Evolution of the Primary School Social Studies Curriculum in Singapore: From ‘Moulding’ Citizens to Developing Critical Thinkers, pp. 2 of 13

Over the years, scholars and educators have proposed various purposes and orientations to citizenship education through Social Studies. As discussed in the article “What is Social Studies?” in this issue, Barr, Barth and Shermis (1977) grouped the various approaches to citizenship education (and Social Studies) into three categories: citizenship or cultural transmission, social science, and reflective inquiry. Many other scholars have also contributed to the discussion on the goals and purposes of Social Studies and citizenship education and proposed other traditions or orientations towards Social Studies. Morisett (1977), for example, described five orientations of Social Studies:

  • Transmission of culture and history
  • Social science processes and subject matter
  • Reflective or critical thinking and inquiry
  • The study of social and political controversies with the aim of promoting social activism
  •  Personal development

Clark and Case (1997) proposed that orientations towards Social Studies should be seen in terms of two intersecting continua: social transmission and social transformation at the two ends of one continuum and child-centredness and subject centredness at the two ends of a second continuum.[i]

While there are many different conceptions of the orientations towards Social Studies, most researchers agree that Social Studies is utilised for three primary purposes, viz., socialisation into the norms of society; acquisition of disciplinary concepts and processes; and the promotion of critical or reflective thinking (Ross, 2006). Stanley and Nelson (1994) (cited in Ross, 2006) suggest that the debate over the purposes of Social Studies centres on the relative emphases accorded to citizenship/cultural transmission as opposed to critical or reflective thinking. The emphasis on cultural transmission is aimed at socialising children to the accepted norms and practices of a society. The focus then is on the teaching of knowledge, behaviour, skills, values and dispositions that are accepted by that society. On the other hand, an emphasis on critical or reflective thinking seeks to promote social reform or transformation and the concomitant focus is on knowledge, behavior, skills, values and dispositions that question and critique accepted norms and standards accepted by that society.

In Singapore, the Social Studies curriculum has evolved over the years, but its goal has remained constant, that is, “to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to participate effectively in the society and environment in which they live” (MOE, 1981, p1). This paper will show that the purpose of Social Studies in the primary school was cultural transmission for many years. The goal was to develop the dutiful, obedient and patriotic citizen. Participation in the public sphere is very much limited to contributing to the common good and maintaining social harmony. These can be seen in the aims of the primary school social studies syllabuses from 1981 to 1994. Towards the 21st century, there was some recognition of the need to develop critical and reflective thinking in the citizens. The published general aims of the syllabus highlighted critical thinking as important skills to develop but these were not evident within the content and suggested skills at each grade level.

Genesis of Ctizenship Education in Early Post-colonial Singapore

Singapore obtained internal self-government from the British colonial authorities in 1959 and full independence in 1965 when it separated from Malaysia. Right from the start, the odds were against Singapore’s survival as an independent nation. Firstly, there was no ‘nation’ to speak of, as Singapore had a largely immigrant population that was multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious and whose loyalties lay with their countries of origin. Secondly, there were serious doubts about Singapore’s economic survival, given the high unemployment rate and lack of natural resources.  The emphases then were on developing the economy to meet the people’s needs as well as forging a common identity among the disparate groups of people living in the country. Citizenship education to develop a sense of shared identity became an important aspect of nation-building.

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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