Evolution of the Primary School Social Studies Curriculum in Singapore: From ‘Moulding’ Citizens to Developing Critical Thinkers, pp. 9 of 13

An examination of the learning outcomes of the 1999 syllabus seems to validate Baildon & Sim’s (2010) point. Many of the stated learning outcomes centred on the affective domain, for example, “appreciate the importance of every individual to society (Primary 3); “empathise with the people and their sufferings during the war” (Primary 4); “appreciate the contributions made by Singapore leaders in the 1950s” (Primary 5); “appreciate the progress that has taken place in Singapore” (Primary 6). There was perhaps only one learning outcome that might be seen as encouraging critical thinking – “suggest ways in which Singapore can make further progress” (Primary 6). Problem solving and decision making opportunities were not significantly highlighted in the learning outcomes at the different grade levels in spite of their being identified as important overall skills objectives of the syllabus. In the battle between convergent and critical thinking, the former seemed to be more imperative and developing a sense of national identity triumphed over the desire for critical and creative thinkers. Be that as it may, that there was recognition of the need to develop critical thinking in the young should still be seen as a positive move.

The 1999 syllabus was reviewed and a revised syllabus was published in 2005 for implementation in 2006. The revised syllabus continued to focus on providing historical, geographical, economic and sociological knowledge with the intent of equipping children with the knowledge, skills and attitudes deemed necessary for future participation in society (MOE, 2005). What is noteworthy is the emphasis on informed decision making as one of the aims of the syllabus. Although the syllabus content was still very much similar to that in the 1999 syllabus, there was an attempt at a clearer conceptual and thematic organisation with explicit elucidation of learning outcomes within each theme. The subject matter was organised around four themes: People, Place and Environment; Time, Change and Continuity; Identity, Culture and Community and Scarcity, Choices and Resources. See Figure 1.

Like the 1999 syllabus, the revised syllabus also highlighted the knowledge, skills and attitudes learning outcomes at each grade level. Interestingly, a list of thinking skills was included at each grade level. This is a significant improvement and signals a deliberate attempt to integrate thinking skills into the curriculum. Some examples of the listed thinking skills include “comparing to discuss similarities and differences”, “brainstorm creative solutions to problems,” “consider advantages and disadvantages of a solution to a problem,” “draw conclusions based on historical data,” “take different perspectives, generate new ways of viewing a situation and develop arguments” and “explore ideas beyond what is given and consider their relevance.” Unfortunately, the syllabus did not provide specific detail or examples of the topics or issues when such thinking skills could be used. The skills were couched in rather general terms (as above), so teachers had to decide for themselves the issues within the grade level content that could provide opportunities for integrating such thinking skills. This in itself was not really a bad thing if teachers were skilled in teaching thinking skills or using issues in the curriculum to develop thinking. However, because many Social Studies teachers were not trained in teaching the subject and most teachers frequently used direct instruction, whether there was really an attempt at developing thinking skills through Social Studies is open to question.

In terms of attitudes and values objectives, the syllabus continued to emphasise a sense of belonging and rootedness to the nation, social harmony and appreciation for ethnic diversity in Singapore and appreciation of the need for creative solutions to Singapore’s resource constraints. A significant departure from previous syllabuses was the addition of a topic about Singapore’s links with the rest of the world. In the 1994 syllabus, the scope of Singapore’s links with the rest of the world was limited to a study of Southeast Asian countries. The 1999 syllabus continued to focus on Southeast Asia but included an overview of Singapore’s links with the world, without spelling out clearly what these links were. The 2005 syllabus was more specific in outlining the scope of Singapore’s involvement in international organisations such as United Nations, World Trade Organization and World Health Organization. This is noteworthy because it seemed to recognise the need to develop a more global outlook in our young people by providing them with some information about such international organisations. The attitudinal objectives included appreciating the similarities and differences of peoples in the region and the world, and developing “a sense of responsibility to local and global environment and communities” (MOE, 2005, p.19). That augured well for citizenship education as it symbolised a move away from a narrow parochial national identity to a more global one.

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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