Thursday, 7 January 2016

Revised social studies syllabus tackles hot-button issues

Nimby syndrome, poverty line among topics featured; aim is to promote active citizenship and critical thinking
By Priscilla Goy and Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2016

A Facebook post written by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about his views on interaction with foreigners here is now featured in a new social studies textbook.

And so are topical issues debated in the media - but rarely or never discussed in social studies previously - such as whether there should be a poverty line and the Nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome.

The upper secondary social studies syllabus and examination format have been revised to place greater emphasis on promoting active citizenship and critical thinking, said Ms Marilyn Lim, deputy director for humanities in the Ministry of Education's (MOE) curriculum planning and development division.

With the new syllabus, students are encouraged to "develop responses to societal issues rather than just learning about them", a ministry spokesman told The Straits Times.

The new syllabus will affect students taking the O- and N-level social studies examinations from next year, starting with this year's Secondary 3 cohort.

Last year, about 41,000 students took the O- and N-level exams for social studies, which was introduced as an examinable subject for upper secondary in 2001.

While previous revisions of the subject's syllabus were usually incremental, with updates to the policies mentioned, for example, educators said the latest revamp marks a significant change, with more topical issues and guiding questions to promote critical thinking.

The latest textbook is organised around societal issues, with guiding questions to encourage students to give their own responses.

For the issue about "exploring citizenship and governance", for instance, guiding questions include "What does it mean for me to be a citizen?" and "How do we decide on what is good for society?"

Another key difference is that the revised syllabus also looks at "new diversities" - such as people of different nationalities and socio-economic statuses - instead of focusing on racial and religious diversity.

Contentious issues that took place in recent years also have more prominence in the new textbook.

For instance, a 2014 Facebook post by Mr Lee about how Singaporeans should be more welcoming towards foreigners is featured in a section on the challenges of living in a diverse society with foreigners. He wrote it after some Singaporeans had expressed intolerance towards plans by Filipinos here to hold Philippine Independence Day celebrations in Orchard Road.

Some parents were glad to hear of the new syllabus and exam format, which places more emphasis on the ability to make reasoned arguments and recommendations.

Real estate agent Charlotte Chng, 52, who has a son in Secondary 3 this year, said: "My son is not someone who buries himself in books and memorises facts, so I think the revised exam format will benefit him."

"I also have the habit of discussing the news with him, so I think that indirectly teaches him the skills required."

Teachers, experts welcome change
By Priscilla Goy and Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2016

Educators and experts welcomed the change in the upper secondary social studies syllabus, noting that it is forward-looking, more topical and promotes critical thinking.

Mrs Angela Chew, who has taught social studies for about 10 years, said: "The topics are issues that students can relate to because they read about these in the media, or may have talked about them in conversations with their parents."

The North View Secondary School teacher said: "It is important that teachers facilitate discussions about these issues too because, outside the classroom, students may not have a broader perspective of the topic."

Topical issues rarely or never discussed in social studies previously include the role of individual citizens and groups in governance.

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said: "It is encouraging to see some acknowledgement of the role NGOs (non-governmental organisations) play in shaping society, even though the Government still needs to view groups that champion human rights with less suspicion."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said raising current issues in the classroom encourages students to evaluate diverse views, whether in the mainstream or social media, instead of "being passive, unthinking consumers of media content".

Teachers are also expected to hold more classroom discussions about the issues in the syllabus, and some are keen to improve their skills in doing so.

"It would be great if we can have more courses on how to facilitate discussions. Kids talking randomly is different from kids having a meaningful discussion where they learn something," said a 25-year-old social studies teacher who works in a secondary school.

Experts noted that recent examples in social studies texts have to be balanced with events from Singapore's history. Dr Tan said students need to have the historical context to understand new issues. "They need to have the opportunity to evaluate the past and learn the lessons that history can offer," he added.

Textbook examples from real life
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2016

The upper secondary social studies syllabus has been revised to place greater emphasis on promoting active citizenship and critical thinking, with examples that are more topical for students.

