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Students at Centrestage: A Seminar on Learning History in Singapore

Call for Student Presenters

Students at Centrestage: A Seminar on Learning History in Singapore

Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society

9 am-1 pm, Saturday, 27 November 2010

Possibility Room, 5th Level, National Library Building

The teaching of history has undergone tremendous change in recent years: syllabuses have been rewritten, sources have become a major form of assessment, and the content has been framed to cultivate thinking skills and citizenship education. The changes are, we know, part of the ongoing revamp of the education system in pursuit of Singapore’s desired status as a world city.

This seminar will return students to centrestage. It will acknowledge the interest, creativity and potential many students show towards the past, while highlighting the obstacles and frustrations that plague the experiences of others. It will, most importantly, listen to students’ views and feelings, not because they are necessarily true, but because they exist and ought to be empathetically heard and understood.

We invite teachers to approach their students or students to contact us directly to present their views and experiences (10-15 mins per presentation). We are looking for students doing history and social studies at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The form of presentation is flexible. Students can present singly or in small groups (up to 3 persons), or engage in an informal dialogue with a teacher. Besides the presentations, students can also send notes of their views and experiences by email to the conveners. Teachers will not present at the seminar, although they can facilitate a dialogue session and are encouraged to attend.

Students may speak on the following subjects:

1.     The Historian’s Way: in learning history, do you work and think like a historian?

2.     The Experience: what learning activities work for you, and which activities don’t?

3.     Values and Lessons: what values and lessons does history provide us?

4.     Problems and Frustrations: are you frustrated by problems such as language, concepts, sources, comparison etc? How can learning history be more fun and meaningful?

5.     The Future: will you take history in your next school or in university?

If you are interested in presenting, please send your name(s), school, email address, and a short summary of what you will talk about to us by 30 October 2010.


Dr Loh Kah Seng, lkshis@gmail.com

Ms Candice Alexis Seet, candice.seet@gmail.com

Ms Junaidah Jaffar, jun.jaffar@gmail.com

Ms Lee Si Wei, witchcraftz@yahoo.com


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The Weakening of Empathy: A University Case

Presented at Teaching History in Singapore: The State of the Craft
A Roundtable Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society
Monday 30 November 2009, National Library Building
By Loh Kah Seng

‘When someone is expressing ideas, do not say, I don’t like the idea, because you are discouraging them’.

‘It was basically a struggle to get past his lessons. When he asks us questions then we answered him, he will ask us more questions about the answers. This in turn creates a never ending cycle of questions until class ends. When I leave class, I end up with more questions in my head than answers as he never said the answers in the first place! This is a very bad thing and it will not obviously help me in my examination’.

‘Tutorial is about discussion and the free rights to exchange personal opinions albeit biased or judgmental. However the tutor is always correcting the students’ personal views and saying they are wrong. I think it is very unfair’.

These are critiques from my student feedback when I was teaching Singapore history modules in the university. They were Singapore Studies modules, general courses which are compulsory for undergraduates except those from Medicine, Dentistry and Law. Besides highlighting, rather painfully, that I was not always an effective tutor, they also open windows into how university students believe history should be taught. They allow us to return to the themes I brought up earlier, on ‘class struggles’ and teaching students in the postmodern age.

The criticisms concern the issue of historical empathy, the act of ‘getting into someone else’s shoes’. The importance of not just knowing about Singapore but also doing it from a Singapore vantage point is implicit in NUS’s official statement on the purpose of Singapore Studies: they are meant to ‘strengthen a student’s understanding of the economy, geography, history, politics, and society of Singapore’ and ‘expose students to different perspectives on the critical issues confronting Singapore, and a deep appreciation of the conditions affecting decision-making in a Singapore operating within a regional and global context’.

While many students from different faculties did well in my classes, a large number were bewildered and frustrated by my lessons, particularly when I attempted to engage them in more open-ended and provocative questions. That intellectual and emotional displeasure later led the students to express critical feedback on my teaching.

My ‘class struggles’ involved mostly passive resistance. I argue that they represent a widening gap in historical empathy, rather than knowledge, between the teacher and the taught. I do not seek to place the blame on the students for their academic frustration or ignore other factors which might have led them to feel this way. Many Singapore Studies students hail from outside the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and have a very basic understanding of Singapore history. A tutor may have a class of 25 with very different backgrounds in and aptitudes for history. Some students, particularly the foreign students from the region and China, have virtually none of these. They also have to struggle with the demands of writing, speaking and thinking in English and crafting argumentative essays. But even local students with a sound command of English and good writing skills have been resistant to approaching Singapore Studies from new angles.

