Volume 9, Issue 1 2020

HSSE Online Editorial

The articles in this volume make a strong case for a re-invigorated Humanities and Social Studies education at all levels of schooling; an education that as Wang notes in the first article, helps educators “grow to become comfortable with the uncomfortable,” whether it be with controversial issues and difficult discussions, challenging inquiry methods or the move away from comfortable classroom routines to more inclusive, experimental and progressive pedagogies. All of the articles in this volume make a strong case for putting students firmly in charge of their learning, whether it be through constructive conflict talk, issues investigation, environmental action, empowering students to construct what it means to be a citizen, giving students greater voice and choice in their lessons, or using talk moves to enhance student participation and agency in Geography classes. Putting students at the center promises a shift away from teacher-dominated lessons and didactic instruction toward what makes learning worthwhile, engaging, relevant and meaningful for learners.

This move toward more experiential, active and challenging pedagogy involves addressing authentic social problems that connect to students’ experiences, teaching through meaningful classroom discussions and engaging students in complex thinking processes. Such learning supports the building of an inquiry culture, inquiry mindsets and the social practices that can support lifelong inquiry and learning. Each of the articles in this volume provide insights, examples and practical approaches that can move classroom practice more firmly in these directions.

The first article by Melvin Wang provides an approach to teaching controversial issues in primary schools by encouraging students to consider different points of view through the skillful use of open-ended questions and constructive conflict talk. This approach draws upon and respects students’ emotions, imagination and inventiveness to address conflicts they are likely to experience in their lives and as citizens. In doing so, students will be better prepared to understand and address conflict that is part of living in society with diverse others who will have different perspectives, values and emotional concerns, an important aspect of creating informed, concerned and participative citizens.

In the second article, Peidong Yang reports on a study that examined the challenges teachers face in teaching “Issues Investigation” as part of the issues- and inquiry-based Upper Secondary Social Studies syllabus released in Singapore in 2016, as well as how they “tamed” or managed these challenges in their instruction. The paper highlights how teachers and students must continually negotiate curriculum and instruction, given particular constraints and competing priorities encountered in educational settings.

The third article addresses the gap between students’ “knowing” and “doing” in Environmental Education in Singapore. The author, Yee Jie Ying, creates a framework to analyze components of Environmental Knowledge in the Lower Secondary Geography curriculum to show how the emphasis on knowledge may impede environmental action among students and the author calls for greater consideration of what sorts of knowledge might more effectively promote environmental stewardship among youth.

The fourth paper by Ysabel Ortiz is a moving autobiographical account of how powerful pedagogy and the influence of a teacher can inspire one to be a caring citizen with a keen sense of agency and commitment to one’s society and nation. The powerful idea of teaching the nation as a work in progress, an ongoing project continually formed and reformed by its citizens, invited the author to develop her own sense of agency as a citizen, empowered to contribute to the nation in her own way (as an educator). The transformative potential for both the individual and society is a testament to the ways an instructor can engage students in transformative pedagogies that deepen their sense of agency.

Lin Yunqing highlights the role of “talk moves” to engage students in the geographic literacies and thinking skills necessary to work with geographical data. In the fifth article of the issue, she draws on social constructivism to demonstrate how geographic knowledge construction is supported by talk moves that require students to voice and clarify their reasoning, listen closely to each other and engage with other students’ reasoning. The article outlines specific moves that can aid both teachers and students in classroom discussion to develop geographic understanding and skills.

The sixth article by Siti Dzhawieyah offers a teachers’ reflections on an action research project that gave her primary students greater voice and choice during monthly lessons on current affairs known as News Sharing. In her reflections, she highlights many of the tensions she experienced as a teacher in moving toward more student-centered discussions about complex issues.

Finally, Mark Baildon shares a commentary on inquiry-based learning (IBL) research in Singapore. In this article, he shares what Singapore-based research tells us about IBL and pedagogical practices in classrooms that have effectively supported IBL. This article was reprinted with special permission by NIE Perspectives. To access the site, click: https://nie.edu.sg/perspectives and log in with your NIE gmail which is in this format: john.smith@g.nie.edu.sg (log in with your NIE password). Alternatively, you can go to the NIE portal > Staff Services > NIE G Suite and click Perspectives. Following the commentary, is a curated list of related research by NIE faculty.

The articles in this issue of HSSE Online highlight the essence of a powerful humanities and social studies education in which students are taught to see themselves as both active learners and participatory social actors who can make a difference in their societies. On behalf of the authors of this issue, I invite you to dig into these articles, share them with your students and colleagues and continue to move the field of humanities and social studies education forward, toward new directions that are more meaningful, authentic and enriching for students and society.

Mark Baildon

Editor, HSSE Online 

Exploring Controversial Issues in the Primary Social Studies Classroom


The curriculum is an inextricable part of what prolific author and cultural critic Raymond Williams refers to as the “selective tradition” of schooling (Williams, 1977). What this means is that through the very selection of what is taught in school, only certain knowledge and perspectives will become official and legitimised, while others end up minimised or excluded (Luke, 1994; Versfeld, 2005). Against this backdrop, all educators invariably end up selecting for or against the various competing beliefs and interest groups situated within society.

Yet, the rise of new technologies in today’s global landscape has disrupted the status quo, providing many students unfettered access to alternative views across a spectrum of controversies that surround us – climate change, economic inequality, immigration, racism and how best to address them. It is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals, groups and especially schools to assert that they have sole custody and guardianship of the truth (Apple, 2009).

Given this context, there are pertinent questions that all Social Studies educators should consider. What role should schools play in addressing these powerful concerns of today’s youth? What type of controversial issues should teachers introduce in the classroom? Should teachers act as neutral facilitators or share their personal stance on these matters? Last but not least, what and whose knowledge should teachers teach?

Definition of Controversial Issues

Controversial or sensitive educational issues have been defined in various ways over the years. In one understanding, Crick (1998) highlights controversy as “an issue about which there is no one fixed universally held point of view" (p. 56). The discussion of such issues serve to "arouse strong feelings and divide communities and society," which would then lead to the creation of explanations and solutions steeped in these alternative beliefs and values (Kerr & Huddleston, 2015, p. 13). This definition of controversial issues presumes that the discussion of divisive ideas benefits society (e.g., enhances democratic thinking, promotes tolerance for diverse perspectives and prepares students to engage in civil discourse) even if it could invite suspicion, scrutiny or even anger from parents, school administrators and the wider public (Hess, 2004).

In a second understanding, the study of controversial issues refers to the use of a range of pedagogical strategies that tap on the social scientific method or historical method, requiring students to gather data from multiple and competing views and evaluate the soundness and validity of the data, before deriving a well-reasoned conclusion supported by evidence (Ho, McAvoy, Hess, & Gibbs, 2017). This approach focuses on developing capacities, such as criticality and data-based argumentation, to nurture effective citizens capable of analysing competing viewpoints before deciding for themselves what they think or believe (Lockwood, 1996). Within this context, controversial issues in Social Studies generally take on two broad forms:

  1. Empirical: Was it necessary to drop the atomic bombs to end the war with Japan?
  2. Value Judgment: Should Singapore abolish the death penalty?

Although this article seeks to distinguish between issues raised during disciplined inquiry from those arising from the examination of values, these two domains are more often than not inextricably intertwined.

It is also worthwhile at this juncture to clarify that controversial issues are deemed controversial because they are often underpinned by uncomfortable ideas related to equity, rights, power and privilege (Cooper & Portelli, 2012). The goal in addressing controversial issues in the Social Studies classroom is not to search for universal truth or achieve consensus, but to develop tolerance and understanding for different perspectives so as to enable students to eventually contribute to civil society peacebuilding (Avery, 2002).

Controversial Issues in School

There is good evidence to support the claim that discussing controversial issues promotes democratic thinking and positive citizenship outcomes in student-citizens. Research has found that exposure to polemical discussions develops understandings of justice and the common good, essential civic competencies, as well as communicative virtues such as listening to understand, disagreeing respectfully, the willingness to suspend judgment and the humility to change one’s position in light of new information (Burbules & Rice, 1991; Hess, 2004; Young, 1996).

There is also evidence to suggest that discussing controversial issues in school significantly influences students’ civic behaviour after they graduate. A study by Andolina, Jenkins, Keeter and Zukin (2002) reported that students who discussed conflictual issues in school were more likely to demonstrate their desire for economic and social justice through tangible actions, like volunteering for the community and participating in online petitions and consumer boycotts.

Despite significant educational and societal benefits, controversial issues often receive little attention in schools due to institutional and pedagogical constraints faced by teachers (Carrington & Troyna, 1988; Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). The socio-political milieu within which schools operate invariably shapes what is deemed as appropriate and inappropriate, leaving teachers with many disincentives, including the fear of breaking laws or facing censure from peers, superiors and the general public (McCully, 2006; Phillips, 2008). In addition, mandated content coverage for the purpose of testing, a lack of pedagogical confidence and the tendency to over-emphasise conflict avoidance in the name of promoting safe and caring learning spaces are some other reasons why controversial issues are rarely broached in schools (Hess, 2002; Ho, 2017; Houser, 1996).

Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Controversial Issues

Recent pedagogical approaches to teaching controversial issues in Social Studies have largely focused on the use of discussion to help students better understand the characteristics of an ideal democracy and the role citizens play in the political process (Ho, McAvoy, Hess, & Gibbs, 2017). This section will address different discussion-based instructional approaches to teaching controversial issues, namely the argumentative design and an alternative affective approach more suited for primary school students.

Advocates of argumentative approaches, such as the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) model, draw on the theory of constructive controversy. The theory suggests that conceptual disequilibrium and uncertainty brought about by the exposure to alternative views motivates epistemic curiosity, which in turn results in an active search for more information, more experiences and a more adequate reasoning process to resolve uncertainty (Johnson, 2015). Implementing the constructive controversy procedure in the classroom involves (a) researching and investigating a position, (b) supporting it, (c) rebutting opposing argumentation while defending one's own position and (d) reversing perspectives, before (e) synthesising the various positions to create a joint position that all sides can collectively agree on (Johnson & Johnson, 2012).

On the other end of the spectrum, critics of argumentative design contend that the approach is too rationalistic, as students are expected to clinically weigh the evidence for and against opposing positions while engaging in dispassionate forms of communication. They argue that for students to find meaning and value in classroom conversations about conflictual issues, educators must move beyond students’ rational cognition and grapple with their imaginative and emotional responses (Barton & McCully, 2007; Smith & Fairman, 2005). Against this backdrop, Bickmore and Parker (2014) offer an alternative approach known as constructive conflict talk. This relatively under-researched instructional method in the controversial issues literature focuses on developing norms and relationships for respectful non-violent interactions as well as understanding the perspectives held by diverse stakeholders in the community. Under this paradigm, inclusive opportunities for all students are provided to teach them how to voice their own views, consider alternative perspectives, understand how these perspectives matter to others and participate in restorative peacemaking circle dialogue in preparation for collective problem-solving (Parker, 2010; Bickmore & Parker, 2014).

Another key feature of conflict dialogue education is the emphasis on emotional and imaginative engagement on top of the development of rational cognition (e.g., Barton & McCully, 2005; Zembylas & Kambani, 2012). This is often achieved by tapping on the multiplicity of perspectives of characters found in fictional literature and historical narratives, to provide opportunities for students to discuss diverse frames of reference and consider questions of justice through dramatic role-play and inclusive peacemaking circles (McCall, 2004; McCully, 2006). It is believed that when students are given such opportunities to imaginatively consider and perform roles other than their own in conflict, they become more willing to share divergent points of view in classroom conversations (Parker & Bickmore, 2012; Hemmings, 2000).

