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.
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.
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 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.
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.