Centering the Periphery: Giving Students’ Voice and Choice

In April 2019, I carried out an action research study with a class of High Ability Primary 6 students to understand how to better engage students in a Social Studies class through discussion of controversial issues. Based upon my observations, these students demonstrated behaviors that showed they were disengaged during the monthly lesson on current affairs known as News Sharing. During News Sharing class, students were typically given an adapted news article chosen by me with a set of questions that tested mainly their comprehension of the article, the relevance of the article to National Education (NE) messages and how they might contribute to society based on the issue featured in the article. I felt that the formulaic nature of the lesson defeated the aim of News Sharing which was initially introduced with the purpose of improving students’ general knowledge about the world and Singapore. The lesson eventually resulted in an English language comprehension class where discussion was minimal and almost perfunctory.

I was quite dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it ran counter to my vision of what a Social Studies class should be and my transformative role as a Social Studies teacher. I felt as if I was oppressing my students, viewing them simply as empty receptacles waiting to be filled up by content. It was an untenable situation. Upon further probing, these students shared that they would like for the lesson to be changed, especially on the topics that were discussed as well as the approach. They expressed the desire to discuss topics that were of interest to them instead of those chosen by the teacher. Among the topics that they suggested were meritocracy, issues on foreign talents, gender inequalities as well as academic demands. I took their suggestions to heart and began to search for a better approach to discuss these topics. I also decided to frame the issues in a way where they could be controversial in nature and thus invite livelier discussion. Furthermore, this was an area that I felt merited further investigation since findings from this action research would have implications for other Social Studies teachers who might be interested to find out how they could introduce controversial issues as a way to engage their primary school students.

From the very start, the decision to use discussion as a pedagogical approach was strategic. Available literature as well as my own observations suggested that conventional instruction that is very teacher-directed would not be as useful in this case. I, therefore, adopted a structured discussion approach in introducing controversial issues to the class of 40 students in a three-period lesson. I leaned heavily to the works of Hand and Levinson (2012) who identify discussion as fulfilling three main criteria: firstly, the articulation of multiple viewpoints; secondly, discussants being receptive to other opinions besides their own; and finally, there is a seriousness to the endeavor as the discussants are desirous to get to the truth of the matter.

Besides the change in approach, my role in this lesson was also different. Naturally, I had my own views of the issues discussed. Heeding, Cowan and Maitles (2016) who argue that teachers’ views should not impede classroom discussion if teachers are honest and confident enough to allow their students to challenge them, I made these views about discussion known to my class at the start of the lessons. I felt this disclosure was necessary for the discussions of controversial issues to develop more organically.

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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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