Anxieties Over Singapore Students’ Conceptions About History and The Past

Understanding history can be an intellectually challenging task for many students in schools. It requires students to contemplate issues, events and people who had lived in the distant past and who are often far removed (from them) in time and familiarity. Such challenges, however, have seldom been satisfactorily addressed in many history classrooms in Singapore. Where historical instruction in schools takes on a heavily content-transmission approach, students are more likely to conceive history learning as the uncritical absorption and memorisation of knowledge that has little bearing to their everyday lives. This is especially so when the existence of a prescribed textbook and a pre-selected content is viewed as sufficient learning materials for direct historical instruction. Additionally, the attention spent on developing methods to train and prepare students to answer examination questions has reduced historical thinking and reasoning to sets of somewhat rigid, algorithmically-devised skills-related procedures (Afandi & Baildon, 2010). While these may help build students’ capacity to deal with the requisite assessment objectives tested in the examinations, they do little to build student’s knowledge of history. Amidst a schooling context that places emphasis on rigid procedures to produce “the right answers” and driven by a strong purpose to meet assessment requirements and accountability in the examination, it is unsurprising if many believe that history teaching need not go beyond simply the transfer of (historical) knowledge or content. This, however, should not be confused with learning history. As Lee (1991: pp. 48-49) maintained,

[it is] absurd … to say that schoolchildren know any history if they have no understanding of how historical knowledge is attained, its relationship to evidence, and the way in which historians arbitrate between competing or contradictory claims. The ability to recall accounts without any understanding of the problems involved in constructing them or the criteria involved in evaluating them has nothing historical about it. Without an understanding of what makes an account historical, there is nothing to distinguish such an ability from the ability to recite sagas, legends, myths or poems.

Implicit in Lee’s assertion is the suggestion that acquiring the kind of knowledge that is deemed historical goes beyond information acquisition and rote memorisation of facts; it must equip students with “more powerful” ways of understanding history and the historical past (Lee & Ashby, 2000, p. 216). Among other things, this would involve getting students to come to grips with the disciplinary basis of the subject and having them understand how knowledge about the past is constructed, adjudicated and arbitrated.

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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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