Participants and Data Collection

In this article, we examine the work of two experienced Primary Social Studies teachers, Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa (names are pseudonyms), in a government school in Singapore. Both teachers belong to the same Professional Learning Communities (PLC) group and had participated in the same professional development initiative by the writer, who is the Subject Head of National Education and Social Studies in Rosyth School. The initiative comprised a series of school-based workshops that introduced teachers to controversial issues pedagogy, role-play and peacemaking dialogue circles, which involved the use of a talking piece and asking a series of open-ended questions to teach children how to listen and communicate with one other to develop community understanding and engage in collective problem-solving. More specifically, this initiative illustrated to participants how peacemaking circles and role-play can be applied in the discussion of conflictual issues in Social Studies or even children’s fiction.

Following the professional development workshops, Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa designed an integrated unit that prompted students to investigate what makes a fair society. Both teachers wanted to help students critically examine the concept of governance, the role of a government and the rights of citizens, as they felt that these important concepts were inadequately addressed in the Primary Social Studies national curriculum. They built the unit around a short controversial story and infused lessons with student-centred conflict dialogue pedagogy, such as establishing constructive conflict norms and skills, small group discussions, teacher-guided peacemaking circles and community decision making.

The case study featured in this article is based on one Student Learning Space (SLS) lesson and four classroom observations, sixty minutes each, conducted between June 2020 and July 2020 in a Primary 5 Social Studies class made up of nineteen boys and fourteen girls. All lessons were co-taught by both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa. Field notes were written or typed during and after each lesson observation. At the end of all the lessons, one formal thirty-minute interview was conducted with each teacher to highlight their key takeaways and the shift in their thinking pertaining to the teaching of Social Studies.

Preparing to Engage in Conflict Dialogue

Drawing on their background in teaching affective education in the Primary Gifted Education Programme (GEP), both teachers created an online SLS lesson that explicitly taught verbal and non-verbal communication norms and skills for engaging with different viewpoints. The SLS lesson, created in response to COVID-19 Phase 2 restrictions, featured a video conceptualised and directed by both teachers to teach students the power of cooperative dialogue, listening to understand, suspending judgement and reading nonverbal cues (refer to Figure 1 below). A class discussion board was also set up for students to pen down their reflections (refer to Figure 2 below). Some responded in general terms which required the teacher to probe further, while others provided insightful analysis that reflected deep learning.

In the next lesson, both teachers unpacked the concept of a fair society with students using the Freyer Model, a four-square graphic organiser that prompts students to think deeply about a concept. They invited open whole-class discussion by encouraging students to list down some of the key characteristics of a fair society and consider if fairness could be equated to equality, before getting them to pin up what they had uncovered in their research under examples and non-examples. The sheer diversity of artefacts brought in by students (e.g., picture of a Black Lives Matter protest, a newspaper article about the gender pay gap and a handwritten poem about experiencing racism first-hand) reflected both their lived experiences and what matters to them. Following which, both teachers guided the whole class to create a definition of a fair society, before rounding up the lesson with individual reflections (refer to Figure 3 below). Such activities encouraged students to extensively rationalise what a fair society means to them, preparing them for educative conflict later on.

Engaging a Diversity of Conflicting Perspectives

Beyond constructive communication skills and concept clarification, this integrated unit was organised around an adapted version of a short story: The Kingdom of Sikkal by Rolf Gollob and Peter Krapf. The fictional story revolves around the key citizenship concepts of governance and social justice presented through different stakeholder perspectives, for instance, an authoritarian ruler, King Sik III, who provides for his people but expects absolute obedience from them even if it means curtailing their personal freedoms or arresting suspected political dissidents. (refer to Figure 4 below).

To prepare students to critically analyse the conflict and participate in conflict dialogue, both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa employed a diversity of pedagogical tools during this lesson. Students were instructed to form smaller groups to create character sketches, before participating in circle dialogue as stakeholders in the fictional conflict. Throughout this entire process, both teachers explicitly reminded students to keep in mind their definition of a fair society, and to exercise their verbal and non-verbal communication skills when engaging in different viewpoints. When it was time to debrief students, both teachers started a whole-class circle discussion and passed down a talking piece to encourage every student to choose whether to speak or not, while insisting that everyone else listened quietly and attentively without judgement. This strategy shifted the classroom climate from one that was typically dominated by the same few outspoken volunteers, towards a more inclusive and equitable one that carved out space for thoughtfulness and allowed less vocal students to make meaningful contributions to the dialogue. Prompts, such as “Is there anything about Sikkal that you can relate to?” and “Have you ever experienced unfairness? How did it feel?”, were also used during the whole-class circle discussion to encourage students to connect the fictional conflict to their own lived experiences.

Although participants pointed out many interesting parallels between their lives and the story, such as academic tracking in primary schools, there was one exchange between students that stood out in particular (names are pseudonyms):

Bert:    I think it’s not good that Sikkal provides everything for its citizens. It’s like how our Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) encourages the poor to remain lazy.

Bob:    My family depends on FAS to get by. We are not lazy. My dad is trying very hard to find a job. Even with FAS, my family still struggles to get by. I would not mind living in Sikkal. At least I will not have to worry what is going to happen tomorrow.

Ms. Mimosa: Thank you for sharing, Bob. How are you feeling now?

Bob:    A little sad and misunderstood.

Ms. Mimosa: Bert, do you have anything to share after hearing from Bob?

Bert:    I didn’t know he was an FAS student. I’m sorry for saying things that I don’t know much about. I really didn’t mean to upset anyone.

Ms. Mimosa: It’s okay. We are all learning. I’m so proud of the both of you!

The above snippet of Ms. Mimosa’s interaction with students is reflective of her broader approach across all lessons. Her classroom activities do not focus on students discerning or assigning blame on any characters. Rather, she makes a conscious effort to encourage students to consider different points of view through the skillful use of open-ended questions, like how she navigated the sharing by both Bert and Bob. In doing so, she modeled to her students how to build consensus and mutual respect for differences through conflict dialogue.

By the second lesson into this section of the unit, students had evidently taken on a negative view of King Sik III. They described him as “intolerant”, having a “split personality” and even compared him to “Kim Jong Un.” In comparison, many students felt “sorry” for Andrew for having to be “forcefully drafted” so early into a specialised job at the age of five. To challenge students’ assumptions, both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa invented new story characters, such as the royal advisor to the King Sik III, Mr. Aadhi. Both teachers invited a male colleague to role-play as Mr. Aadhi to be interviewed by students. Students heard first-hand from Mr. Aadhi that King Sik III had agonised for months before deciding that early job specialisation was a necessary evil if Sikkal, a small, vulnerable country with limited resources, were to survive. This helped re-characterise and re-humanise King Sik III in the eyes of the students. Following the dramatic contestation of students’ prior perceptions of characters, both teachers immediately facilitated a second whole-class circle dialogue discussion to debrief them.

Resolving Conflict through Problem-solving and Collective Decision-making

Tapping on their experience teaching Problem Solving (PS) in the Primary Gifted Education Social Studies curriculum, both teachers skilfully designed an activity that required students to work together to participate in creative problem-solving to design solutions to help transform Sikkal in a fairer society. Students were divided into smaller groups where they had to identify one problem in the story and create an action plan containing details of how the solution will be implemented (e.g. Why do you think this will solve the problem? Who is going to carry out the action? When will this action take place?), one possible limitation of their proposed solution, and suggestions on how they might overcome this limitation (refer to Figure 5 below). Both teachers also explicitly reminded students to only propose ethical solutions. Besides teaching students how to collaborate with one another to critically analyse their proposed solutions from multiple perspectives, this activity also made them sharply aware of the inherent problems associated with autocratic governance. Against this backdrop, many students remarked that as long as power was concentrated in the hands of the king, it would be hard to effect any meaningful policies. By the end of the lesson, most students agreed that transitioning towards a democratically elected government was the best way to forge a more equitable society.

After consolidating the solutions proposed by the different groups on the whiteboard, both teachers implemented a whole-class dialogue circle to engage students in collective decision-making. A talking piece was once again passed down, creating inclusive democratic dialogue space for every student to consider the divergent views of others and voice their own opinions. Some students shared intimate information about their families, for instance, Jasmine shared about how the lack of choice in Sikkal reminded her of the lack of choice many women in her culture today are still faced with (e.g. arranged marriages). Others questioned the feasibility of some of the solutions proposed. Once everyone had a chance to speak, Ms. Mimosa and Ms. Angsana proceeded to make adjustments to the class action plan based on the concerns and suggestions raised by students.

It is worthwhile, at this juncture, to include one exchange between two students that stood out prominently during the circle dialogue sharing (names are pseudonyms):

Amy:    I disagree with the solution where citizens are given three job options to pick from. The king still gets to decide who goes where. Or what if everyone wants to be a doctor or teacher? Who will do the less popular jobs?

Dave:    How about we pay people more to do these jobs? Then just let people choose whatever they want to be.

Ms. Angsana: That’s not a bad idea! I read this article online that plumbers in the UK are paid well. It’s considered a professional job!

Amy:    Not in Singapore. Why should we pay more for these types of jobs?

Ms. Angsana: Do we agree that plumbers or cleaners are essential workers in society? When we refuse to pay people in ‘these types of jobs’ a higher wage, what are we saying?

Dave:    They are not worth much in society. They are less important. But wouldn’t that go against our definition of a fair society? This is not a dignified life!

Ms. Angsana: True. So are we going to give citizen three job options to pick from or are we going to allow them the freedom to decide for themselves, but pay more to ensure less popular jobs are filled?

Amy:    I think we need to ask everyone if they are okay to pay more for such jobs.

It is hardly easy, in the competitive environment of a school, to get students to put aside their differences to collaborate, communicate and make collective decisions in the contexts of conflict. However, Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa have demonstrated that when teachers prepare their students for the circle dialogue process and purposefully infuse conflict conversations in their curricula, even children from different backgrounds have the capacity to participate in passionate, respectful collective decision-making that considers the needs of diverse stakeholders.


Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa’s unit of lessons have demonstrated the importance of explicitly teaching their young charges constructive conflict communication norms and skills when engaging in conflict talk.  They consistently reminded students to listen attentively and speak respectfully by establishing routines and processes, such as passing the talking piece, suspending judgement, turn taking and emphasising openness to alternative viewpoints (Maloch, 2002). Such processes not only equipped students with the skills and knowledge to engage in constructive, open-minded dialogue with divergent viewpoints, but also reshaped the power dynamics within the class, improving the quality and frequency of individual participation in class discussions and providing more opportunities for positive interactions between dominant students and less dominant ones. Compared to a more adversarial approach which tends to promote competitive habits, such as zero-sum decision-making and the silencing of dissenting views, the use of dialogue pedagogies embodies a constructive, inclusive and equitable approach that better prepares students to engage with divergent perspectives in an increasingly conflictual and polarised world (Bickmore & Parker, 2014).

The recognition of alternative perspectives, especially the perspectives and voices of the silent and marginalised, is an important element in dialogic conflict education. Although Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa could have selected a more visceral story that mirrored complex real-world social tensions, the story that they ended up selecting did explore many important concepts (e.g. social domination, social justice and equity) from the perspective of the marginalised. These are the very concepts that often do not receive sufficient attention and coverage in our Primary Social Studies national curriculum. Beyond the selection of appropriate content, both teachers have also put in place important pedagogical processes, such as framing the story using a contentious question (i.e. Is Sikkal a fair society?) to draw attention to previously discounted voices and engaging students to participate in circle dialogue in the role of stakeholders to elicit powerful classroom conversations about rights and equity. From carefully selecting controversial content that introduced students to marginal voices, to putting in place inclusive and equitable pedagogical processes, both Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa have demonstrated the illuminating role teachers play in awakening critical consciousness of society’s oppressive structures (Freire, 1970).

