Learning History

I came from a generation where History was taught in lower secondary school as a compulsory subject. I remember my history teacher vivdly. I could remember her slouching posture as she sauntered into the classroom, her squinty eyes behind thick glasses and her murmuring from the textbook. Her lesson was undeniably one of the most boring one but surprisingly, I did well for the subject. My husband on the other hand failed his history miserably.

I credit my good History grade to my ability to memorize and rote learn, my husband on the other hand, hated to memorize anything.

I could memorize 5 essays and spit everything out on the day of the exam (provided I memorized the right essays). Unfortunately today, I couldn’t remember a thing I learned during my history lessons.

For a long while, I questioned the relevance of learning History. Why would anybody need to know about William Faquhar and Sir Stamford Raffles ?

It was not until much later did I understand how history has shaped the world we are living in today. From hard sciences to philosophy and politics. If you think that you have thought of something new, look into history and chances are that someone has probably thought about it before.

Even so, I wasn’t convinced that a 9 year old kid will be able to appreciate or see the relevance.

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9 months ago, I found out that the schools here teach History in elementary school. I was prepared for Malcolm to be like me, not remembering a thing he learned, or hating the subject like his Dad.

I couldn’t be more wrong. history turned out to be one of Malcolm’s favourite subjects.  He knows more about history here than Singapore’s and I could imagine him telling the story of Alabama over a cup of kopi-O or teh-O siu dai

So what happened?  What was wrong with my premise? Why was I proven so wrong?  I realised two things

First, the teachers explained to the kids how history has shaped life here today.

Malcolm found it fascinating that the ocean levels changed and allowed ancient peoples to cross the Bearing land bridge and migrate all the way to America.

He found it interesting that one of the first White Houses of the Confederate States is still standing in here.

The teacher explained to them how water gushing naturally out of artesian wells led to the forming of a town near us, and how you can still get free and fresh drinking water today from these wells.

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They brought them for field trips to historical places to reinforce what they learned and visit the traces of history. In class, the lessons are conducted in an interactive manner where students get to speak up and share their experiences. It was never purely worksheets or memorizing facts from the textbook.

Teaching history without explaining or discussing its relevance to the present day encourages children to rote learn.  At best, they would do well in exams like me but have no inkling as to why they are learning history.  As worst, they would turn disengage and give up that subject altogether.

The second thing I realised was the teachers provided an interesting environment to learn history.  Who would have thought that craft and play could be used to teach history?

I wouldn’t.

I remember thinking long and hard on how History could be taught so that kids would find it interesting. I came to the grim conclusion that there probably isn’t a way. It has to be a boring subject through and through. Which kid would care about what happen hundreds or thousands of years before him ?

So I was wrong.

While they were learning about the native American tribes, the class was split into 4 groups and they were given sticks, twigs, tape and craft paper. The students brought scraps from home and they built replicas of the structures and weapons of the various tribes.  By doing so, they imagined, they created and they internalised what they learned from the textbook.

Bottom line, it was fun and that was the best way to learn, even for a subject such as History.

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An engaging teaching plan will go a long way to spur the students’ interest in history and I was dastardly wrong that teaching history to a 9 year old is a waste of time.

I think that most Singaporeans, including me, do not have a healthy enough respect for their own history and how knowledge of our own history could empower us.

‘Study the past if you would define the future’ ~ Confusius 

I think that the first place that we should start to remedy this is in school. We should teach history in school and we need to teach it the right way.



  1. Rachel says:

    Ah, History used to be my most hated subject in secondary school, thanks to rote learning methods that our Singapore system inculcates! When will there be positive changes to teaching our kids? I really wonder when it will happen, if it ever happens at all.

    Kyle is a history buff, since he turned 5 years old. He started with watching programmes in History Channel, was fascinated by the World Wars and then went on to reading the Horrible History Series of books. I have started a home curriculum on Ancient History, together with Biblical History with books used by Home-schoolers teaching the Classical Education. And I have learnt so much by going through the books and activities together. I highly recommend this, if ever you have plans to continue History with Mal when u are back in Spore.

    • malmal says:

      Thanks Rachel for your comment 🙂
      I was told by someone who works in MOE that it largely depends on the teachers and there are good history teachers around. I guess my husband and I weren’t lucky enough. Still, it is dismaying that we have to resign to luck when it comes to getting a good, competent, enthusiastic teacher who is passionate about teaching.
      Now that you mentioned about History Channel, Mal used to hog the TV watching History Channel when he was younger. He still likes it but the interest kind of sizzle off. He was into all battleships and dogfights during the World War. Glad to know the Kyle is like hime ! I am glad that he is not the only weird kid around ! haha
      Thanks for sharing the home curriculum and about Classical Education. He was into Greek Mythology and knows all his Greek gods through story books. It will be very interesting to piece the world together by reading ancient history 🙂

  2. Lyn lee says:

    I enjoyed history enough in secondary school to choose to do it at A levels.

    As a young nation our history might not be as rich as other countries’, but it is our history to own anyhow. And as a subject we had to study histories of many other empires and civilisations, so that was very mind-stretching.

    History books need to be read with much discernment since the writers are usually not neutral.

    There is so much to be learnt about human nature and the foibles of man from our universal past.

    Love that teepee! Really makes history come alive.

    • malmal says:

      Lyn, you are one of the few people I know who enjoy history lesson in school ! I think to understand and enjoy history requires certain maturity from the students, unless of course, the teachers can make it very interesting … In Malcolm’s case, I think it is a mix of both but more of the teacher’s effort to make the lesson interesting. I agree with all the points you mentioned above but I don’t think I really understood that there were different versions of history until much later in life. I certainly wonder how seriously we Singaporeans take our own history, and whether we have learned anything from it. It is also sometimes sad to know that civilisation has not learned from its own history and human tragedy continues to repeat itself.

      • Lyn lee says:

        I have a friend who is appalled that Sgps seem to love the brand of raffles. She thinks it’s reminiscent of colonial imperialism and exploitation. 😛

        My history teacher was very good but she was also very fierce. I think I learnt a lot of life lessons from her, about respect, dry wit and genuine concern for people.

        • malmal says:

          Lyn, is your friend a Singaporean ? If yes, I am curious whether she likes Japanese cars. Most of the Japanese car manufacturers did a roaring business making fighter planes and battleships for the Japanese Imperial Army. You are very lucky to have such a good teacher. Teachers should not just teach school subjects but about life as well. I never had the luck.

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