1. Nimby syndrome

The not in my backyard syndrome is cited as an example of "unequal sharing of costs", a challenge faced when deciding what is good for society.

2. Little India riot

The authorities' swift action in the December 2013 Little India riot is cited as an example of how the Government maintains order in Singapore.

3. Harassment of organisers of Philippine Independence Day celebrations in Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Facebook post in 2014 about this incident is featured in the textbook. In April that year, some netizens had lambasted organisers of the event, saying they did not want it to be held at the planned venue of Ngee Ann City. Mr Lee wrote that Singaporeans should be "generous of spirit" and "treat people in Singapore the way we ourselves expect to be treated overseas".

4. Debate over need for official poverty line in Singapore

The textbook discusses people's different socio-economic statuses. In a textbook activity, students are asked to study different sources - from a minister, a blogger, a researcher and a news report - to learn different perspectives on whether Singapore needs a poverty line.

5. Our Singapore Conversation

The "Our Singapore Conversation" (OSC) is given as an example of the individual's role in influencing government decisions. The OSC, which ended in 2013, was a national-level conversation in which citizens gave feedback and shared their dreams for Singapore.

Revamped social studies syllabus: Exam assessment format will also be changed
By Joanna Seow and Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 6 Jan 2016

To go with the revamped syllabus, the assessment format for social studies in the O- and N-level exams will be revised from next year.

Instead of structured essay questions, which students typically answer by regurgitating facts, there will be "structured response questions" (SRQ), where students give their opinions or suggestions and make their case.

A Ministry of Education spokesman said: "The new SRQ assesses students' ability to analyse issues from multiple perspectives, construct reasoned arguments and make informed judgments and recommendations."

Experts said the change means there is "no right or wrong answer", but answers have to be well argued.

SIM Global Education's academic division director Timothy Chan called this a necessary change.

"It shifts the focus from knowledge recall and understanding towards critical thinking and communications... which are skills needed in the 21st century," he said.

The SRQ is worth 15 marks, the equivalent of the structured essay question in the past. The remaining 35 marks will continue to be allocated to the source-based question, where students are asked to interpret and evaluate sources about an issue. The highest possible score for the social studies exam is 50 marks.

For the first time, social studies students will also have to take part in an "issue investigation" project, where they conduct surveys and interpret the data collected. This will be part of their school-based assessment and will not be included in the score in national exams.

Madam Tan Soon May, 42, a social studies teacher who piloted issue investigation at Tanglin Secondary School last year, said it built up students' confidence, even for those who were not so academically inclined.

"It is up to the students to come up with their own conclusions based on the data and evidence they find," she said.

A welcome lesson in critical thinking
Revised social studies syllabus opens up topical issues for debate, though some say that it could do better
By Priscilla Goy, The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2016

I was among the early cohorts of students who had to take social studies as an O-level subject.

But as far as its supposed focus on national education went, I ended up remembering little regarding Singapore. What stuck in my mind were chapters on the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the violence between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the rise and fall of Venice as a city-state. These case studies were meant to hold lessons for Singapore, but they held little relevance for 16-year-old me.

However, the new textbook on social studies being used for the first time by Secondary 3 students this year is as removed from its predecessors as Venice was to Singapore.

The issues it features are more topical, such as the Little India riot by foreign workers of 2013. They are also controversial - such as whether there is a need for a poverty line, and the effect of the influx of foreigners on citizens.

While some say there are still gaps in the syllabus, such as a missed opportunity to debate the death penalty, this acceptance that sensitive issues have a place in the classroom would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

But it is a necessary shift, given the more diverse media and political landscape today, to promote citizenship education in a better way.


The revamp of the upper secondary social studies syllabus took more than two years, with topics reorganised. Case studies of Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka or Venice, which took up two entire chapters previously, are gone.

There are still overseas case studies, such as on France and Sweden, but they don't take up entire chapters.

A Ministry of Education (MOE) curriculum planning team worked on the revamp, and The Straits Times understands people from other government agencies were also involved.

