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Nurturing Informed and Active Citizens through Social Studies (Part 2)

17 Jan 2013

Social Studies teacher Ms Azlinda bt Samsudin

At Sembawang Secondary School Teacher Ms Azlinda engages students through both conventional games and online platforms.

Read Part 1 of the Schoolbag report on the revised Social Studies curriculum, which focused on the primary school curriculum.

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. For secondary school students, Ms Azlinda bt Samsudin, Head of Department for Humanities at Sembawang Secondary School, notes that it is important that they learn how to discern the credibility of the information they obtain, identify the difference between opinion and fact, and have the critical mindset to analyse the information they receive.

Such life skills are indeed part and parcel of the revised Social Studies curriculum for secondary school, which uses the inquiry-based approach and authentic learning experiences to teach students to question what they see or hear. They are also guided to come up with an "informed decision" that is supported by reliable evidence, after they have had the opportunity to consider all the different perspectives.

Beyond learning useful skills, Ms Azlinda also sees Social Studies lessons as a platform to teach students good values and character. To her, the "beauty" of Social Studies is that every aspect of the content and skills learnt is applicable to real life, and it is the role of the teacher to help students see the relevance of this.

MOE Social Studies curriculum team

The revisions to the Social Studies curriculum are led by Ms Lim Pik Ying Elaine, Deputy Director for Humanities at MOE.

Issues that are "meaningful" to students

Because the profile of today's students is so different from that of previous generations, the revised curriculum intentionally moves away from relaying national messages - some call them "propagandist" messages - to examining issues in social life which matter to Singapore and which are "meaningful" to the students, says Ms Lim Pik Ying Elaine, Deputy Director for the Humanities Branch at MOE's Curriculum Planning and Development Division.

The materials that will be used for Social Studies in secondary school are drawn from different sources, with perspectives from Singapore and around the world. "It is necessary for students to learn to construct well reasoned and substantiated arguments based on sound research, analysis and interpretation of evidence," elaborates Ms Lim. In the process, they will understand issues that matter to Singapore, how the country's decisions are made and the country's connections to the rest of the world. By understanding the "complexities of the human experience", it is hoped that they will want to "engage responsibly" in things that will make a difference, she adds.

Social Studies teachers will be trained in the use of different discussion tools and strategies as they facilitate dialogue in the classroom and guide their students to delve more deeply into issues. Ms Azlinda, for example, stretches her students to think beyond the given content by using online platforms like discussion forums, and guiding the discussion with rubrics and checklists. She also uses techniques like Socratic questioning, a systematic way of questioning that explores multiple complex ideas, and "Academic Controversy", where students have to take both sides in an argument, to guide them towards critical thinking.

Social Studies teacher Ms Azlinda bt Samsudin

Some of the games used by Ms Azlinda to teach Social Studies were designed by teachers.

"It is important to get the students to realise that they are knowledge creators and not mere information retrievers," Ms Azlinda says. They must "take ownership" for their own learning instead of waiting for the teacher to give out the "right" answer. In the process, "they also acquire confidence in the subject, develop new knowledge and gain self-confidence," she adds.

Putting life skills to work

While formal assessments provide feedback on what the students have mastered in Social Studies, their behaviour is also a useful gauge of how much they have internalised the values and skills. Citing an example of an April Fool's Day prank in her class when she had called on certain students to confirm some information, Ms Azlinda recalls how other students had reminded her that she should not have believed those students as the students were "unreliable" sources. "They used the skills I taught them to question my assumptions," she says with a laugh.

Secondary school students may not realise it yet, but being able to apply such skills in and out of the classroom will stand them in good stead in the long run. Singapore Management University undergraduate Ms Jillian Richelle Goodenough remembers Social Studies lessons when she was a student at St Anthony's Canossian Secondary School, and feels that the subject gave her a historical context to put current policies into perspective. Moreover, it helped her to better understand the values that Singapore holds dear, such as racial harmony and total defence.

MOE Social Studies curriculum team

The MOE team behind the revised secondary level Social Studies curriculum, which will incorporate different discussion tools and strategies to facilitate dialogue.

Offering a broader point of view, Mr Lim Teng Sherng, managing director for BT Advise Assure, BT Global Services, Asia Pacific, says, "Education is about preparing our children for the real world. We need to provide them with lifelong skills. I think the key for Social Studies is to inject real-world lessons into the classroom."

Ultimately, Social Studies prepares students to be the citizens of tomorrow, from as early as Pri 1 and continuing until they leave secondary school. By then, students would have attained "civic competencies" encompassing the body of knowledge, skills and values that empower them to be "informed, concerned and participative citizens," emphasises Ms Lim. As Ms Goodenough's experience shows, they should have a deeper understanding of the values that define Singapore, inspiring them to become well-rounded, empathetic and passionate citizens who will put the greater good above individual interests.