Old-style history lessons now history

“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.

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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!).

12 Responses to “Old-style history lessons now history”

  1. 1 NagyGa1 3 December 2010 at 10:55

    ““The 1980s war in Afghanistan was the chief cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union; do you agree?””

    Just curious, did they answer yes to that one?

  2. 2 winnieyap 3 December 2010 at 13:20

    They don’t do Singapore or southeast asian history anymore? Wow, things have changed.

    • 3 twasher 3 December 2010 at 20:04

      They do, of course. World history is just one portion of the Sec 3 and 4 syllabus.

      • 4 Yen 6 December 2010 at 20:23

        TO clarify, World history is THE Sec 3 and Sec 4 syllabus. Singapore history is not taught in Sec 3 and Sec 4 at all. Southeast Asian History is only taught in the Junior College curriculum, and only for the H2 subject.

        As a junior college history student, i would like to say that it is a shame i didn’t hear of this event sooner and didn’t attend it. Nonetheless reading this article actually gives me hope that interest in history isn’t as dead as i thought in the secondary schools.

  3. 5 liew kai khiun 3 December 2010 at 15:40

    Its a shame that I missed this event. Although it is great to see more proactive approaches in the learning of history, where even JC students have been involved in more advanced archival projects like the photographic documentation of the last kampong in Singapore by Hwa Chong JC. However, the old fart in me feels that this may neither be indicative of the passions, nor the cultivating of long term interests in the subject, or anything less tangible in Singapore in general.

    I became in some ways, a professional historian in spite of,rather than because of the circumstances. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I found scant attention and respect given to the learning of this subject whether in school or at home. People believed that it is for academically weaker students who just needed to memorize the textbooks, and anything else outside these pages was useless. I do remember once my mother threatening to throw away a book I bought on the history of Islam. I did not have teachers to provide conducive and progressive environments. History forums like the stated session were unheard of. Yet, the lack was for me, actually the driving energy when the toilet is the few spaces in which you can read about Hindu civilisation in peace.

    I suspect that the old prejudices towards the humanities persist although in more politically correct ways in a country that whatever you do in school, the end point should be in managerial positions in lucrative areas like banking, law, officialdom and medicine, not poetry, history or gardening howver much involved you have been. They are okay as hobbies, and not real jobs.

    While pedagogical methods and resources may have been improved, I do wonder whether the critical angst that bring forth the arts rather than creating cultural industries.

  4. 6 Anonymous 3 December 2010 at 15:58


    I dun get it why history should be an examinable subject. Critical thinking skills and the ability to argue a certain point of view are very general skills and can be taught outside history—isn’t JC GP covering this area?

    Furthermore, one can explore history on his own. As a teaching subject, I dun see the teachers adding any value to the teaching of history.

    • 7 twasher 3 December 2010 at 20:07

      History is not just about critical thinking skills. It’s about learning to interpret historical evidence and defend your interpretations. In GP you are not asked to examine historical sources and writes essays on them.

      Teachers play a role in evaluating students’ interpretive skills and teaching them what are good questions to ask themselves when they read a historical text.

      • 8 ~autolycus 4 December 2010 at 12:01

        I’d like to add to that. I believe that the historical paradigm is one of the three major paradigms for humans dealing with the world of knowledge — 1) what led to a given state (historical), 2) what does a given state lead to (scientific), and 3) what good is a given state (aesthetic).

        The terms I use are very broad — ‘aesthetic’ obviously covers ‘moral’ as well, for example. But it is telling that in law (issues of precedent), medicine (patient history) and economics, the ability to grapple with the historical paradigm successfully is of critical importance.

  5. 9 A window across time 4 December 2010 at 05:13

    I have had the opportunity to attend history lessons several times so far. One of my lecturers brought up this quote,

    “It does not follow that, because a mountain appears to take on different shapes from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes. It does not follow that, because interpretation plays a necessary part in establishing the facts of history, and because no existing interpretation is wholly objective, one interpretation is as good as another…”

    ~E. H. Carr

    Source: http://extensionhistory.wordpress.com/2009/08/27/e-h-carr-on-the-relationship-between-historians-and-facts/

    Basically, the quote elegantly illustrates the point that history is subjective and yet, there is a general “truth” in its essence. It allows for a diversity of opinions and yet, encourages critical thinking to enable one to be closer to the reality that happened before.

    Thus history can make quite a beautiful journey, both intellectually and emotionally. However, many a joy is robbed through the drudgery of rote learning and the anxiety that examinations bring. This is and remains the basis of the local education system which will ultimately persuade many students to simply memorize historical facts and details at the end of the day. Perhaps the question to ask is how much knowledge is retained rather than how much is absorbed?

    On a more constructive note, pattern recognition and acronyms may be utilized in some settings to help students absorb the subject of history better.

    For example, the members of the United Nations Security Council are
    France, Britain/UK, China, America, Russia

    or alternatively; FB + CAR (Facebook Car)

    I do hope though that with the abovementioned novel methods in the original article, more students will be interested in history beyond the confines of the classrooms.

  6. 10 KiWeTO 5 December 2010 at 14:11

    History is forever interpreted in the light of the present.

    [Might creates history.]

  7. 11 Red 6 December 2010 at 02:34

    “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.”

    Just to shed some light on this, I believe it is really just about limited space in the syllabus. The syllabus for World History spans the entirety of the 20th century, it is inevitable that some topics are omitted. If the authors write in greater scope, then they sacrifice in depth. It is better that the students learn in depth some events rather than trying to cover every significant event. After all, the focus of their learning is the skill, knowledge less so.

    “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?”

    Based on your post, it doesn’t seems that the students are really being limited in their learning. From what I understand, these innovative learning methods are usually supplementary to the main lesson. The teachers will still be teaching the bulk of the syllabus. The concern over quality control should be allayed by the presence of the teacher in the classroom: conceptual errors will surely be corrected by their watchful eyes.

  8. 12 market2garden 10 December 2010 at 16:16

    History is the study of the past.
    Understandably there’s limited coverage or no coverage in some areas. Even to cover “all”, it never help the students if there’s no critical evaluation or defense of their own interpretations.
    Just wonder is there any systematic learning of “Critical Thinking” in school? A subject or few lessons?
    If the answer is yes,
    students could have scrutinized the historical figures, historical event and hisotrical development of civilisation differently at various angles – Economic History, Political History, Military History, Arts History etc etc.
    And more important to internalise the joy of life-long learning and maintain curiosity throughout the life.
    If the answer is no,
    there’s no use for field trip or reading original scripts.
    It’s just waste of precious time.

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