I will draw from my experience two test cases of historical empathy. As a social historian, my approach has to offer to students a corrective to the standard Singapore story, by standing in the shoes of ordinary Singaporeans. One case is the notion of space, dirt and disease held by the people in colonial Singapore. How did they live in a tiny cubicle without light and good airflow? How did they warmly embrace the attap house with very basic amenities and a pail toilet built over a river? Why did they refuse to visit modern hospitals and take Western medicine when they fell sick? So I played the devil’s advocate and challenged the students with historical situations that appeared plainly irrational. Sometimes, logic led to empathy. If the shophouse cubicles were cramped, stuffy and dark, the residents simply spent most of their time outside, in the verandahs, the streets, the kopitiams, coming home only to sleep. I was then able to get the students to critique the notions both of an Eurocentric modernity and a linear history. But frequently, other students found it psychologically easier to dismiss such ways of life as inferior, as dangerous, and support the perspectives of the colonial state. In doing so, they reinforce their own notions of modernity, urban space, dirt, and disease.

The other instance lies at the other end of the social spectrum, when ordinary people refused to tolerate difficult living conditions and responded in collective anger. On the 1955 Hock Lee Bus strike, I posed the question, can the strike be seen as more than a riot and disruption of the socio-political order? I challenged the students to consider this: if it was morally justified for the weak to utilise their weapons, even if the consequence was to bring about a great deal of inconvenience for those who used public transport? I asked them, what if they had booked a flight only to find that the airline employees had gone on strike? For many students, this was a bridge too far. It was easier for them to criticise the workers for disrupting industrial peace and stand on the side of those who desired a disciplined labour and economic progress. There is a ready-made historical explanation the students can turn to: the workers must have been exploited by the communists. I suggested that workers in postwar Singapore were not morons – they didn’t go on strike because someone stepped onto a stage and began agitating them! I asked them if they would do the same if someone came to the class and urged them to demonstrate at Speaker’s Corner? Most of them smiled.

So this is the context. Those of us involved in Singapore Studies and Social Studies run two risks. One is to run afoul of students who dismiss National Education as state-disseminated propaganda. The other is to be accused of correcting students, imposing our ideas on them, violating their rights as students. This comes from local students who have been brought up in a society which does not know strikes, kampongs and anti-colonialism. This also comes from foreign students who have recently come to Singapore and admire its stability and progress. One of my foreign students explained, Singapore is so successful today, Lee Kuan Yew had to suppress the communists. These are claims from the postmodern classroom in Singapore which we cannot afford to ignore.


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Class Struggles and Postmodern Classrooms: The State of History Teaching in Singapore

A Roundtable Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society
Monday 30 November 2009, National Library Building
Opening remarks by Loh Kah Seng

Dear teachers, students, historians, and members of the public

Ten years ago, history teacher Shirley Wilton reflected on the changes in the craft in the United States. In the 1960s, she first stepped into a community college and the idealistic world of teaching and social change. She observed the ‘class struggles’ now taking place between older teachers who breathed the rarified air of the era of the counter-culture, and students of Generation X whose guiding philosophy is ‘consumerism, entertainment and entitlement’. These students of the postmodern age, Wilton insisted, possess a hunger for history, but it is for a history with no fixed answers, and in which they are not passive rote learners but active participants. And teachers have to adjust the ways they teach.

In Singapore, the situation is arguably more complex. There are struggles taking place in our classes as in the American colleges, but the defining dynamic in these struggles is not merely between teachers and students. Yes, we will hear later about the increasing academic and non-academic demands being placed on teachers. We will also learn both about the claims and distractions which are redefining the traditional role of students in our schools.

Yet, there are also other vectors of change weighing heavily on history education in Singapore. The nation seeks to transform itself into a global city. Over the course of the last two decades, this has meant an unceasing process of destruction and restructuring in the discipline. The ministry has attempted to trim the content, introduce historical sources, encourage new methods of inquiry, de-emphasise examinations, and cultivate thinking skills. Above all, it seeks to forge the young historian and active citizen. History is not the only subject so affected, but it is telling that it is the past which is strongly regarded as the pathway to the imagined future. There are more changes on the horizon, to further encourage students to work like historians, build bridges between history and other disciplines and move to a more inclusive approach in National Education. In the scale of changes which have transformed the subject, history teaching in Singapore has truly entered a postmodern age.