The revamped syllabus helps students be better informed about present-day tensions and multiple perspectives on these issues.

In this age of social media, it is imperative for the new syllabus to be upfront about alternative viewpoints, instead of just giving the government narrative.

Political watcher Eugene Tan, a law don at Singapore Management University, said: "The syllabus cannot conveniently ignore the lived realities of contentious and sensitive issues that our students encounter."

Ms Kuik Shiao-Yin, co-founder of School of Thought - which offers tuition in social studies and General Paper - added: "Reflecting the diversity of current opinions would help shed the image of social studies as a subject that pushes propaganda."

A Government-led review in 2006 and 2007 showed that secondary school students found social studies lessons boring, and dubbed the subject government propaganda. This is less likely to happen with the new syllabus. Some topical issues have been presented in a way that shows both the pros and cons (see side story).

Beyond giving students greater awareness of topical issues, the new syllabus promotes critical thinking. During my time - I was in Sec 3 in 2004, three years after upper secondary social studies was introduced as an examinable subject - I had to memorise the causes and consequences of conflicts, as defined by the textbook, and the suggested answers on how to argue which factor contributed the most.

Now, almost every chapter title is put in the form of a question.

Governance in Singapore is presented in two chapter titles - "How do we decide what is good for society?" and "How can we work for the good of society?" - which have far more room to develop critical thinking than "How is governance practised in Singapore?" - a question in the previous syllabus.

Framing issues in open-ended questions teaches students to weed out ill-thought-out views, said experts. Dr Thio Li-ann, a law professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said: "One must have the ability to wade through all these incessant information streams and be able to test an argument."

Institute of Policy Studies senior fellow Gillian Koh, whose research interests include the development of civil society here, added: "Students do not have to come to definitive positions, but what will be of particular value is learning that process of thinking through an issue... (and) realise what it means for the broader community and then the country."

It is also better to engage students about controversial issues in the classroom discussions instead of on their own in the free-for-all of the online space.

This reflects a confidence that trusts teachers to facilitate such discussions and allows students to, as Dr Thio put it, "see the whole picture, warts and all".

Educators said they were told by MOE at a mass briefing for social studies teachers that there are no "right or wrong answers". Answers which differ from the Government's stance could also get good scores, but they must not be discriminatory or defame anyone.


Most critically, the new syllabus encourages participative citizenship. A section titled "What is the role of the people?" took up just two pages in the previous textbook. Now, it is half a chapter.

A closer look at the guiding questions in the textbook also shows that some get students to suggest and make recommendations. Examples include: "What roles should (female Singaporeans) play in defending the nation, or supporting those who serve National Service?". This is in line with other national-level dialogues - such as the Our Singapore Conversation and SGfuture sessions.


Some people have expressed unhappiness over the way several hot-button issues are presented. The Little India riot is cited as an "example of the Government maintaining the internal order of Singapore" and the authorities are said to have taken "swift actions". But many people, including netizens and prominent blogger mrbrown, said this was a "rosy look" of the event. An inquiry found that 19 minutes passed between the call for the Special Operations Command (SOC) to quell the riot and the activation of the SOC. The first officers arrived 38 minutes after the SOC was activated.

Others felt the case could have gone into the treatment of migrant workers, although foreign worker dissatisfaction was found not to be the cause of the riot.

Additionally, Ms Braema Mathi, president of human rights group Maruah, said "we can go much, much further" in including other controversial issues. She suggested lesbian, gay , bisexual, transgender issues and the death penalty.

Another factor to consider is that raised by NUS historian Tan Tai Yong: "Teachers will have to deliver complex source material and manage debates of complicated matters, all within designated curriculum time. So support for teachers... is important."

While teachers have been trained in facilitating discussions, they need to learn to deal with strongly-held dissenting views. This is expected to be taught in workshops, but MOE must try to get the message across to as many teachers as possible.

As well, it is important to note that the social studies syllabus is compulsory only for O-level students and Normal (Academic) students who take N-levels.

