Teaching for Historical Understanding (TfHU): Developing a Discipline-based Curriculum Model at Tanjong Katong Secondary School, pp. 2 of 17

The goals of school history

The goals of history in schools, as Denis Shemilt proposed in his Evaluation Study of the Schools History Project (SHP) in the United Kingdom (UK), should both be about fostering a deep understanding of the past, and a deep understanding of history (Shemilt, 1980). Not only should students be given opportunities to understand the variety, the difference, the strangeness of life in the past, the interplay of continuity and change, the multiple causes and consequences of events, and the role of individuals, collectivities and states, they also should understand the processes of knowledge-making, the construction of a historic narrative or argument, the uses of evidence, and the nature of conflicting historical accounts. Such a proposal pointed to the importance of teaching history in ways that can assist and raise the level of adolescent learning. It called for the replacement of traditional pedagogies with inquiry models of disciplinary-based practice (Shemilt, 1980) that can assist in developing students’ historical understandings.

As the recommended pedagogy for historical instruction in Singapore schools, inquiry was seen as key to transforming a largely content-centred approach to history teaching and learning into one that gets students to ‘appreciate the underpinnings of the discipline’ (MOE, 2012). Embedded within the history curriculum are eight historical concepts that are deemed central to the development of disciplinary understandings: accounts, causation, change, chronology, empathy, evidence, significance and diversity. Depending on the academic levels of historical study in schools, the aims of history involves not only helping students acquire historical knowledge, but also equipping them with a conceptual apparatus to understand the nature of the discipline: for e.g.

  • knowing how we come to know something about the past;
  • understanding how accounts about past events are written;
  • recognising that there can be different interpretations or multiple versions of the same event;
  • explaining why/how something happened and its repercussions or significance in history;  
  • recognising that events have multiple causes, and can lead to multiple consequences;
  • understanding the nature of evidence and how it is used to construct knowledge about the past;
  • understanding why there are different claims made by history;
  • knowing how these claims can be tested against each other; and so on.

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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