So, this roundtable is about teachers and students, but it is also about context, which shapes the culture of the classroom, demands of the curriculum, and consequences of policies. We have a real opportunity to reflect on our individual efforts and the larger forces which enhance or deflect them. I must emphasise that we make our presentations in our personal capacity, and they are also often anecdotal and not necessarily representative. But I think it is because our thoughts are informal and earnest that they serve their purpose in getting to the heart of the issues. At the very least, the reflections will underline what teachers and students think. But more than that, they may enable us to assess the state of history teaching in Singapore. Some of what we say may not be new but we seek to explore the issues more deeply and to explain them. The reflections may provide a platform for teachers, students, curriculum planners, and historians to imagine ways to reshape the craft in the future. We aim to return.

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Programme: Teaching History in Singapore

Pls register at:


A Roundtable Presented by the Singapore Heritage Society

Imagination Room, Level 5, National Library, 30 November 2009

Time Speaker Topic
0830-0845 Loh Kah Seng
Nanyang Technological University
Welcome and opening remarks
0845-1010 PANEL I: LEARNING HISTORYModerator: Loh Kah Seng, Nanyang Technological University
0845-0900 Suhaimi Afandi & Mark Baildon
National Institute of Education
Towards a responsive pedagogy: engaging students’ ideas to enhance history teaching and learning
0900-0915 Candice Alexis Seet
CHIJ Secondary (Toa Payoh)
What were you thinking? Entering the minds of students
0915-0930 Kevin Blackburn
National Institute of Education
‘I don’t know who Lim Bo Seng is … I only know Lee Kuan Yew’: forgetting what my teacher and textbook told me
0930-0945 Henry Liu & Joshua Jeyaraj
Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)
Conceptions, communication and confidence: challenges to studying history
0945-1000 Eisen Teo
Straits Times
History in the university: beyond the facts and exams
1000-1015 Discussion
1015-1025 Break
1025-1200 PANEL II: TEACHING HISTORYModerator: Alvin Tan, Raffles Girls’ School
1025-1040 Lim Cheng Tju
Riverside Secondary School
The reality of teaching (history) in Singapore
1040-1055 Lee Si Wei
Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)
Sources in social studies beyond assessment needs
1055-1110 Gullnaz Baig
National Institute of Education
Adopting the historical reasoning framework in the classroom
1110-1125 Junaidah Jaffar
Tao Nan Primary School
Singapore history and the Singapore Story: the roles they play in citizenship education and the forging of the ‘Singapore DNA’
1125-1140 Loh Kah Seng
Nanyang Technological University
The weakening of empathy: a university experience
1140-1200 Discussion & closing remarks


Towards a Responsive Pedagogy: Engaging Students’ Ideas to Enhance History Teaching and Learning. Suhaimi Afandi & Mark Baildon

Among the fundamental questions about history teaching in Singapore is the role of the prior ideas students have about the past. Yet, it is unclear whether teachers consider these preconceptions of history. In using the concept of ‘responsive pedagogy’, we posit that 1) students have a range of initial ideas about the nature of history; 2) teachers should engage these understandings to help students make sense of new knowledge and develop their appreciation of the past; and 3) tensions and constraints within the education system be resolved in order to develop both a teaching approach and learning experience that engages the students’ ideas about history.

What were you thinking? Entering the Minds of Students. Candice Alexis Seet

Teachers struggle to engage unmotivated students who would rather style their hair than lift a finger to flip open their textbook. In light of such struggle, what quality of work do we expect our students to produce to demonstrate that some learning has taken place? Moving away from historical content, what about citizenship education? How effectively are students able to internalise values that the curriculum hopes to instill in them? Should the teacher be the voice of authority or should students reason the issue out for themselves?

‘I don’t know who Lim Bo Seng is … I only know Lee Kuan Yew’: Forgetting What My Teacher and Textbook Told Me. Kevin Blackburn

This presentation examines the impact of compulsory history education. For history enthusiasts in Singapore, Lim Bo Seng is a national icon, a war hero, who looms larger than life in the primary school studies syllabus and secondary history syllabus. But a surprising number of young university students just out of the Singapore state education system have no recollection of him. Why does the such figure like Lim Bo Seng and other iconic historical characters and moments in Singapore’s national history generally make such a faint impression on students fresh out of the education system? Is historical knowledge just confined to individuals who have an interest in history, with the general population unable to recall little more than the barest knowledge of the national past? This presentation includes a few minutes of a vox populi, ‘voice of the people’, video of interviews with the undergraduates on campus to basic questions about the past.

