Historical Concepts and National Examinations: Have O-Level Structured-Essay Questions Encouraged the Teaching of Historical Concepts?, pp. 4 of 10

The teaching, learning, and assessment of these historical concepts are currently prominent topics in education systems all over the world.  For example, The Historical Thinking Project (HTP) based in Canada hopes to “foster a new approach to history education – with the potential to shift how teachers teach and how students learn, in line with recent international research on history learning” (Seixas & Colyer, 2013, p. 2).  Underlying this shift in Canadian history education are six main historical concepts based on work by Peter Seixas and others that have significant overlap with the eight listed in the TLG (historical significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspective-taking, and the ethical dimension of history).  While the exact terminology may differ, history education researchers and scholars worldwide generally focus on some close variation of these as the basis for historical thinking and understanding.

While many history educators would probably agree that developing students’ understanding of these concepts is beneficial for understanding the discipline, the question remains as to how such an understanding would improve students’ performance when responding to questions in summative examinations.  As noted on page 217 of the TLG, History assessment is “integral to the learning process and must be closely aligned with curricular objectives, content and pedagogy” and that the “assessment should facilitate meaningful learning anchored in the discipline” (MOE, 2012, p. 217).  Assessment as referenced in the TLG was conceived in much broader terms, but it certainly included both summative assessment as well as those that are formative in design or intent.  Peck and Sexias (2008) note that “assessment sends powerful messages about what learning is valued” (p. 1018).  Therefore, if assessment is frequently the tail that wags the dog in education, do Singapore national examinations require a strong grasp of second-order historical concepts?

Analysis of O-Level SEQs

My examination of  the SEQs of the History Elective of Combined Humanities from the O-Level examinations in the years 2002-2012 revealed that almost all of the questions assessed “cause and effect” or causation, in some way.  Approximately 91% of the questions – sub-questions (a) and (b) – dealt with cause and effect or consequence[iii].  It is important to note that even if a specific question seemed to deal with aspects of consequence, effect, outcomes, results, agency, etc., almost all still used causation as a reference point. 

This should perhaps not be surprising considering the Assessment Objectives articulated in the various syllabi pointed to the fact that students were supposed to be able to demonstrate the ability to explain causal links for historical events.  For example, the assessment section of the 2001 O-Level History syllabus made it clear that the candidate, in answering the structured-essay questions, “will be asked to give some interpretation and/or assessment of events or to provide some connection between these events and a wider context” (MOE, 2001, p. 3).  This requirement that students interpret, assess, and connect events to a wider context pointed to the idea that students were supposed to be able to not only explain, interpret, and evaluate how and why historical events occurred, but also to explain the effects and significance of these historical events in the greater context of history.  All of this pointed to notions of causation in history.  While the latter part suggested that students also needed to have a firm understanding of historical significance in order to connect events to a wider historical context, it is likely that most students were taught to explain the significance of any event in history in terms of the immediate impact or effects.  Yet, such a teaching approach might not have been entirely out-of-place as the focal point of many of the questions seemed to be causation (as analysed in Appendix A).

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!