The New Inquiry-based Approach: What It Means for the Teaching and Learning of History in Singapore Schools

Introduction

Secondary Humanities teachers in Singapore are well-acquainted with recent developments and changes that accompanied the launch of the new history syllabus in October 2012. A most notable development was the adoption of inquiry-based learning as the recommended pedagogy for instruction. What was the logic for this change? Why was there a need to pursue inquiry-based learning for school history? What was the spirit behind the change? What did the curriculum developers hope to achieve by pushing for an inquiry approach to history learning? Some of these answers can be obtained from the Singapore Ministry of Education syllabus documents, the Teaching and Learning Guides (TLGs), and other related documents. In this commentary, I offer some of my personal thoughts on the matter and I focus on some issues that require addressing if we are serious about proposing an instructional approach that aims to develop students’ disciplinary thinking in history.

Why the Changes?

In short, I would say that there was a recognition that things were not actually going as well as they should. Yes, our students did very well in the national examinations and have consistently posted impressive scores. But the perception that has emerged over the years was that although many of these students appeared to know a lot about the things they studied, there remained a high level of scepticism as to whether they understood much of what they had studied. From informal conversations with colleagues and school practitioners, the reasons offered for students not understanding much about the history they learnt in their classrooms ranged from too much direct or didactic instruction, too much algorithmic or mechanical learning, too much drilling or rote learning, too much teaching to the test, and so on. Subsequently, a common idea that emerged was that while our students have proven very adept at absorbing transmitted knowledge or information, they were not able to construct new knowledge– one of the characteristics of critical and independent learners.

In order to raise standards of history, geography and social studies education in Singapore, policy-makers and curriculum planners in the Curriculum and Planning Development Division (CPDD) recognized the need for a major shake-up in the way the Humanities subjects have been taught in schools. Inquiry-based learning was seen as the key to transforming the teaching of the Humanities from a largely content-transmission approach to an approach that gets students to take ownership of their learning by purposefully seeking information and constructing their own knowledge within the norms and standards set by the disciplinary nature of the subject. In history, the major thrust of inquiry-based learning was targeted at getting students to “appreciate the underpinnings of the discipline” as they engage in the process of “doing history” (Ministry of Education/Curriculum Planning and Development Division, 2012, p. 12). Inquiry was deemed essential for providing students with the opportunity to build essential understandings, particularly about the concepts that lie at the heart of history.

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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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