Historical Concepts and National Examinations: Have O-Level Structured-Essay Questions Encouraged the Teaching of Historical Concepts?

Introduction

Broad changes are afoot in recent years for Singapore’s history education community.  Over the past three years, the Humanities Branch of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD) at the Ministry of Education (MOE) has gradually prepared teachers for the implementation of the new inquiry-driven Upper Secondary O- and N-Level History syllabus.  As the main recommended pedagogy in the 2013 syllabus, historical inquiry promotes active student involvement and provides opportunities for students to cultivate the knowledge, skills and dispositions that are essential to historical thinking and understanding (Singapore Ministry of Education [MOE], 2012, p. 12).  Continuing work begun as early as 2005 by the Humanities and Social Sciences Education (HSSE) group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), CPDD officers and their local and external education consultants have endeavoured to equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to carry out historical inquiry in their classrooms.

In conjunction with an emphasis on historical inquiry, CPDD has also made explicit the teaching of historical concepts in order to bolster students’ historical thinking and understanding.  Historical concepts are essentially those concepts that “provide the basis of historical thinking” (Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, 2013).  Distilled from the works of noted Western history education scholars such as Peter Lee, these concepts “help students understand how historians work and how historical knowledge is constructed” (MOE, 2012, p. 35).  As Singapore’s history education community mobilises to raise the standards of history education at all levels, different parts of the conversation are currently taking place at NIE, MOE, and many schools that offer History as an elective or full subject to their students.  The conversations may differ, but almost all are focused on at least one of several key questions:

  1. Why is it important for teachers to help their students understand historical concepts?
  2. What are the historical concepts students should grasp to understand History as a discipline?
  3. How do teachers facilitate the development of these historical concepts in the history classroom?
  4. How do teachers assess students’ understanding of these historical concepts?
  5. Are students with a strong grasp of these historical concepts likely to perform better for summative examinations such as the O-Level examination?

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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