Teaching for Historical Understanding (TfHU): Developing a Discipline-based Curriculum Model at Tanjong Katong Secondary School, pp. 12 of 17

Nani Rahayu

My focus when teaching history had always been on the coverage of content syllabus and developing the skills required to answer examination questions. Like many teachers, I tended to put emphasis on content coverage – sharing the much-entrenched assumption that students needed to know the content in order for them to be able to answer examination questions. Although I am aware of historical concepts such as causation, significance, accounts and evidence, I have not really given much thought to how these concepts are linked to the idea of constructing explanation, or how they can be used to communicate historical knowledge. Before the TfHU project in TK, I have never thought about approaching the teaching of historical concepts as primary learning targets in a history lesson. Today, I am a firm believer in teaching historical concepts to anchor and develop my students’ understanding. Many times, we usually teach students the content on its own and do not make an attempt to connect similar case studies together (for e.g. the circumstances surrounding Hitler’s and Stalin’s emergence as authoritarian leaders). By anchoring these case studies to a substantive concept (such as ‘authoritarian rule’) it allows students to make sense of similar patterns when studying factor-based explanations in history (such as the causes that led to the rise of Hitler and Stalin). I think this is the way to help our students make important connections in the syllabus content.

Based on the three TfHU lessons I conducted, the most significant episode worth highlighting took place in the third lesson when I saw for myself the kinds of cognitive struggle students went through as they argued, hesitated, proposed and counter-proposed in the process of making decisions about how best to arrange the information cards provided. As I observed the students struggling to make sense of the knowledge that they should be familiar with but yet seemed unsure, I thought that the whole concept-based task looked like a cognitive puzzle the students had to complete! Some students also seemed to face difficulty trying to come up with a label for each category of the information they had gathered. They were only able to independently identify the categories as `Stalin’s manipulations’ and `Favourable circumstances responsible for Stalin’s rise to power’ after much thinking and deliberation. However, one activity that got students to decide the category they felt was most significant to explain Stalin’s rise to power failed to achieve its intended outcome due to an ill-conceived instruction to get students to rank factors. I had not realised that ranking the significance of factors across a horizontal continuum rather than on an ascending continuum would create so much difficulties for students as they could not “see” significance on a straight line continuum. This showed me that establishing connections across a horizontal continuum as compared to an ascending continuum could affect students’ ability to rank the factors. In other words, how students visualise a continuum can affect the way they think and make sense of things!

In reflecting on my overall experience in the TfHU project, I felt it is important for us teachers to firstly understand the attributes of historical concepts we want students to explore in the lessons that we design. When we understand the attributes, it helps us to design the lesson and develop ways that will allow students to make connections between both the substantive and second-order concepts and the content knowledge we want them to acquire. If we don’t give much thought to the way we deploy knowledge, it would affect our students’ understanding of history given that they seemed predisposed to studying historical topics in silos or as distinct or separate episodes of the past. I also believe that frequent discussions are necessary as we plan the questions we want to use in class. This is so that we can steer the direction of student learning towards the understandings that we want to achieve. In addition, when we discuss the questions and the kinds of expected answers we can get from students, we can achieve some level of visible thinking. But this would require a bit more time and we will need to improve on our facilitation skills in order to achieve higher order historical thinking and understanding.

Even if this was our first experience at teaching for historical understanding (and historical thinking), we thought that the lessons had achieved many positive outcomes. From informal assessment, our students seemed able to understand the topic better and this was also evident in the kinds of writing that they produce. For the first time, we found that students were explaining the reasons for Stalin’s rise to power in their own words rather than writing down memorised answers taken from the textbook. Yet, this is still early days and it is difficult to prove success. Even so, we hope to sustain this initiative and implement another round of improved TFHU lesson design (using a historical concept) to another topic. The high levels of engagement in group-based activities were well worth the effort, and the rich cognitive discussion as well as active classroom interaction makes the process of knowledge deployment and construction one that is owned by the students rather than one prescribed by the teacher.

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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