Another significant element observed in this unit of study was the sharing of power in the classroom when engaging in collective problem-solving and decision-making. The respectful communication norms and skills taught were particularly helpful in eroding certain power imbalances within the classroom and encouraging the normally marginalised or less confident students to voice their viewpoints when they were working in small groups to create an action plan to help Sikkal become a fairer society. This deliberate attempt to share power in class surfaced again when both teachers were consolidating the suggestions mooted by the different groups of students. Through the use of the peacemaking circle process and a talking piece, both teachers ensured that every single student had an opportunity to share any deeply held concerns or propose alternative solutions to improve the class action plan. By moving away from a majority-rule approach towards a shared governance approach in decision-making, both teachers empowered students to believe that even the decisions and actions of one citizen is instrumental in building a strong democracy and expanding social justice (Ochoa-Becker, 2007).


Although Ms. Angsana and Ms. Mimosa are both extremely experienced primary school teachers who specialise in teaching mainstream and GEP Social Studies, both of them shared that they have traditionally steered clear of controversial issues due to the fear of violating state laws (e.g. Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act) and breaching out-of-bound (OB) markers. They maintained that it was simply “safer” to self-censor and adhere closely to the prescriptive official curriculum.

However, after designing and carrying out this unit of study, both teachers expressed approval of teaching controversial social issues through fictional stories. They shared that the fictionalised account made them feel more “confident” to broach sensitive issues as it made no specific reference to “any particular group of people.” Yet, it was nuanced in such a way that students were able to “draw parallels to the real world” beyond the classroom walls. They also observed that assigning students to take on a character’s perspective other than their own provided “a safe way” for diverse groups of students within class to engage in conflict dialogue without having to risk revealing their own social vulnerabilities. Lastly, both teachers agreed that exploring controversial issues through fiction gave them the flexibility to adapt and customise the story to reflect varying levels of divisiveness and sophistication based on students’ learning progress and socio-emotional readiness.

Both Ms. Mimosa and Ms. Angsana also shared that they have always found it challenging to create sufficient opportunities for marginalised students – those who are quieter or less engaged because of the inherent power structures in schooling – to be included in the classroom community. As such, both teachers were initially worried that the cognitive and verbal demands associated with discussing controversial issues would only serve to further alienate these students.

After carrying out this unit of study, however, both teachers found the non-judgmental classroom atmosphere, the consistent use of open-ended questions to elicit links to children’s experiences and the guaranteed opportunity to speak in well-facilitated circle discussions seemed to encourage quieter girls and low-status students – those with ideas or identities that are less familiar or welcomed by the dominant majorities – to participate in class. In particular, Ms. Mimosa reflected that she learnt about “some really private stuff about their families” that she was not aware of prior to the lesson. She also shared that she was really “surprised” by the “good thinking” displayed by the “few quiet girls who opened up and participated” during the various conflict conversations that took place across the different lessons.

On the last point of reflection, both teachers agreed that teaching controversial issues using the conflict dialogue approach shifts the emphasis from covering Social Studies content to developing essential skills and dispositions. They found the lessons especially powerful because they developed skills and values, such as active listening, openness to diverse perspectives, creative problem-solving, collective decision-making, and the ability to communicate on an equity-oriented basis. Both teachers believed that these are important 21st century competencies that will help students to better confront the social injustices that they will inevitably face in their own lives, while deepening their capacities for positive conflict resolution.


The above case study featured in this article illustrates how two Social Studies teachers in a local primary school have adeptly applied peacebuilding pedagogies to prepare their students to make sense of and engage in constructive dialogue over controversial issues raised in a fictitious conflict situation. Although this study did not measure student outcomes, it is clear that when teachers are provided with sufficient time and professional learning support, they are capable of engaging children in constructive, educative conflict dialogue that can extend children’s understanding of social issues and provide deeper citizenship learning experiences.

For this to happen, however, teachers should select content that includes divergent perspectives and voices of those who exist on society’s margins to challenge students’ assumptions and overcome ignorance. But besides carefully selecting appropriate content, it is equally important to put in place inclusive, equitable pedagogical processes – interaction norms and skills and peacebuilding dialogue circles – to facilitate constructive student-centred conflict dialogue.

In short, constructive conflict talk is a key element of democratic citizenship education that primary school students should be exposed to. And more pedagogical research needs be conducted to find out the best way to do so, and ascertain if the knowledge, skills and dispositions acquired through conflict talk in class, will indeed, prepare students to navigate the real world conflicts that they are bound to encounter in their own lives.


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Taming “Issue Investigation”: Singapore Secondary Social Studies Teachers’ Accounts of Challenges Encountered and Strategies for Coping


The upper-secondary Social Studies (SS) syllabus (Express/Normal-Academic) released in Singapore in 2016 introduced a component called “Issue Investigation” (II). Speaking to the target learners, the SS textbook defines and explains II as follows:

An Issue Investigation encourages you to identify a societal issue to develop a response to. A societal issue is one that is of concern to society and people have points of view about. An Issue Investigation allows you to analyse factors and perspectives that shape the development of societal issues. Through the course of the investigation, your group will also understand the impact the selected societal issue has on society and develop possible responses and recommendations to address the issue. (Ministry of Education, 2016a, p. 367)

In terms of carrying out II, the textbook prescribes a four-stage cycle: (1) sparking curiosity; (2) gathering data; (3) exercising reasoning; (4) reflective thinking. It thus seems that II is positioned as an inquiry-driven learning activity that helps students gain analytical insights into pertinent societal issues, which in turn serve the broader objective of Social Studies to develop learners into “informed, concerned and participative citizens” (Ministry of Education, 2016a, p. iii).

The importance curriculum developers have attached to this new Issue Investigation component is apparent. In the offical textbook, an extensive chapter—“Chapter 12: Skills for Issue Investigation”—is dedicated to II. Indeed, spanning some 94 pages (pp. 364-457), this chapter is much longer than any of the eleven preceding chapters dealing with substantive topics. Due to the recent nature of II’s appearance in the SS syllabus, however, so far there has been little research-based understanding of this new aspect of SS education.

Existing research on Social Studies education in Singapore, instead, has largely taken a critical curriculum perspective to examine the ways in which SS has been mobilized to serve the National Education (NE) agenda of the state and, relatedly, the state’s hegemonic conception of citizenship education which allocates differentiated citizenship roles and capacities to different categories of students (see Ho, 2012; Sim, 2011; Sim & Print, 2005). Less has been written about Social Studies from the perspectives of pedagogy and teaching/learning experiences.

This paper makes a modest contribution towards addressing the above research gaps through a small-scale empirical study into Singapore secondary SS teachers’ experiences associated with Issue Investigation. Specifically, this paper shall focus on the challenges teachers encountered in implementing and enacting II and, relatedly, how they developed certain strategies to make II manageable.

Before describing briefly the qualitative study underpinning this paper, however, it is important to note that II, although now an integral part of the SS syllabus, is not directly reflected in the standardized national assessment. The compulsory national examination for SS in Singapore consists of a self-contained 1-hour-45-minute paper, comprising a Structured-Response Question (SRQ) and a Source-Based Case Study (SBCS), to answer which the examinees in theory need not rely on any material beyond what is already provided in the paper. II’s positioning, thus, is more akin to that of a “project work”, and its assessment is supposed to be “school-based,” with little apparent bearing on the national exam. In a performance-driven education system predicated on high-stakes examinations such as Singapore’s (Cheah, 1998; Deng & Gopinathan, 2016), this setup raises questions about motivation and pragmatism. The Guide to Teaching and Learning Upper Secondary Social Studies prepared by the Ministry of Education (MOE) for SS teachers rationalizes that “Issue Investigation also contributes towards developing students’ competencies for national assessment” (Ministry of Education, 2016b, pp. 262, emphasis added); however, for teachers on the ground, the place of II in SS teaching remains a question far from settled. As the study’s findings shall reveal, this is an issue featuring prominently in Singapore SS teachers’ experiences as they grappled with this particular mode of inquiry-based learning.

The Study

Enabled by a small Start-Up Grant (SUG 07/18 YPD) provided by the MOE through NIE, a small-scale qualitative study was conducted. Data was collected between April and October 2019 through seven semi-structured interviews and four focus group discussions (FGDs), involving a total of 17 SS teachers (7 in one-to-one interviews; 10 in FGDs) from seven mainstream secondary schools in Singapore (see Tables 1 and 2 below).

Table 1. Interview (one-to-one) participants





Subject combination

Years of teaching experience

James (T1)





Daliah (T2)





Beatrice (T3)





Keith (T4)





Cherie (T5)





Kali (T6)





Laura (T7)





Table 2. Focus group discussion participants





Subject combination

Years of teaching experience



















































Participants were recruited using a mixture of purposive and snow-ball sampling methods. The author selectively reached out to his professional contacts in the Singapore SS teaching community to invite potential participants who embodied diversities in terms of teaching experiences, academic backgrounds, and school types. The seven schools involved in the study were mostly medium-range schools: two or three might be considered lower-end “neighbourhood schools”, but none were exceptionally high-ability or “elite” schools. Participants were also asked to forward the research invitation to their eligible contacts, which led to several more volunteers. The resultant pool could be regarded as more or less typical of the profiles of SS teachers in Singapore schools, representing varying lengths of teaching experience, subject combinations, and a range of positions and seniority levels, including rank-and-file teachers, Senior Teachers, Subject Heads and Heads of department. Nevertheless, given the limited sample size and the sampling methods used, some caution is in order when generalizing this study’s findings.

An interview/FGD session typically lasted between 1 and 1.5 hours. Some of the interviews/FGDs were conducted or facilitated by a trained research assistant. All sessions were conducted in English, audio-recorded and transcribed, and coded thematically using the NVivo 12 software for analysis. Transcripts were anonymised to conceal participants’ identities; all participant names mentioned in this paper are pseudonyms.

Challenges to II Implementation and Enactment

The study found that research participants’ experiences in relation to II implementation and enactment were by and large similar, with their narratives converging on a more or less common set of challenges. One major challenge that hindered II implementation from the outset had to do with the perceived tenuous link between II and the high-stakes national exam, and a resultant exam-driven pragmatism.

Tenuous link to exam, and exam-driven pragmatism

Despite affirming from the outset the intrinsic value of doing II, Kali, a senior teacher with some thirty years of experience, spoke with brutal candour when she was asked during an interview if she and her school colleagues saw II as important in their scheme of work:

We don’t see [II] as important, because it’s not exam-based. Never do also never mind! And if you must do it, “Don’t use so much time ah! Because we need to study for exam!... Because no matter how much you change, the exam is pen and paper, we will teach to pen and paper, we will teach to the exam because in the end that is what they want to see: the results. So, they can change it whichever way they want, if the exam doesn’t change, we will teach to the exam.

 The exact same sentiment was echoed by Laura, a teacher with ten years of experience and the Head of the humanities department at a school. Reflecting on her past three years of helming II implementation in her school, Laura characterized SS teachers’ perspective as follows:

I think the problem that many of my teachers often share with me is that “Actually after I do all this, I’m not teaching them [students] any skills that are useful for the exam, so why are we doing it? Like, as in, it’s [II] just a project”. […] So…over the years it’s been harder and harder for me to actually keep [advocating for II], and in fact, sometimes I think the teachers feel like it’s just a pain that they have to get through.

