Teaching for Historical Understanding (TfHU): Developing a Discipline-based Curriculum Model at Tanjong Katong Secondary School, pp. 13 of 17

Sya Feena

I have always felt that the teaching of history should be more than just teaching content that students memorise and subsequently regurgitate during the examinations. When I started teaching history in 2001, I realised that it was important to make meaning of what I was teaching and to make this content-heavy subject relevant to the students. It was a challenge as I realised that students could not draw coherence and meaning with the topic/issues they were learning. The Teaching for Historical Understanding (TfHU) approach that we have developed at TK have certainly made me rethink my modus operandi. Perhaps, it could be viewed as “the missing element” that would help me find a better way to help students unpack the discipline of history and make learning more purposeful. The approach confirmed my beliefs that learning history is less about memorising facts and more about 'making sense' of the past. Teaching history using the TfHU framework offers students an opportunity to learn to think like a historian, and develop sound understandings of the discipline. The challenge, however, is in the application and the implementation of effective lessons, and moving away from traditional and didactic forms of history teaching.

The lessons that we’ve designed with the TfHU framework in mind were constructed for Sec 1 students, crafted to teach students to explore aspects or issues beyond the immediate, and allowing them to think carefully about the interplay of causal factors. The historical concept that anchored the lessons was Causation (push and pull factors), and the focus was on explaining reasons why (and how) people from different parts of the world came to Singapore in the 19th and 20th centuries. As our students can generally be classified as “above average” in ability, we felt that we should stretch them by making some tasks more challenging. Nonetheless, we were clear that the lessons and activities we conducted must provide students with a firm understanding of ‘causation’ – one that we could informally assess after we’ve run the planned sequence of lessons. We introduced the concept by using a photograph of an overturned car, had students come up with as many possible causes as part of a trigger activity, and followed this up with a discussion of motivation for migration and movement across geographical space and time periods. The linked activities were successful in introducing students to arrive at an initial understanding that there is usually no single cause to an event, and that events in history are likely to be caused by multiple factors. Students also demonstrated their understanding through a collaborative activity that had them group factors into categories, and then suggesting possible relationships between an array of causes. By the end of the lesson, there were many indications to suggest that the students had been able to relate the concept of causation to the historical event of human migration in the 19th to early 20th centuries.

The three TfHU lessons that I conducted were characterised by active participation and engagement by the students. They found the learning more meaningful and engaging, especially with group-based, hands-on activities. The students were able to come up with insightful perspectives on why certain events occur, and succeeded in drawing parallels from the trigger activities conducted with the “push and pull factors” surrounding the study of migration and reasons why immigrants came to Singapore during the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a high level of student activity and interaction – the students especially enjoyed brainstorming and categorising the conditions and motivations that led to migration, and why Singapore became a favourable choice. One thing I’ve realised is that it is important to provide students with the proper vocabulary to help them make sense of the phenomenon and express their ideas in a clear way; for example, a variety of words to help students categorise the different ‘causal factors’ would help them better understand the nuances of causal relationships. The right terms will also help them articulate their thought processes better.

The personal reflections by the three teachers demonstrated positive outcomes in the way students responded to the teaching of history grounded on historical concepts such as Causation and Significance. Using these conceptual lenses, students were seen to be quite adept at analysing reasons for historical events such as the movement and migration of people to colonial Singapore in the 19th century (for the Sec 1 students) and factors that caused or explained the rise of Stalin in the inter-war years (for the Sec 3 students). Based on the quality of discussions and the written work produced by students in subsequent tasks, there were indications to suggest that the TfHU learning experience had helped made students aware of the multi-causal nature of events that happened in history, allowed them to discover the different terms used in explaining causation (such as “push and pull factors”, “historical agency”, “motivation”, “underlying and trigger factors”), and enabled them to make distinctions between short term and long term effects of events in history.

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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