Conceptions, Communication and Confidence: Challenges to Studying History. Henry Liu & Joshua Jeyaraj

This presentation explores challenges faced by students in our study of history. Notably, the conception that correctness is valued above validity and the resultant lack of confidence in expression and communication are identified as inhibitors. At times, these undermine key fundamentals of the discipline. Usual assets for study, such as extensive historiography, even become stumbling blocks that detract us from what is truly important. Instead of being holistic thinkers in development, we slip into the rigid organisation of other’s ideas, and hence lose the full potential of the experience.

History in the University: Beyond The Facts and Exams. Eisen Teo

Local university students of history experience a paradigm shift from foundational to higher level modules, because while the former generally focuses on history and ‘why it happened’, the latter concentrates more on historiography and ‘how historians have tried to explain why it happened’. Might the craft be done more justice if historiography and historical methods are introduced at lower levels? Also, how useful truly is the closed-book examination for the subject? What’s the optimal class size for effective classroom interaction? These issues and more at tertiary level have implications for how history is taught and enjoyed at other institutional levels.

The Reality of Teaching (History) in Singapore. Lim Cheng Tju

Concerns about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are common for any teacher in Singapore. But for the history teacher, the extra burden of a nation wide shortage for Humanities teachers has resulted in increased workload, class size, marking, and other demands. These issues need to be addressed.

Sources in Social Studies Beyond Assessment Needs. Lee Si Wei

Since the implementation of the upper secondary Social Studies curriculum  in 2001, students have been well-trained to excel in examinations. The official assessment needs are to test students’ ability to draw inferences, compare sources, and evaluate their utility and reliability. The larger aim, however, is to cultivate the skills of critical inquiry, investigation and reflection, so that students can appreciate how the sources throw light on important social, economic and political issues. In a neighbourhood secondary school, students can be readily horned in examination skills without necessarily grasping the underlying significance of the sources. As the study of sources is an important platform for developing students into adept thinkers, teachers need to move beyond simply satisfying assessment needs and help students understand the relevance of the sources.

Adopting the Historical Reasoning Framework in the Classroom. Gullnaz Baig

The zeitgeist of history teaching in Singapore seems to be shifting away from the orthodox content-based approach towards greater recognition of the value of inculcating key reasoning skills in our students. Indeed, the current History curriculum, as embodied in ministerial documents, provides for such an approach. Nevertheless, there seems to be uncertainty as to how such an approach can be practiced in classroom teaching. The model proposed here is based on research conducted by Drie and Boxtel who argue for the value of the ‘Historical Reasoning framework’ in developing students’ reasoning about the past. The key attraction of this model lies in the ease with which it can be applied in lesson planning without introducing radical and drastic pedagogical changes.

Singapore History and the Singapore Story: The Roles They Play in Citizenship Education and the forging of the ‘Singapore DNA’. Junaidah Binti Jaffar

On 17 May 1997, National Education (NE) was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong. NE has since been explicitly taught in the Social Studies syllabus and gradually, all subjects have become NE-infused. Simultaneously, citizenship education is arguably as important a thrust as the other learning outcomes of the Singapore education system. It is through NE that the official strain of Singapore history, popularly known as ‘the Singapore Story’, is ingrained in Singapore’s youths. This presentation attempts to delineate: (1) the role of history in citizenship education, Social Studies and National Education, with a focus on the primary education sector, (2) how educators can explore alternative narrations of the Singapore story without censure so as to provide pupils a holistic and nuanced picture of the past, and (3) the achievements and difficulties in this enterprise to synthesise all this and forge what the Director-General of Education, Ms Ho Peng, termed as the ‘Singapore DNA’ – a people imbued with resilience, tenacity and adaptability. The presentation will tap on the frameworks of NE, Social Studies, key speeches and policies, supplemented by anecdotes of practitioners of the trade.

The Weakening of Empathy: A University Experience. Loh Kah Seng

Having taught different cohorts of history undergraduates, it is becoming clear how often students are lacking in historical empathy even if they do well in other areas like reading, writing and analysis. While this may be partly due to teachers not focusing enough on empathy, the greater problem, I think, lies in the social norms and demographic trends in contemporary Singapore. Empathy for the past as a ‘foreign country’ has in some ways been dramatically eroded by the changes which have transformed the society in the last fifty years.

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