What both Kali and Laura pointed out unequivocally is that, despite the intended alignment and complementarity between Issue Investigation as an inquiry-based learning activity and the standardized national assessment, for many SS teachers on the ground, the two remained, to use research participant Beatrice’s words, “totally divorced”. Given a high-stakes exam environment, teachers unsurprisingly developed a highly pragmatic, if not also cynical, attitude that worked against the implementation of II. Indeed, during the interview Laura went as far as to say that the MOE curriculum planners’ push for inquiry-based learning in SS through II had caused “real teacher grievance on the ground”—a sentiment echoed by Kali, who also used the word “grievance”.

Practical enactment challenges for teachers and students

Aside from the exam-driven pragmatism that dampened teachers’ incentives for implementing II, enacting II in a “hands-on” sense presented another set of practical challenges, which were also to a large extent shared among the research participants.

One challenge almost universally mentioned was what the teachers considered to be the “daunting” (Kali) scope and depth of the II processes as prescribed in the various official teaching documents. Referring to the extensive textbook chapter dedicated to II, Lisa intoned a mixture of disbelief, impatience and resignation when she exclaimed in an FGD: “So many things you know! Sampling, random sampling, and then they teach them the different kinds of sampling, I think we don’t need to do this. And then, they teach the different types of questions, double-barreled questions, bla bla bla…” In a similar vein, another participant in the same FGD, Ivy, remarked on the supplementary materials provided by the Curriculum Planning and Development Division (CPDD): “the package given by CPDD can be very massive. Yah. And sometimes I wonder which school is able to execute it like that? I don’t know.” It was not just the amount of content that was found overwhelming; what also resonated among research participants was the view that the social science-like inquiry process was unrealistically demanding cognitively for the vast majority of secondary school students. Illustrating this view, James said that he felt the II as envisioned in the curriculum was too difficult except for a few “humanities scholars going towards JC [Junior College]”.

Closely connected to II’s perceived overwhelming scope and depth was the issue of lack of time—a problem just as commonly and acutely experienced by the teachers. Time constraint did not only stem from the limited number of lesson hours allocated to SS each term week (typically three periods of about half an hour each); it was exacerbated by the common practice in Singapore schools to try to “cover” curricular content as quickly as possible in order to reserve ample time (for example, a big portion of the year of Sec 4) for revisions and exam skills drilling. Consequently, the extensive investigative cycle expected of II was found to be extremely time-consuming, to the extent that several schools expressed regret about rolling out II in the elaborate fashion that they did initially. A few research participants became convinced that II could only be done realistically as either a vacation take-home assignment or a post-exam activity, but not during term time. 

Lastly, according to research participants’ narratives, deficits of certain dispositions and skills among students also hindered II enactment. Some teachers cited students’ passive learning dispositions —“not want to think” and “won’t go and read up on their own” (Cherie) — as a major obstacle. This meant that the amount of autonomy and options inherent in II proved paralyzing for some students. Students’ English language proficiency and IT literacy also played a role, since these skills were often indispensable at various stages of the inquiry process, from formulating questions, through to gathering data and presenting findings. Also touched on by some participants was the issue of teacher preparedness: teachers who were used to a more didactic mode of SS teaching and consequently less in tune with open-ended inquiry learning were reportedly less at ease with enacting II. Nevertheless, this latter obstacle was somewhat mitigated through teamwork with other teachers whose academic backgrounds have equipped them better for guiding investigative learning.

Taming II: Coping Strategies

Grappling with these challenges, teachers in the study recounted a number of strategies they used to tame II—making it manageable for students and themselves. These coping strategies seemed to operate according to broadly two rationales, which may be respectively dubbed simplification and “piggybacking”.

Simplification strategies

The following long quote from Cherie, who taught at a neighbourhood school with relatively low-ability students, captures the essence of simplification strategies vividly:

It’s always a matter of how to keep it simple. Because I think the first year we tried to do, we wanted to do something, like, “Wah, I get the students to present and they go and find, interview like don’t know how many people […].” Then we realized that that was so tiring, for us and for the kids. So we stopped that. Then last year, we had a more experienced teacher, so she was one of the Lead Teachers lah. She came in and she was, like, “Guys, we don’t have time to do this kind of grand things you know?” We’re like “Yah, we know, but how else do we shorten it?” So we get them to, like, interview maybe, just say, in a group of four, interview four people, so each one one person. Go and interview and come back […] So I think, when it comes to doing it, we try to minimize the wastage of time, we try to make it as simple as it is [possible] for the kids, we give them worksheets that are, like, “This is what you are supposed to find”, step-by-step. Yah. (emphases added)

To achieve the simplification of II from “kind of grand things” to something “as simple as it is [possible] for the kids”, a number of specific strategies were typically used. As illustrated in the above quote, the scope of data collection was often significantly reduced (moving from ambitious plans initially to each student interviewing just one person). At Keith’s school, only students in the Express stream were required to conduct empirical data gathering in the form of a survey; Normal (Academic) stream students were instead only required to do internet-based information gathering and research. At Kali’s school, in fact, all data gathering for II were based on secondary sources readily available on the internet—as Kali put it, “it’s purely websites”. She further added that even the list of websites was provided to the students.

This move to reduce the scope and nature of II activities applied not only to data gathering, but extended to other stages of the investigation cycle. For example, most of the time, the investigation question was either simply assigned to the students, or offered as a small number of options—worked out also by the teachers—for students to choose from. This served to reduce drastically the uncertainty of formulating the II question, an otherwise complicated and time-consuming process. Some schools also chose not to strictly adhere to the prescribed II cycle, instead modified it to suit their circumstances. For instance, presentation of findings might be drastically simplified, or done away with altogether (as was the case in Cherie’s and Laura’s schools). As Laura put it, “we have truncated the II process to make it easier on the teacher”.

Another very common simplification strategy involved standardizing certain aspects of the II processes, so as to keep manageable the administrative and pedagogical burdens on the teachers. Most schools in the study reported having a highly coordinated approach to conducting II across the student cohort, where SS teachers worked closely as a team, used “a coherent set of resources”, and “assignments [were] all standardized across” (Keith). In short, doing so ensured an “economy of scale”. Standardization also characterized how teachers “scaffolded” the inquiry process for students, as illustrated in Cherie’s mention of worksheets that provided “step-by-step” guidance. Indeed, it was nearly a universal practice for teachers to develop “templates”—be it as physical print-outs or in digital form (in James’s case, Google Docs)—that basically turned II into a highly structured process with clear step-by-step instructions.

In short, there was a clear agreement among participants in the study that simplification in some form or other was necessary before II projects could be realistically carried out. Vividly capturing the teachers’ battle to tame the formidable Issue investigation, Kali said: “we always thought it was not possible. […] you can say [we] cheated, […] then we realized we can do a watered down II. And then at least now you see we are brave enough to try it” (emphasis added).

“Piggybacking” strategies

Since, as discussed previously, one major disincentive for schools to take II seriously was the perceived irrelevance of this inquiry learning activity to examinable skills, teachers from several schools tried to forge a link between II learning outcomes and exam formats, namely, the Structured-Response Question (SRQ) and Source-Based Case Study (SBCS).

In specific, a few research participants shared that they had their students write an SRQ answer based on their II project findings. Illustrating this strategy, Laura said in the interview: “we […] actually extend the II to become an SRQ question later on, so that the teachers and students see a link to what they studied.” In fact, at Laura’s school, the II process ends off with doing an SRQ. She was aware that this “doesn’t stick very clearly to CPDD’s recommended model”, but she remarked that “this method has been a bit more successful for us”.

Meanwhile, a few other teachers in the study (including James, Kali, and Keith) identified some parallels between II and the “sources” used in the SBCS, which essentially consist of findings or information about a particular societal issue. Accordingly, students in Keith’s school were tasked to construct “sources” based on their II project in a way similar to the sources used for SBCS in the exam papers. In James’s school, the standardized II template given to students essentially guided them to think of the project as an SBCS “source”. This strategy essentially allowed students to practice exam skills for SBCS as they pursue an II project, because, as James put it, “we are making them the examiner, we are making them create a paper”.

In short, through teachers’ such intentional efforts, students were able to “piggyback” on Issue Investigation to also develop skills that are useful for exam performance. Doing so provided some reassurance to both the students and the teachers that doing II was “not a waste of time” (Daliah). It should be noted that not all participants in the study adopted this strategy; however, those who did seemed to report more positive experiences in relation to II.

Lastly, another II taming strategy that followed this “piggybacking” logic involved scoping the II project in conjunction with Values in Action (VIA) or Character and Citizenship Education (CCE)—both being compulsory, though non-examinable, components of Singapore school curriculum. This may also be dubbed a “kill two birds with one stone” move that essentially allowed II and VIA/CCE to be integrated or to overlap in practice, such that the resources and commitments required are reduced substantially. According to Kali, whose school used this strategy, it worked by having II designed from the start in such a way that the deliverables fit also the criteria of VIA and/or CCE learning objectives and outcomes. As a concrete example of this, in one school, the students’ II project investigated elderly citizens’ vulnerability to scams, and the project culminated in a visit to a nursing home, during which students played board games with senior citizens to raise their awareness. This latter visit also served to fulfil the students’ VIA requirements.

It is worth noting that the majority of schools in the study did not explicitly use this second “piggybacking” strategy, but most research participants seemed aware of it. This was apparently due to certain peer professional learning and exchange that had taken place previously between different schools.


To conclude, based on a small qualitative study that primarily elicited teachers’ experiences and accounts, this paper has sought to explore how “Issue Investigation” (II)—a recently introduced inquiry-based learning component in the upper-secondary Social Studies syllabus in Singapore—has been implemented and enacted “on the ground”, and how some of the main implementation and enactment challenges have been managed so far.

Findings show that one major obstacle to the meaningful implementation of II in Singapore secondary schools was the perceived irrelevance of II to the high-stakes national exam, which gave rise to an attitude of pragmatism that disincentivized stakeholders from taking II seriously. Indeed, anecdotal evidence further suggests that, due precisely to this pragmatism, there are schools in Singapore where II is implemented very minimally, or even not at all. Meanwhile, the enactment of II too was fraught with practical challenges, chief among which were the perceived overwhelming scope and depth of II, time constraints, and deficits of certain skills or preparedness among students and teachers. Notwithstanding this, most of the SS teachers the researchers spoke to in the course of this study did seem to appreciate the intrinsic value and potential of II as an inquiry-driven learning activity.

Grappling with the numerous challenges and obstacles, Singapore secondary SS teachers developed a number of strategies to “tame” II, making it manageable for both the students and themselves. Virtually all schools/teachers reported using some strategies to simplify II, typically through reducing the scope of work required and standardizing the inquiry activities and processes. In addition, at several schools, teachers also adopted a “piggybacking” approach, which worked essentially by making undertaking II also serve some other purposes, such as helping students practice exam-relevant skills, or fulfilling learning objectives in relation to Value in Action (VIA) and Character and Citizenship Education (CCE). In other words, these latter strategies operated by dual- or multi-purposing II, so that II became a stone that kills more than one bird. It was evident from the research participants’ accounts that adopting these strategies had indeed made II a more manageable task for the teachers as well as a more productive learning activity for students. Thus, for schools and teachers currently still deterred by the “daunting” appearance of Issue Investigation, the II-taming strategies mentioned in this paper may have certain reference value.