There are 18 Integrated Programme (IP) schools now, up from eight in my time. Their students progress to junior college without taking the O-level exams. This route is now getting more popular, and more are bypassing the O levels. Sure, those who skip the exam still learn about Singapore, typically as part of an integrated humanities programme. But given that social studies, unlike other subjects, focuses on national education, isn't it important for all 15 and 16-year-olds to be on the same page for this subject, especially students from IP schools? After all, the IP takes in students from among the top 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort; many go on to join public service and are likely to be more involved in policymaking.

What topics are covered, how the teachers cover them, and which students study them - these all make a difference if we want social studies to encourage the young to make a positive difference in society.

The latest revamp of the social studies syllabus is a healthy step in promoting citizenship education.

I know which textbook I would have rather studied.

What's new in social studies textbook
The Straits Times, 21 Jan 2016

ST looks at two examples.


Previous textbook:

• Discussed mainly in two pages, under a section titled "Attracting foreign talent".

• No hints of unhappiness about foreigners here, except that the immigration policy is being constantly reviewed to "ensure a balance between the economic needs of the country and the needs of the people".

New textbook:

• Xenophobia and citizen-foreigner tensions - as well as tensions among people of different races, religions and socio-economic statuses - are discussed in a 24-page section titled "Challenges in a diverse society".

• A photo of a protest against the 2013 Population White Paper is featured.

• Students are asked questions such as "How far do Singaporeans view manpower as valuable additions to the workforce?"


Previous textbook:

• Hardly discussed, except in a case study about healthcare in Singapore and keeping it affordable.

New textbook:

• Discussed across four chapters about living in a diverse society; half a chapter is dedicated to the "management and impact of socio-economic diversity".

• Students are asked: "Would a poverty line help Singaporeans with low incomes?" and "What could be the impact if we were to implement the Swedish healthcare system in Singapore?"

Training students in art of citizenship
The Straits Times, 22 Jan 2016

Revisions to the upper secondary social studies syllabus and examination format should strengthen the link between critical thinking and active citizenship in Singapore. The connection is inherent in the nature of the subject itself. Social studies exist on the school curriculum to prepare students to participate critically in the common life of the country and to recognise its place in the world. Participation requires them to understand how Singapore is larger than the sum of its parts. Thus, the different races, religions and languages of this country are legitimate sources of its identity because primordial or visceral attachments to family, kin, race, religion or ideology are natural. However, sources are not outcomes, and beginnings not ends. Exclusive ethnicities cannot create an inclusive and lasting allegiance to the nation. Citizenship is a special calling that depends on the ability of Singaporeans to understand, accept and communicate with one another on the basis that the nation is a collective enterprise which goes beyond the reach of its constituent ethnicities. Social studies enable this idea to be handed down in schools as a legacy to the young.

Likewise, social studies encourage students to understand how life within Singapore is related to the world outside. Young Singaporeans, like their forebears, have internalised largely the idea that the world does not owe their country a living. However, it continues to exist by finding a niche in the globalised economy and in the interstices of great-power politics. As the dynamics of the world change with the resurgence of old powers such as China and India, and the emergence of religious extremism as a wild actor in world politics, students need to grasp better the intricacies of the coming world order in which Singapore must survive and seek to survive. Social studies, in the great tradition of civics - preparing individuals for the rights and duties of citizenship - have to enable the young of a city-state to build bonds within the country even as they explore what might anchor it in a world in uneasy transition.

In this context, thinking critically must go beyond mastery of incremental information and extend to grappling with topical issues that force students to look beyond existing policies to deal with current problems. They should be able to refine their responses to domestic and international issues, from the widening of the economic gap and the social consequences of immigration; to the imperative of multiracial Singapore remaining a secular state even as some countries trumpet majoritarian rights in the guise of religion.

There are no easy answers, but the questions are all-important. It is in the ability to generate questions beyond old answers that social studies will contribute to the creation of a resilient national culture in Singapore. Educationists owe their charges a civic education befitting the times.

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