Historical Evidence: Archaeological Practice as a Pedagogical Tool for Historical Education in Singapore, pp. 3 of 10

In teaching history to the Secondary 1 students, an important focus of our instruction is to acquaint them with the ways historians construct knowledge about the past. We would like students to consider initial questions that get at the evidentiary basis of historical knowledge: What do we know about the past? How do we know what we know? Why is it that we can’t know more about aspects of our early past? Addressing these questions opens up the possibility of introducing them to the nature of evidential work in history. As part of developing their understandings about historical evidence, I wanted my students to become aware that historians use different sources of evidence (written documents, films, buildings, artefacts, etc.) to help them to reconstruct past events. I also wanted them to recognize that historical evidence is never complete and that its survival is often a matter of chance or discovery. This is especially so if we were to consider the existing – but limited and fragmented – sources of evidence that can tell us something about Singapore’s early past.

How does the study of archaeology come into play? Archaeology is the study of human history through the excavation of sites and the subsequent analysis of the artefacts found. Archaeologists use artefacts and other material remains as sources of evidence – to prove their hypotheses, to uncover forgotten civilizations and their environments, and to reconstruct the ways of life of human societies in the distant past. In many excavations, pottery is one of the most common form of artefacts found. Archaeologists would study the composition of clay used to make the pots. They would examine how these pots were produced and recreate them as a means of learning about manufacturing techniques used in the past. Decorations found on some of the pots can provide clues as to how people had lived and the kinds of communities (e.g. elite or commoners) who were likely to have used the pottery. Much interpretive work would have to be done in order for archaeologists to construct explanations about these past societies.

Not many students know much about Singapore’s pre-colonial history. The insufficient written records do now allow them to piece together a satisfactory narrative about Singapore’s early past. I found that archaeological methods, however, can be used as a pedagogical tool to help students to construct knowledge about the past and develop deeper understanding about the nature of historical evidence. Studying historical artefacts provide students with the opportunities to recognize the importance of archaeological work, and how archaeology has made important contributions to what we know about our early past. For educators who are keen to develop students’ evidential understandings beyond the typical use of textual or pictorial sources, studying history through historical artefacts provides an interesting instructional alternative. They will find that the skills involved in examining historical artefacts are critical for students carrying out their Historical Investigation (HI) projects and research activities related to Singapore’s early 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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