Lastly, given the exploratory nature of the study and the limited scope of data, this paper represents but a small first step towards addressing the various research gaps pertaining to Issue Investigation in Singapore Social Studies. Future research may aim towards providing a more comprehensive understanding of the implementation of II, and inquiry-learning in SS more broadly, across Singapore schools. More research into effective enactment strategies in relation to II will also be valuable.


This work was supported by a Start-Up Grant [SUG 07/18 YPD] provided by the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE), disbursed through the National Institute of Education (NIE). The author would like to thank Mr Chow Lee Tat for the competent assistance provided during the process of the research project.


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Environmental Education in Singapore: An Analysis of Environmental Knowledge in the Lower Secondary Geography Curriculum


Curricula Goals of Environmental Education

Environmental education (EE) was first developed at a time when environmental degradation became widely prominent (UNESCO, 1976). EE becomes even more relevant today as we are ever pressured by pressing environmental issues such as those arising from pollution, waste management, and climate change, both locally and globally. The 1975 Belgrade Charter was the first milestone of EE, providing an international framework for EE to rapidly proliferate in many cities. Essentially, EE aims to:

“develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment to work individually and collectively towards solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones” (UNESCO, 1976, p. 2).

Research Study and Objectives

While EE is often interpreted differently and contextually adapted, the unanimous practice for public education is to incorporate EE in school disciplines. Of interest is how the geography discipline has long been promoted as the platform for introducing EE (Ministry of Education, 2019). This paper is concerned with how EE is incorporated into the Singapore’s Lower Secondary Geography (LSG) curriculum. Within this context, this paper understands EE to be a study of the environment that aims to promote positive environmental behavioural changes and actions of students though the use of effective pedagogy, together with the teaching and learning of the right kinds of content (Thomas, 2015). The question then is what does the geography curriculum offer to students or what is the form of environmental knowledge (EK) that can empower them to act for the environment.

There are two reasons for this study to examine the LSG curriculum. Firstly, as a compulsory subject for students in the Singapore’s public schools, it potentially affects a vast number of youths in their formative development of the appropriate environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours. Secondly, while EE is believed to be present in the LSG curriculum, the gap between environmental awareness and actions among youths warrants our attention (Chang, 2014; Ramirez, 2017). Hence, an analysis of the LSG curriculum will prove significant in understanding what exactly the curriculum offers. Although it is acknowledged that solely analysing the cognitive aspect of EE might not contribute to a holistic study, it is indisputable that the right kinds of EK discussed is a key factor in developing students’ positive attitudes and behaviours towards the environment (Chang, 2016).

EE research in Singapore has gained traction with the rising acknowledgement of the contribution of geography education to EE, particularly with the support of evidence from empirical studies. However, heeding calls for a stronger integration of EE into the geography discipline both globally and locally, this paper contends the need to clarify what are the key EK dimensions critical for a closer integration EE and geography education.

This paper is organised into six parts, beginning with the introduction. Section two, the literature review, is dedicated to reviewing a few models that expound on the relevant dimensions of EK. With insights from the review, a four EK-dimension framework is then created for subsequent analysis of the LSG syllabus. Section three describes the qualitative analysis of the LSG curriculum before the findings and interpretation, and the discussion are presented in Sections four and five respectively. Section six concludes this study and provides some recommendations for a stronger integration of EE into the LSG curriculum.

Literature Review

Environmental Education in Geography Education

The interdisciplinary nature of geography has been widely acknowledged to be an ideal platform for the delivery of EE (International Geographical Union, 1992; Tilbury, 1997). Geography studies the interactions between human and natural/physical systems, which can be understood through geographical concepts like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘urbanisation’. Similarly, integral to EE is the concept of ‘human-environment relationship’ (Tilbury, 1997). It is hence an unsurprising trend for formal school geography of many countries to embrace EE and ideas of sustainability (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2010). Chang (2015) articulates the same belief that “the geography classroom is the best place” (p. 3) to provide the lens for unpacking this complex concept such that students can develop an interest and an ability to act as stewards of the Earth. A good example is shown in the secondary school geography education of Switzerland, which has made major shifts towards a more eco-centric view of the Earth with the deliberate incorporation of EE (Reinfried, 2004). Closer home, progressive efforts to increase the prominence of EE in the geography curriculum has been noted (Goh, Chuan, Tan, Chang, & Ooi, 2009), particularly in the Lower Secondary Geography (LSG) curriculum (Chang, 2014). Unlike the past syllabuses which were conceptual or systematically framed, the issue-based framework found in the 2014 syllabus enhances the potential for secondary geography education in Singapore to promote EE.

While EE’s aim is internationally established, its interpretation within a school setting is less defined or consistent. For instance, in an empirical study by Ho and Seow (2017) comparing three Singaporean geography teachers and three Filipino teachers teaching social studies (which contains the discipline of geography) on their perceived role as climate change educators, it was found that differing beliefs of teachers led to distinct differences in pedagogical choices. The Singaporean teachers tended to “adhere closely to the official geography curriculum that focused on presenting scientific information about the causes and consequences of climate change in what they felt was a largely “objective” manner” (p. 250). The Filipino teachers, on the other hand, channelled their time towards maximising the subject’s interdisciplinary nature by highlighting the complexities of environmental issues and “developing a sense of civic agency” (p. 247) among their students, which meant engaging them less with scientific information on environmental issues. These teachers’ perception of EE as an advocacy tool is consistent with the literature (Fien, 1993; Huckle, 1983; Morgan, 2012) as they chose to actively promote pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours among students (Lee, 1993; Ho & Seow, 2017). Conversely, teachers who believed that they ought to be neutral when conveying the curriculum tend to avoid discussing their opinions and focus on facts provision (Baildon & Sim, 2009; Ho & Seow, 2017; Stenhouse, 1975).

Environmental Education Research in Geography Education in Singapore

While there is rising attention given to EE and geography education in Singapore, research in this field appears narrowly scoped when compared to the progress in global EE discourse in at least two ways. Firstly, much of the research is concentrated on climate change education or CCE (e.g., Chang, 2013; Chang & Pascua, 2016; 2017; Goh et al., 2009; Ho & Seow, 2017; Seow & Ho, 2014; 2016) which is a specific topic under EE. Secondly, when research does examine EK in the school setting, they largely seek to understand how much students know about an environmental topic. Tan, Kay, Lee and Goh’s (1998) study is one of the few early research studies that collected first-hand data on the knowledge levels of secondary students and concluded that more emphasis should be made to increase students’ level of factual EK. Chang, Tan, Tan, Liaow and Kwek (2017) express the persistent gap between environmental awareness and action among students as a significant problem, detailing how secondary geography students’ environmental conceptualisations are “found to be erroneous, inaccurate and incomplete” (p. 1). The common assumption made by these works appears to converge towards the idea that knowledge should lead to action, which begs the question of what knowledge should students have before they can act for the environment. The study by Ho and Seow (2017) is perhaps one of the few local studies that brought the discussion a step further by differentiating two essential types of knowledge needed for an effective CCE. Beyond the scientific knowledge, they emphasise the promotion of civic knowledge as a critical contributor in achieving the goal of EE. It is clear from this literature review that a potential research area would be to uncover the kinds of EK that should be imparted to students in the geography curriculum.

Different Dimensions of Environmental Knowledge

In order to understand the EK dimensions needed to achieve the goals of EE and of geography education, the works by Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003) and Jensen (2002) are found to be helpful in providing insights for the purpose of this study.

According to Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003), there are three forms of EK that are significant to instilling positive environmental attitudes and behaviours among students. The first is known as declarative knowledge. This knowledge helps an individual understand how environmental processes work. Frick, Kaiser and Wilson (2004) specify that declarative knowledge contains both the scientific knowledge on how ecosystems operate (referred to as geography-environment system knowledge) and the knowledge on the effects of human actions on the environment (referred to as human-environment system knowledge). The former includes examples such as the understanding of how clouds are formed and where the groundwater originates. The latter would look at how, for instance, deforestation by people brings about negative impacts to the environment. The second is procedural knowledge, which refers to the knowledge on the range of behavioural alternatives and how to execute them, like how soil erosion can be prevented (Frick et al., 2004). Effectiveness knowledge is the third dimension and often found missing in EE analysis, but which Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003) believe would encourage translation of knowledge into action. For instance, a question related to this knowledge, “Which recycled material saves more energy in comparison to producing it?” (Díaz-Siefer, Neaman, Salgado, Celis-Diez, & Otto, 2015, p. 15512) would demand higher-order thinking skill from students as they consider the relative effectiveness of different environmental strategies when intending to act. This provides opportunities for teachers to creatively stimulate students’ imagination by setting a context that enables students to apply this knowledge. However, differentiating between procedural and effectiveness knowledge can be difficult. In Liefländer, Bogner, Kibbe and Kaiser’s (2015) work, “Which method is effective for saving water?” (p. 3) was used as an example of procedural knowledge. Going by the definition explained earlier by Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003), this question would require some evaluation, which should have been classified as effectiveness knowledge. To ensure clarity, this paper chooses to define procedural knowledge solely as the knowledge on the range of behavioural alternatives, and effectiveness knowledge as the knowledge on the relative effectiveness of the alternative strategies.

With regards to the nature of EK taught in school curricula, Jensen (2002) believes that it “is not in essence action-oriented” (p. 329). This sentiment is supported by Fien (2003), who argued that youths are insufficiently educated on the possible alternatives to address environmentally harmful practices. Hence, Jensen proposes an ‘action-oriented’ knowledge model containing four different knowledge dimensions, namely, effects, causes, change strategies, and alternatives and visions that could guide teaching and learning towards the goal of enhancing students’ competency to act and effect change. This model would directly address the link between EE and the formal geography education.

The first knowledge dimension relates to the knowledge about the effects of environmental problems, that is, the awareness of the existence and extent of the issues. However, this knowledge is technical and can lead to an unintended effect of ‘action paralysis’ among students if not coupled with the understanding of the causes and solutions of the problems (Jensen, 2002; Thielking & Moore, 2001). The second dimension involves the knowledge about the root causes of environmental problems. This requires a holistic examination of an issue, for instance, by looking at the cultural, economic, and political background behind an intensification of an agricultural production in a certain place (Jensen, 2002). The third dimension, the knowledge on strategies for change, is central to an action-oriented form of EE for it provides the knowledge about how one can contribute to the changing environmental conditions at various scales. This form of knowledge also helps for instance, to develop problem-solving and collaborative skills among students. The fourth knowledge dimension spurs students to develop their own alternatives and visions of environmental conditions, which Jensen believes would enhance students’ willingness and ability to act.

Theoretical Framework for Analysing Environmental Knowledge

This study proposes a framework that contains four EK dimensions thought to be significant in addressing environmental issues (see Figure 1). It is constructed by classifying common knowledge dimensions in terms of their characteristics and definitions from the review of the researchers’ work in the literature review (see Table 1). For simpler reference, this section will refer to Kaiser and Fuhrer’s (2003) and Jensen’s (2002) work as research A and research B, respectively. The four knowledge dimensions will also be referred to as EK1 to EK4.

