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Nurturing Informed and Active Citizens through Social Studies (Part 1)

15 Jan 2013

Social Studies teacher Mdm Irma Darny Swadi

Mdm Irma uses dramatisation, props and other teaching tools to engage her primary school pupils during Social Studies lessons.

This is the first of a two-part Schoolbag report on the revised Social Studies curriculum. It looks at the updated curriculum that was implemented in primary schools this year.

"I am Tan Tock Seng. I was 21 years old when I first came to Singapore in 1819. I sold fruits, vegetables and chickens to make a living. I am now an old man, but I am happy with what I have done in Singapore."

"Yes, Pa, we are all very proud of you, especially how your donations helped to build Tan Tock Seng Hospital to provide medical care for poor people."

This dramatised exchange between two pupils at Tampines North Primary School is a typical example of how the Social Studies curriculum is taught with a fresh approach in primary schools today. The two pupils played the roles of Tan Tock Seng and his son Tan Kim Ching respectively, and teacher Mdm Irma Darny Swadi highlights that this type of activity deepens their engagement with these figures from Singapore's history.

"Younger pupils love dramatisation, whether it's acting or watching their friends act," she says, adding that they enjoy participation and are always game to don costumes, try out new musical instruments or share their views. Mdm Irma was also involved in the planning of the revised Social Studies curriculum in 2006 and 2012, and the updated curriculum developed by MOE aims to leverage on this natural curiosity and enthusiasm of children, to engage them in real-world issues, both past and present.

MOE Social Studies curriculum team

Deputy Director of MOE's Humanities Branch believes that Social Studies plays an important role in developing a global outlook in young people.

The "heart and soul" of citizenry

Like other subjects in MOE's school curricula, the Social Studies curriculum is regularly revised to ensure that it is kept up-to-date with changing global and national circumstances, and appropriately pitched to a more curious and knowledgeable student population. Certainly, Singapore's rapid economic and social development, and the emergence of a more vocal citizenry that demands civic participation, has added to the impetus for a revised curriculum, says Ms Lim Pik Ying Elaine, Deputy Director for the Humanities Branch at MOE's Curriculum Planning and Development Division.

Through an updated approach and revised content to make the subject more relevant to pupils, Social Studies seeks to inculcate in them a deeper understanding of the values that define Singaporean society, such that "what they hold dear is also what we, as a society, hold dear," explains Ms Lim. Social Studies also helps pupils to understand the interconnectedness in the world they live and the complexities of the human experience. The syllabus is framed by the "knowledge, skills and values" required for them to develop into "informed, concerned and participative Singapore citizens with a global outlook," she adds.

In January 2012, a revised Social Studies curriculum was rolled out nationally for the Primary 1 and 2 levels. Next year, the revised curriculum will be used in Pri 3 and 4, followed by Pri 5 and 6 in 2014. The content begins with the individual perspective of the pupil, and broadens over the years to encompass the pupil's environment: the community, the country, the region and the world. In particular, the topic "Appreciating the World and Region We Live in" has been enhanced in the revised curriculum. This will help pupils to understand that what is happening around Singapore has an impact on the country. Moreover, it is important in nurturing citizens for Singapore with a "global outlook", says Ms Lim.

Social Studies teacher Mdm Irma Darny Swadi

Mdm Irma uses Social Studies lessons to help develop critical thinking skills in her pupils.

Learning through inquiry and hands-on experiences

These competencies are also increasingly prized by employers. Mr Lim Teng Sherng, managing director for BT Advise Assure, BT Global Services, Asia Pacific, observes that "with the world getting more connected, changes are taking place at a pace faster than ever before. We need to be nimble and quick, and be able to work hard and work smart." He feels that employers today therefore expect their staff to have "a good appreciation of their broader environment outside of their workplace."

The revised curriculum for primary school is structured along two key themes: Identity, Culture and Heritage, and People and Environment. The syllabus is organised into three broad clusters:

  • Discovering the Self and the Immediate Environment,
  • Understanding Singapore in the Past and Present, and
  • Appreciating the World and Region We Live in.

Primary school teachers are encouraged to adopt an inquiry-based approach and authentic learning experiences to inspire mental eagerness and curiosity. For example, in a lesson on Singapore's forefathers, Mdm Irma explains that she would show a YouTube video of then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew shedding tears during his televised announcement in 1965 of the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. Beginning with the obvious question "Why was he crying?", she then guides her pupils to ask more in-depth questions as they research and discuss about Lee's role in politics and contributions to Singapore, the circumstances leading to Singapore's independence, and even what makes for a good and sustainable government.

MOE Social Studies curriculum team

MOE's Social Studies curriculum team, headed by Ms Lim Pik Ying Elaine (centre) with some of the learning resources that have been developed for the revised curriculum.

Learning through inquiry and hands-on experiences

MOE is also keen for primary school pupils to experience learning in the field. Schools can bring them on fieldtrips to places such as the Jacob Ballas Children's Garden and Peranakan Museum for example, which are "integral to the curriculum" for their authentic learning opportunities, highlights Ms Lim.

For classroom learning, pupils from Pri 1 to 6 will all have activity books. Lower primary pupils have readers and six Big Books per level, while upper primary pupils will use textbooks. "More than just focus on the facts and body of knowledge, we want to connect with learners through stories and by using materials they can touch, see and feel," says Ms Lim.

Extensive resources have also been developed to support the revised curriculum so that teachers have "enough scope to go deeper and wider," adds Ms Lim. Several "treasure chests" which are given to schools, for example, are filled with items that can be used to "humanise the learning experience". It contains readers, maps, videos, photo cards, graphic novels, musical instruments, costumes, finger and hand puppets, and card games. More resources are available on OPAL, an online portal for teachers.

Mdm Irma is looking forward to using the revised approach, which will allow her to teach knowledge, concepts, skills and nurture curious and critical thinkers. She is also eager to tap the resources in the treasure chest to excite and engage her pupils, and take dramatisation and authentic learning to the next level.

Look out next week for part 2 of the Schoolbag report on Social Studies, which will focus on the revised secondary school curriculum.