, for a lot of reasons that I do not claim to fully understand. But one of the real issues is that until quite recently, the country expected that you would get excellent teachers in the classroom without having to pay very much money because it was one of the few good jobs available to women. Now women have many more career opportunities, yet school districts around the country have not really adjusted to that fact. A second issue, of course, is that the rapid rise in immigration since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act has altered the demographic composition of schools, thus increasing the challenges within schools at the same time that a smaller fraction of the best undergraduates have been choosing teaching as a career.

The answer, in my opinion, is that we have to recognize these key underlying demographic changes in both student and teacher demographics and wake up to the fact that, as a nation, we need to apply significantly greater resources to K-12 education than we are now doing. While it may hurt a bit now economically, it will hurt even more later if we don't make that commitment.

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