Firstly, EK1, the knowledge on system, causes and effects includes the declarative knowledge from research A and the knowledge about effects and root causes from research B. These abovementioned forms of knowledge provide the necessary basic geographical knowledge but is deemed insufficient to promote action among students (Raselimo, Irwin, & Wilmot, 2013). One might doubt EK1’s classification given that declarative knowledge from research A has no explicit inclusion of knowledge about causes of environmental problems, which is however featured in research B. It must be clarified that thorough considerations have been made when combining the knowledge forms from both researchers. On further research, it was found that knowledge on causes of environmental problems is at times classified under declarative knowledge. For instance, while Díaz-Siefer et al’s (2015) made references to research A’s EK dimension model, “What is the major cause of pollution of groundwater with nitrates?” (p. 15514) was given as an example of declarative knowledge. By categorising EK1 as the knowledge on system, causes and effects, it is believed to reflect a more holistic and encompassing knowledge dimension. Next, EK2, the knowledge on strategies for change takes on the knowledge dimension as termed by Jensen as it overlaps with the procedural knowledge from research B. Lastly, no combined grouping for the effectiveness knowledge from research A and the knowledge about alternatives and visions from research B was made since no commonalities were observed. However, both knowledge dimensions are crucial. Effectiveness knowledge would provide the needed evaluation skills and is considered the most important knowledge among the other dimensions according to Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003). Knowledge about alternatives and visions is believed to galvanise environmental actions as students learn to formulate their own opinions and consider alternative environmental ideals in their society (Fien, 2003; Jensen, 2004). Thus, two separate categories were created – EK3 following research A’s knowledge about strategies’ effectiveness and EK4, as cued by research B, as knowledge about alternatives and vision.


This study involves a systematic qualitative analysis of the LSG curriculum through the examination of the 2014 LSG syllabus document (CPDD, 2014a), made available online by the Singapore’ Ministry of Education (MOE). Document analysis provides valuable insights to the official discourse on the importance of EE in geography education (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2013). Teachers are also supported with a document that guides them in teaching and learning (TLG) of the geography syllabus (CPDD, 2014b). The TLG is subsequently analysed to overcome limitations of a subjective analysis of the LSG syllabus document. This is done by examining the number of periods recommended for each of the guiding questions or GQs before extending the analysis to understand the curriculum’s emphasis on each knowledge dimension.

The issue-based framework contains six geographical issues contextually relevant to Singapore (see CPDD, 2014b, p. 18). Each issue is guided by a set of GQs, statements from the syllabus, specifically, the knowledge learning outcomes from the six issues are identified. Knowledge learning outcomes are guidelines for teachers to deliver the relevant core content. It is to be noted that concession is made to consider learning outcomes on ‘value and attitudes’ for EK4. The selected statements are compiled and presented in Table 2 to represent the findings for this study as they reflect the nature of EK in the LSG.

It is acknowledged that the positionality of the author may present challenges to the credibility of the study’s results. This is because the analysis is subjectively made by this author who is a geography teacher in training and a future MOE employee. However, she has constantly reminded herself to avoid assertion of her own beliefs about EE and the geography curriculum, and instead to bring in insights from her relevant knowledge and experiences learning about geography and EE when interpreting the LSG curriculum.

Findings and Interpretation

It has been found that while the LSG curriculum reflects positive strides towards the incorporation of EK where there is an emphasis of EK1 and EK2, the focus on EK3 and EK4 is less strong. The next few paragraphs will elaborate on these findings.

From Table 2, EK1 is found to correspond to the first three GQs of the syllabus. Hearteningly, the syllabus attempts to extend students’ knowledge beyond the facts of environmental issues, whereby students are expected to learn about “Which part(s) of the world is/are affected by the issue?” as part of the EK1’s system knowledge. The curriculum encourages the application of geographical skills such as map reading and data organisation as students examine the severity of the issue across different places. Such skills application can help to illuminate the concept of ‘interconnectedness’, which is relevant to EE. For one, students are able to extend their understanding of relationship of places to that of the relationship between the human and the environment, and secondly, the emphasis of place provides a sense of learning relevancy for students (Baerwald, 2010; Roberts, 2011).

In the analysis of EK1, it is also observed that the knowledge of effects corresponds to GQ3, “How does the issue affect human society and natural environments?” It is expected that there would be opportunities for students to examine impacts of the issues on both the human and natural settings. Yet, the supposedly holistic coverage of impacts is inconsistently reflected across the six issues. From Table 2, only issues 1 and 5 explicitly highlight both human (social and economic) and environmental impacts. Issue 2 solely focuses on the former while issues 3, 4 and 6 indirectly mention the latter. For instance, issue 4 expounds on two direct social consequences of housing shortage – “homelessness” and “proliferation of slums and squatter settlements” (see CPDD, 2014a, p. 25). “Environmental pollution” is then explained as one of the indirect consequences under the latter. The tendency to highlight challenges of urban societies with negligible mention of how the environment is impacted by human activities might not be effective in bringing across the idea that the impacts on human and natural environments are often interconnected. Such inconsistencies could unintentionally promote a sense of environmental determinism (Almeida & Vasconcelos, 2013; Huckle, 2002) among students.

While the proposed EK framework distinguishes between EK2 and EK3, the syllabus classifies them under the same GQ, “How should it (the issue) be managed?”. The two learning outcomes in GQ4 are organised such that students first learn to “Describe and explain the measures …” (referring to EK2) and subsequently “Describe the benefits and challenges…” or “Describe the advantages and disadvantages…” (referring to EK3). However, as recommended by the EK framework, EK2 and EK3 should be given comparable amount of attention and rigour, which is not evident from the LSG syllabus. The author’s personal insights from her secondary geography education reveals the tendency for teachers to list the pros and cons of various strategies for change as part of GQ4’s learning outcome. This differs from the purpose of EK3 according to Kaiser and Fuhrer (2003), whereby the application of evaluation skills in assessing the relative effectiveness of different environmental strategies should have been the focus. This could be due to how the learning outcomes are phrased. For instance, the command word “describe” used in the second learning outcome does not suggest the need to make use of evaluation skills. As such, GQ4 that combines EK2 and EK3 might not prove effective to empower students to act for the environment. The provision of a range of environmental strategies from EK2 lacks a strong follow-up to critically engage students to examine which environmental strategies that are best suited for a local context as required for an effective delivery of EK3.There is no apparent inclusion of EK4 as examined from the knowledge learning outcomes in the syllabus for the purpose of this study. However, through a thorough analysis of the various statements from the issue-based framework, an allowance was made to include statements from the ‘values and attitudes’ learning outcomes. It is important to note that values and attitudes are not considered ‘teachable knowledge’ but can be developed and instilled among students when the right kinds of knowledge are delivered by teachers (Chang & Pascua, 2016). As identified in Table 2, the learning outcomes of issues 3 and 6 are phrased generically such as “Respect(ing) the views and opinions of others that may not be in agreement with one’s own” while issue 1 specifies it as “Respect(ing) the different perspectives people have about rainforests.” Through teacher guidance, students can draw on how individuals and groups from other societies view and resolve environmental issues and subsequently create their own ideas and visions of how the environment situation in their respective localities should be like. As such, issues 1, 3 and 6 potentially promote some form of moral responsibility among students as environmental stewards as they are prompted to conduct perspective taking. On the other hand, issues 2, 4 and 5 might appear to promote a narrower perspective as the respective ‘values and attitudes’ learning outcomes prompt students to appreciate how urban problems are overcome and how humans can better utilise natural resources (see CPDD, 2014b, pp. 36-50). Hence, these issues’ statements of learning outcomes are not included in the framework, which only seeks to select relevant statements aligned to EK4. The inconsistency of the nature of EK4 across the issues is a similar problem highlighted previously in the analysis for EK1. Overall, there is no explicit inculcation of the development of alternative visions among students and the TLG lacks the relevant pedagogical recommendations. Students at most are exposed to the knowledge of alternative strategies for change (EK3). The presence of EK4 is subjected to students’ understandings and/or teachers’ beliefs about the importance of developing students’ ability to envision alternative futures of their environmental context.

The above findings reveal two points about the LSG syllabus, between and within the knowledge dimensions. Firstly, there is a diminishing emphasis from EK1 to EK4, with a strong focus on EK1 and EK2 and an under-emphasis of EK3 and EK4. Secondly, the same EKs exist with differential quality across the issues. Specifically, inconsistencies are found in EK1 and the ‘values and attitudes’ learning outcomes for EK1 and EK4 respectively across the six issues. To overcome some of the possible subjective analysis above, the TLG is analysed. While each issue is equally allocated 10 periods (each period lasting 35-40 minutes, see CPDD, 2014b, pp. 15-16), different GQs are allocated different number of periods for the different issues (see CPDD, 2014b, p 239-244). As established in Table 2, GQ1 to GQ3 corresponds to EK1, which would hence be allocated 6-7 periods whereas EK2 and EK3 (covered as GQ4), supposedly the knowledge dimensions that would more significantly affect environmental behaviours, are to be covered in 3-4 periods. As EK4 is not taught as a form of knowledge per se in the curriculum, no recommended periods are given. Clearly, this analysis supports the earlier findings above, whereby the bulk of teaching and learning is focused on EK1, which might unfortunately suggest the diminished emphasis and importance of EK2 to EK4. Hence, this paper believes that there is a lower than expected integration of the cognitive aspect of EE into the LSG curriculum.


Possible Reasons for Findings

The disproportionate emphasis of EK1 and to some extent EK2 over EK3 and EK4 has yet been empirically studied. However, the findings can be thought to be related to the “institutionalisation of dominant beliefs about knowledge, teaching and learning” (McIntyre, 1985, p. 79, cited in Stevenson, 2007, p. 151). The syllabus reflects the social context of a nation – it is created by a group of government officials with certain beliefs and attitudes towards the concept of the environment and the purpose of education.

The Singapore education system remains one that is performance and results oriented. This is evident from the assessment objectives laid out in the TLG document whereby two out of the three assessment objectives place heavy emphasis on students’ “factual knowledge” attainment (see CPDD, 2014b, p. 190), which essentially means that EK1 would carry the heaviest weighting in assessment. In fact, such narrow content coverage is not unique to Singapore and is thought to align with the idea of education for the purpose of examination (Raselimo et al., 2013). There appears to be a perceived conceptual difference between objective and subjective knowledge, analogous to Esland’s (1971) argument that the former is considerably more straightforward and measurable than the latter, which is “problematic and essentially personal in nature, being socially constructed from the learner’s active participation in the production and verification of meaning” (as cited in Stevenson, 2007, p. 149). EK3 and EK4 would fall under the latter for they require for instance, the evaluative skills and one’s personal imagination and envisioning of alternative environmental strategies that do not have a definite criterion for assessment.

Implications on Teaching and Learning

A curriculum skewed towards EK1 might affect how EE is integrated into teaching and learning within the geography education. For one, it could potentially shape how geography teachers, the bridge between the curriculum and students, form their beliefs and practices of what and how EE should be delivered. More importantly, this underscores the issue of the recurring cycle for why EK is not holistically developed in the curriculum and the action-paralysis found among students.

Indeed, it has been observed that geography teachers tended to perceive environmental processes as the core content knowledge (Morgan, 2012). Ho and Seow’s (2017) study concluded that the syllabus document has a strong influence on teachers’ professional identity and pedagogical decisions. Similar findings were reported in Cotton’s (2006) study of three teachers whom, because of their beliefs in displaying neutrality, avoided framing their lessons aligned with EE, which they felt is socially critical. While the improvised 2014 LSG syllabus introduces the issue-based framework as a guideline for teachers to engage students to think critically about the issues, it remains an uphill task for teachers without the relevant resources and support from the system, to deviate much from the curriculum. They will also be less likely to make the conscious effort to tap on EE as a platform to develop students who can be critical yet active contributors to the local environmental scene. It is hence unsurprising that teachers may choose to stick to the ‘easier’ route by following closely to guidelines stipulated in the LSG syllabus and TLG document and fail to realise the full potential and benefits of a holistic EK curriculum.

