“An Enquiry Approach to Modern World History” is the subtitle to the textbook Crisis and Conflict used by students taking the history elective in Secondary 3 and 4. In adopting this approach, the teaching of history seems to have changed beyond recognition.
But what kind of results does it produce? That was the question at the back of my mind as I listened to a parade of school pupils at a seminar organised by the Singapore Heritage Society last Saturday, 27 November 2010.
The presenters ranged in age from around 11 to 22. The youngest were still in primary school; the oldest two were at the tertiary level. Of the latter, Lloyd Soh spoke — with refreshing and commendable honesty — about his experience writing a 4,000-word extended essay for his International Baccalaureate, while Bernard Chen argued strongly why history is important.
What I wish to focus on here are my thoughts as I listened to those from secondary schools, particularly Sec 3 and 4 — they would be aged 14 to 16.
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Running through many boys’ and girls’ comments was the conflation between learning and passing examinations. In a sense it is understandable since at that age it is hard to conceive of measures of learning divorced from exam scores. Unfortunately however, it meant that much of the critique about current teaching methods came not from the perspective of whether it made learning history more effective, but whether it aided students in coping with tests. Hence, while the seminar’s presentations were all interesting and thought-provoking, my key question was ultimately left unanswered.
What came through loud and clear was that the manner of teaching history has changed beyond all recognition, at least from the ancient times of my own schooldays. There is a lot more self-directed learning, and the use of a wider range of source materials. The team from River Valley High School told the audience about the way they designed their own field trips to various monuments around Singapore, seeking out information for themselves. The team from Bukit Batok Secondary School told of teachers reversing roles with them, such that students had to read up a section for themselves in order to deliver the lessons to the rest of their classmates.
Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), which had three speaking teams at the seminar comprising a total of ten boys, revealed that lessons involved a variety of materials from posters to cartoons to videoclips. A representative from Tao Nan School spoke about his use of the internet as source material for learning.
As I heard all this, the thought that struck me was that it must be very challenging for the history teacher with this degree of “entropy” — for want of a better word. How does one direct learning to desired outcomes under such conditions?
For example, students over-emphasising field trips as a learning mode will be greatly limited to the things and places they can visit, touch and feel. Would that not unbalance perspectives and areas of knowledge? Students acting as teachers to instruct other students sounds like a good motivational idea, but what if the resulting quality of delivery is poor? Does that do a disservice to other students?
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At this point, it may be necessary for me to explain to readers what history learning outcomes are expected for Sec 3 and 4, at least based on what little I know.
Apparently, the textbook for the history elective, Crisis and Conflict, has only been in use since in 2007. Within its 250 pages are loads of pictures, cartoons, shout-outs, and some maps and graphs. Content-wise, it covers the 20th Century from the First World War to the fall of the Soviet Union. The book is divided into four “themes”:
1. The way World War I changed strategic alignments and socio-political thinking;
2. The League of Nations and the rise of Communist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan;
3. World War II in Europe and the Pacific;
4. The Cold War, Korean War, Cuban missile crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
(Strange omissions: I couldn’t see anything about the Vietnam War or conflicts in the Middle East, which were surely among the key arenas of conflict in the 20th Century.)
The examination comes in two parts: Structured Essay Questions and Source-based Questions. In Structured Essay Questions, students are asked to defend or oppose a point of view, e.g. “The 1980s war in Afghanistan was the chief cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union; do you agree?” Obviously, students need to have substantial knowledge of issues and events within the scope of the syllabus to cope with such questions.
Source-based Questions are similar in that they too will relate to the crises and conflicts of the 20th Century, but different in that the objective is not to test command of the substance; instead, the objective is to test the ability of students to draw appropriate conclusions from a given set of sources, i.e. to apply critical thinking. For example, the examinee may be presented with a news story from the Chinese press of the 1950s telling of record grain output, a poster showing happy peasants welcoming collectivisation, a ration book and a US Central Intelligence Agency cable reporting a number of riots in remote villages. The student would then be asked to deduce what might be going on and to support his conclusions with a discussion.
To serve these objectives, especially the Source-based Questions, pedagogical methods have to change. The question is: What exactly are the changes needed?
I got a sense that while change was in progress, much of it was still in a state of experimentation. And if some students are to be believed, things ought to go even further. Anglo-Chinese School had a team that suggested that videogames and full-length feature films be included in course work. Naturally I asked them, during question time, to defend these ideas of theirs. Likewise, another ACS(I) team said there should be more role play in order to better grasp the thinking and actions of key leaders in history.
A girl from St Joseph’s International offered a refreshing counterpoint to that. She said this kind of auditory, spontaneous learning didn’t work so well for her. She preferred to have well-written textbooks. This especially as books were things she could refer back to when needed.
Clearly, students are diverse and have need of different learning approaches. How teachers are coping with divergent needs, complicated by evolving goals, must be a pressing issue. I also suggested in some remarks I made that boys and girls learn in very different ways.
My own feeling is that boys in all-boys schools, such as ACS(I) grow up in rather different environments than boys in mixed-gender schools. I could see that in the styles of presentations from the different schools. All school teams had prepared, structured presentations, but the actual delivery had telling characteristics. Most students took turns to read their portions, handing over to their classmates at assigned points. The ACS(I) teams were studies in chaos: they swapped roles; the butted in; one boy grabbed the microphone from another because he felt his classmate was merely reading from the Powerpoint slide; and they seemed proud to show photos of their class in some degree of anarchy.
But they were bright. When asked to defend a point of view, they were at no loss for words. Even on the one point when they didn’t have a ready answer, they were glib enough to finesse it.
I would have loved to see a team from Raffles Institution or St Andrews’ too. These are also all-boys schools. Would they have presented a similar account of themselves?
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One final observation: the standard of English was good. Whichever school they came from, whatever their ages, all the students used standard international English. In fact, one could not tell the difference in the standard of English used by students of the schools traditionally considered “elite” from students of newer schools. I listened particularly closely to the boys and girls from Bukit Batok Secondary School and I was impressed by the high level of grammatical correctness — subject-verb agreement, etc — and their ability to use the subjunctive.
Mentioning this to a couple of teacher friends over the following days, I was told that the pedagogy of English too has changed. There is now a lot more emphasis on grammar drills and elocution. Going by the self-confidence of these students in public speaking, our schools are producing good results.
With thanks to Kevin Tan, Singapore Heritage Society, for photos of the event.
Postscript: I came across a research paper by a certain H Doreen Tan, titled “Singapore teachers’ characterisation of historical interpretation and enquiry: Enhancing pedagogy and pupils’ historical understanding”. It makes a fascinating read, analysing what secondary school teachers think about their subject, how they think they ought to teach it, and how they actually teach it — which can differ markedly. As at the date of that research (2004), what comes across is considerable floundering about how to teach history as a discipline of enquiry, and the Ministry of Education offers no help at all (except with a few courses on how to mark exam papers!).