In turn, students may fall short of participating in the improvement of environmental problems existing in their societies. In fact, the dominance of scientific knowledge and facts might do more harm than good as students are overwhelmed with the knowledge and awareness of the seriousness and extent of environmental issues from both the media and the school, but find themselves unprepared and ill-equipped to address them. The limited knowledge of alternatives and visions can lead to students being despondent “of a future that they do not quite understand” (Chang & Pascua, 2016, p. 18) and effectively foster a sense of powerlessness and negative environmental outlook among students.

Suggestions for Future Actions

To overcome the pessimism that many Singaporean youths experience towards the environment (Tan, 2013), prompt and decisive changes must be made to the geography curriculum and support for teachers’ empowerment in delivering EE need to be enhanced.

Given teachers’ reliance on and the influence of the syllabus and the TLG document, changes to the recommended teaching periods for each GQ and hence, the EK dimensions, should be made in accordance to the proposed EK-dimension framework. This means that EK1 needs to be streamlined to focus on the necessary scientific knowledge needed to attain other EK dimensions. This can be supported by the development of relevant resources and pedagogical strategies in the teaching of EK2 and EK3. Slight modifications such as an inclusion of higher order command words to the learning outcome of EK3 could garner greater attention in teaching and learning of this knowledge dimension. As for EK4, explicit and consistent learning outcomes would be required. This can be expressed as statements that require students to formulate an environmental goal for the issue or topic, with which they can then apply the relevant EK that they have previously acquired as they work towards the said vision.

However, while the recommendations call for a change in the LSG curriculum, they are unlikely to be realised if the education system remains one that is strongly oriented towards assessment and examination that largely bases itself on the convenience of objective measurements. Still, the author is optimistic that the LSG curriculum has great potential to accommodate changes, considering it is not part of the national examination. In addition, as Chang (2014) critically points out that despite inclusion of EE in the curriculum, the translation of the curriculum into practice might not be as straightforward due to teacher subjectivity. This points to the need to enhance teacher training more holistically. Cognitively, professional training programmes should assist teachers in enhancing the depth and breadth of their knowledge content on current environmental issues according to the knowledge framework. On the pedagogical aspect, teachers should be provided the space to critically examine their perceptions on the purpose of EE and be made aware of the array of pedagogical strategies and resources that they can employ. In this way, teachers would too feel empowered and equipped to engage EE in a more holistic way, thereby facilitating the translation of the curriculum and policy at practitioner level.


In this study, a four-dimension EK framework has been proposed to assess the cognitive nature of the LSG curriculum. A disproportionate emphasis of EK is identified, with the focus skewed towards EK1 and EK2. The under-emphasis of EK3 and EK4 could interfere with the holistic learning of environmental issues that is needed to instigate the right kinds of environmental actions and behaviours expected of students. Such findings are believed to be attributed to the heavy stress on objective assessments present in the larger educational context in Singapore. This influences the perceptions of teachers towards the EE within the geography discipline, and further affects students’ competence as not just the discipline’s learners, but as citizens and environmental stewards of their nation. It can be postulated that the failure to deliver an action-competence EE in the school curricula might result in the persistent gap between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ among youths in the environmental context of Singapore.

The scope of this study is limited to the analysis of the cognitive aspect of the Singapore’s LSG curriculum, which may mask insights from the possible hidden curriculum that might surface during actual lesson implementations. By adapting the proposed framework presented in this study, future research can look to conducting empirical studies that examine how the LSG curriculum is appropriated and delivered by teachers in the classroom, and how they are received and internalised by students. This should bring more substantive conclusions on how geography education can develop a greater stake in promoting responsible environmental stewards. Another aspect of research that merits further investigation would be to consider the possible influences of assessments on the pedagogical choices of teachers in the teaching and learning of the different EK dimensions. This would allow for a more holistic evaluation of how effective the incorporation of EE is in the curricula.



This research paper is an outcome of the URECA Undergraduate Research Programme. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr Sim Hwee Hwang for her dedicated guidance throughout my project. Despite the constant changes I made to my research direction, Dr Sim continued to be supportive and encouraging. I sincerely thank her for her openness to my new ideas and her provision of many invaluable insights and feedback for my research. Her sharing of her research experience and wise words have sparked confidence and positivity in me. I will continue to seek excellence in whatever I do, and I will bear in mind her advice: “That there is no best, but only improved outcomes.”


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Backtracking towards a Transformative Rizal Curriculum


Since 1956, Republic Act 1425, otherwise known as the Rizal Law, has mandated the teaching of the life and works of Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, in all public and private schools, colleges and universities. Why decree Rizal’s ideas of nationhood and citizenship in the Philippine social studies curriculum? Dumol & Camposano’s (2018) textbook The Nation as Project: A New Reading of Jose Rizal’s Life and Works begins with a pithy statement that perhaps expresses the rationale best: “When Jose Rizal was born in 1861, there was no Filipino nation to speak of . . . When Jose Rizal died in 1896, there was still no nation to speak of, but [through his writings, political campaigns, and the reason for his execution] there was a nation to dream of” (p. 3). To examine Rizal’s life and works, therefore, is “to discover who we are and where we might go as a nation” (Dumol & Camposano, 2018, p. 3).

But the Rizal Law’s lofty directive that his works be an “inspiring source of patriotism” to the youth today is thwarted by curricula widely comprised of a reverential reading of Rizal’s life and works (Dumol & Camposano, 2018). As such, his ideas are left decontextualized and are resultantly barren. Without explanation for how Rizal’s ideas emerged amidst the social conditions of his time, a central truth—that the individual’s thoughts and actions bear weight on the ongoing project of the nation—remains veiled from students.

My experience taking Professor Paul A. Dumol’s Rizal course, while an undergraduate student at the University of Asia and the Pacific, was strikingly different. A respected Rizal scholar, Professor Dumol is the recipient of the 2012 Gawad Rizal from the National Historical Commission, as well as a multi-awarded playwright who has written two plays on Jose Rizal. His Rizal curriculum was concerned with discovering the hero-intellectual’s political thought. And as we struggled to understand Rizal’s ideas of nationhood and citizenship, our discussions continually situated Rizal in the nineteenth-century colonial context so that his ideas were framed as a man’s personal response to contemporary social challenges. Such context gave meaning to Rizal’s life and works, and the semester saw in me a marked transformation: from a primitive conception of my social self as solely daughter, sister, and friend, I began to perceive myself as a Filipino citizen with a share in the nation-building project.

The power of the course to effect individual change in an ordinary Filipino like myself makes it worth examining. At a time when the Philippines is in dire need of social upheaval (a 2020 report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations documents “deep-seated impunity for serious human rights violations” (UN Human Rights, 2020) in the current administration’s drug war, which has resulted in the extrajudicial killing of thousands since 2016; and the same report problematizes the increasingly institutionalized “vilification of dissent” (UN Human Rights, 2020) with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020), revisiting Professor Dumol’s Rizal course—its objectives, content, and methods—may serve as an entry point to developing a more transformative Philippine social studies curriculum.

Theoretical perspective

In studying the course’s potential for societal transformation, I employ the ‘curriculum as political text’ theoretical perspective, which has undergone significant development since its appearance in the curriculum field in the 1970s. Recognizing that education has complicated connections to larger society (Apple et al., 2009), it has evolved from the notion that schools merely serve to reproduce ideology and hegemonic power, to views that accord more agency to educators: schooling is now perceived to hold possibilities for resistance and, ultimately, societal transformation (Pinar et al., 2004).

This transformative potential, observable in Professor Dumol’s Rizal curriculum, is captured in the critical pedagogy movement’s view of education as counterhegemonic and activist (Apple et al., 2009). Fundamental to this movement is the idea that education is among the multiple dynamics that underpin relations of exploitation and domination in our societies (Apple et al., 2009). Critical education research is thus concerned with exposing relations of power and inequality in education and, above all, exploring the possibilities for counterhegemonic action (Apple et al., 2009). Counterhegemonic action is defined by Apple et al. (2009) as being “against the ideological and institutional processes and forms that reproduce oppressive conditions” (p. 3). At the heart of education’s transformative potential is the educator’s ideal for a counter-hegemony, a “new cultural vision of a genuinely different way of life” (Wexler & Whitson, 1982, as cited in Pinar et al., 2004, p. 251). Thus, critical pedagogy calls for educators to be “transformative intellectuals” (Carlson, 1987, as cited in Pinar et al., 2004, p. 260) who promote specific changes towards a new vision of a just society.     

With my data consisting mainly of my lived experience of Professor Dumol’s Rizal course, this paper takes on another theoretical perspective, curriculum as autobiographical/biographical text. Addressing a concern that the field of curriculum had lost sight of the individual and her experience of curricular materials (Pinar, 1995), the autobiographical method of research motivates students and teachers to perform a lengthy, systematic search of their lived experience of schools. Accessing inner experience allows individuals to “intensify one’s experience of education” (Pinar, 1995, p. 522) by leading them to a deeper understanding of the encounter and, ultimately, to deepened agency over one’s personal development (Grumet, 1976, as cited in Pinar, 1995). Returning to the public realm, understanding private experience allows curriculum researchers to “further comprehend [the roles of curriculum, instruction, and objectives] in the educational process” (Pinar, 1974, as cited in Pinar, 1995, p. 519).

Utilizing the methods of autobiographical/biographical research, this paper examines my lived experience of Professor Dumol’s Rizal course to unravel its power to produce individual change in the student. In other words, I access my inner experience to understand how this curriculum functioned as political text. To justify the merging of these two theoretical perspectives, I refer to Pinar (1995) who writes, “the individual is social and society is comprised of individuals” (p. 565). Autobiographical/biographical scholarship, therefore, may claim to understand curriculum as political text as well (Pinar, 1995). Madeleine R. Grumet (1990, as cited in Pinar, 1995), a pioneer of autobiographical/biographical curriculum research, asserts, “Narratives of educational experience challenge their readers and writers to find both individuality and society . . . in their texts” (p. 565). In analyzing my private experiences, which culminated in a deep transformation, I hope to come to a new appreciation of Professor Dumol as “transformative intellectual,” laying, within the walls of the Rizal classroom, the foundations for a new vision of Philippine society. 

Ultimately, Pinar (1995) writes, we utilize memory as a springboard for change in our individual practices. It is my hope that my personal narrative of my Rizal experience may serve as a guide, not only for my own practice, but for social studies teachers from the Philippines and other contexts in developing a more transformative curriculum at present.

Findings and Analysis

To contextualize my findings, a description of the course’s objectives, content, and method of instruction is a necessary preliminary.

The course objectives were, first, to determine Rizal’s political thought, a term used broadly by Professor Dumol to apply also to Rizal’s thoughts on Filipinos and Filipino culture; and, second, to reflect on the continued relevance of his ideas for present society. The distinctiveness of Professor Dumol’s course lay in its methodology: we would infer Rizal’s political thought from his two novels, Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891), often called the Noli and the Fili respectively, and officially titled “The Social Cancer” and “The Reign of Greed” in English. Rizal had made it clear in the Noli’s dedication that the novel was meant to be a faithful depiction of nineteenth-century Philippine colonial society through which he would expose the societal ills of this period. The Fili is its sequel, set thirteen years after the events of the Noli. In this light, the two novels may be seen as Rizal’s personal study of Philippine society, making them ideal material for the academic exercise of abstracting his socio-political philosophy.

There was another crucial reason for structuring the course according to a reading of Rizal’s novels: In problematizing nineteenth-century Philippine society, the novels would present various political viewpoints throughout their story rather than a single, clear political belief held by the author. Thus, the Rizal scholar in Professor Dumol’s class must detect a progression in the ideas put forward by the novels that reflects none other than the author’s personal journey in coming to his final socio-political philosophy. Looking back, explicating the development of Rizal’s ideas, rather than bringing us directly to his final beliefs, was a curious and, I see now, critical aspect of Professor Dumol’s instructional methods. Necessarily, class discussions would also tackle the events of Rizal’s life to contextualize the changes in his ideas. Our final objective was to uncover the definitive and all-encompassing political thought that Rizal would reveal at the end of his second novel, the final belief he would leave the Filipino people with before his execution in 1896.

With the novels at the centre of the course, we were taught reading principles to interpret the text for Rizal’s political thought, guidelines such as to identify passages of social commentary or criticism and to view its characters as archetypes of society rather than as psychologically developed individuals. Assessment then consisted of analysis papers, for which we were to use the reading techniques we had learned in class to draw out Rizal’s thought from a chapter of our choice. Taking stock of all his ideas that had arisen throughout the novels (and throughout the semester), the summative assessment was to determine the final belief that he had come to and why this was his conclusion.

The Rizal curriculum as autobiography

My memories have evinced four potent elements of the course that jointly brought about my personal transformation.

  1. The course highlighted Rizal’s unique view that Filipinos, rather than foreign invaders, were themselves the greater obstacle to self-rule, providing an alternative view to the narrative learned in my Philippine history classes.

During our first session, Professor Dumol handed each of us a copy of Rizal’s dedication in the Noli, in which he states his intention to expose, through his novel, the social cancer of late nineteenth-century Philippines. Professor Dumol drew our attention to a single line: “. . . I will strive to reproduce [the Philippines’] condition faithfully, without discriminations” (Rizal, 1887/1912, author’s dedication). The phrase “without discriminations,” Professor Dumol explained to us, displayed Rizal’s unique thinking that the social cancer lay not only with our Spanish colonizers but also, and more significantly, with the Filipinos. For students who had undergone the Philippine basic education history curriculum, this was a novel, almost shocking, idea. We had learned for years from our history textbooks that we Filipinos were the victims of foreign colonizers who had taken away our independence. Furthermore, this narrative had taught us that the Philippine Revolution that had reclaimed our independence was inspired by Rizal’s writings. Why was this course now recasting the ideas of Rizal, the inspiration behind the Philippine Revolution, to subvert this narrative, the source of our Filipino identity?

As we would come to discover throughout the course, Rizal had a preoccupation with the defects and weaknesses of Filipinos, which distinguished him from his contemporaries. His fellow ilustrados, the class of enlightened Filipinos educated in Europe, were influenced by the prevalent philosophy of progress, which led them to wage their campaign against the friars in the Philippines, who they saw as the enemies of progress. In the earlier stages of his political thought, Rizal was not entirely free from this mainstream view, with friars cast as the villains in the Noli; but Professor Dumol’s reading would show us that, above all, the Noli displayed Rizal’s unique conviction that the mindset of the Filipinos was the greater obstacle to self-rule than Spanish colonization.

This major strand in Rizal’s thinking, we learned, was largely found in the minor characters who make up larger society in the Noli, a placement that regretfully results most often in its being overlooked in a Rizal education. Inhabiting a town or población, the highest socio-political organization during the Spanish colonial era, society in the Noli was highly stratified, with each class contributing to the collective social cancer: The rich were concerned only about themselves and their families, and did not bother to enlighten the uneducated. The strong and the powerful marginalized the weak and the powerless. The poor, for their part, were accused of silence and indifference. In addition to these ills, Rizal’s narration frequently revealed, in both rich and poor, a streak of cruelty and violence to fellow Filipinos of humbler status, as well as a general toleration of vice. With a complete disregard for the common good among individuals, there was an irreconcilable gap between the rich and the poor. It was a society where Filipinos were against Filipinos, the war of every man against every man.

Along with my compatriots, I have been trained to build a national identity on a historical narrative of revolts and rebellions against foreign oppressors, a legacy difficult to live out as modern citizenship. What duty for my country remains in the age of self-rule with the absence of an external oppressor? Within Professor Dumol’s classroom, this powerful, new idea that perhaps Filipinos had been their own obstacle to achieving self-rule inspired in me more fruitful conceptualizations of nationhood and citizenship: perhaps it was time to take my glance away from historical enemies and to turn inward, to ask how I might overcome this Filipino attitude of self-interest to build a greater love for the common good.

  1. The course tackled Rizal’s novels as works of continued relevance so that, in the distinctive problems, issues, and social and political situation of nineteenth-century society, I recognized the roots of present societal ills. 

Rizal’s novels are typically read as literary works, with a focus on their literary qualities, or as historical documents that throw light on Filipinos and the Philippines during the nineteenth century (Dumol & Camposano, 2018). Professor Dumol established from the beginning of our course that we would employ a third way of reading the Noli and the Fili: as works of present relevance from whose depiction of the nineteenth-century social cancer we might gain deeper understanding of present societal ills. The course posed two questions: Is the social cancer that Rizal wrote about still present today? If so, how may it be extirpated at present? 

Challenged to interrogate the text for its relevance to the present, I developed a keener awareness of current Philippine society’s most deeply rooted problems. Just as Rizal had posited about nineteenth-century Filipinos, I discovered that a deep-seated attitude of self-interest, which cancels out regard for the common good, stubbornly remains our primary impediment to a functional democracy. Even problems that are structural or political in nature have beneath them an inward-looking people that account for a lack of action towards solutions. By elucidating the survival of the social cancer into the twenty-first century, the course presented me with the pressing need for individual change in order to bring about social change. 

  1. The course traced the progression of Rizal’s political thought, an exploration that allowed me to form a solid conviction in Rizal’s final solution to the social cancer for past and present society.

Throughout the course, we approached the Noli and the Fili, not as novels of plot or character, but as novels of the author’s ideas: while the Noli contained the problems that Rizal observed in Philippine society, the Fili was his solution to the social cancer. The rationale for Professor Dumol’s approach hinged on a line from Rizal’s dedication in the Noli, which was addressed to the Philippines:

Desiring your health which is ours and seeking the best treatment, I will do with you what the ancients did with the sick: they would display them on the temple steps, so that each person who came to invoke the Divinity would propose a remedy. (Rizal, 1887/1912, author’s dedication)

Desiring your health which is ours and seeking the best treatment, I will do with you what the ancients did with the sick: they would display them on the temple steps, so that each person who came to invoke the Divinity would propose a remedy. (Rizal, 1887/1912, author’s dedication)

I have described in my previous point the ills that Rizal saw in society, so malignant that he was led to ask, in a society so unjust that it seemed God was asleep, what was man to do? Under Professor Dumol’s careful guidance, we were able to discern the different solutions Rizal tested throughout the length of his novels: In the Noli was Rizal’s early endorsement of the anti-friar campaign, carried away as he was by the European doctrine of progress. We saw him toy with the idea of revolution as a remedy, though he struggled with the thought of the innocent lives that might be lost and with the merits of an insurrection carried out for personal motivations like revenge. We also saw how he debated with himself (under the guise of two of his characters) about the right means to achieve civic liberties, such as freedom of speech and the right to vote, for the Filipinos: did one achieve freedom through education or political struggle? And lastly, we saw him hypothesize the destruction of the Filipino race altogether, whom one disillusioned character described as a “slavish people,” with the scientific development of bombs. Overall, Professor Dumol’s course was a survey of Rizal’s hypotheses.

Understanding how extensively Rizal had searched for an answer allowed me to appreciate the depth and substance of his final solution: In the last chapter of the Fili, Rizal concludes that, before independence from their colonizers, the Filipino people needed redemption or internal change. The values of a social institution, he explains, can only be upheld if the people that comprise it are willing to defend them. How was a people who did not love the common good to maintain self-rule? Thus, Rizal felt that Filipinos needed to develop a regard for the common good to replace their individualistic and patron-client mindsets, before they could graduate to independence: “What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” (Rizal, 1891/1912, chapter XXXIX). God’s justice, he concludes philosophically, was to allow the people to suffer and work at present, which would temper the Filipino spirit to develop civic virtue for eventual independence. Returning to the point, only a Rizal course structured according to his novels of ideas could evince the power of his eventual conclusion. 

As history would have it, democracy was thrust on us by our American colonizers so that Filipinos bypassed the period of penance that Rizal stipulated as a pre-requisite for independence. The social cancer thus surviving into a democratic Philippines, the consequent mismatch between democratic values and our Filipino defects may explain the dysfunction of Philippine democracy. The Rizal course’s carefully developed conclusion has shaped my conviction that a functioning democracy requires civic virtue to underpin self-governance. This is a belief I had first to enact in my own life.

  1. The course framed Rizal’s ideas as his personal response to the social conditions of his time, leading me to the truth that the nation is the ongoing project of the individual.

As we considered the progression of Rizal’s political thought, Professor Dumol explained the changes and developments in his ideas by grounding them in their wider socio-historical context and in the personal events of his life. Most important to know was the period of Philippine history in which Rizal lived and wrote: a time when Filipinos did not yet conceive of themselves as a nation (with the town being the highest form of socio-political organization) but when a nascent sense of nationhood was palpable after the unjust execution in 1872 of three Filipino priests by the Spanish military tribunal bestowed on Filipinos a common cause. The course, therefore, framed Rizal’s political thought as a man’s personal response to contemporary social challenges, and he became a shining example of an individual who had dedicated his life to the ongoing project of the nation.  

This depiction of Rizal was likely the course’s most compelling element in my personal transformation. It touched me to see how earnestly Rizal sought solutions for the Philippine social cancer, demonstrating a love for nation that prevailed not “because . . .” but “so that . . .” I realized that his heroism, so often equated with his renowned intellect, was firstly the product of deep love. In this way, his heroism became relatable, a task of love attainable for the Everyman. Additionally, in showing me how Rizal sought solutions for his time, Professor Dumol’s course taught me that citizenship is one’s lived response to contemporary social challenges, a task that continues for us today, with our distinctive problems and conditions.

Distilling my educational experience into these four central points has allowed me to grasp the potency of Professor Dumol’s Rizal course: overall, his curriculum gave me a profound sense of the individual’s role in the ongoing project of the nation. Studying the Noli and the Fili taught me that if Philippine society’s problems rest fundamentally in the individual, then our solutions must also begin with internal change from the individual. From Rizal’s own life, I saw an unparalleled example of a man who had wholeheartedly made the nation his responsibility.

The course’s emphasis on the individual’s duty towards the nation had profound effects on my twenty-year-old self. As much as I identified as a daughter, sister, and friend, I began to identify as a Filipino citizen. I realized my responsibility towards the nation and could no longer content myself with a life lived only for my immediate circle. These ideas came to influence my personal choices, the most significant being my decision to pursue a career in teaching. I felt that my capabilities could best be put to service through education, to continue developing a love for the common good in my students.

The Rizal curriculum as political text

Having analyzed its ability to bring about my transformation, I am convinced that Professor Dumol’s Rizal curriculum is a powerful form of critical education. In a society where an attitude of self-interest is the most deeply rooted obstacle to achieving justice, education that instils a sense of civic virtue, one individual at a time, is a powerful step towards a new social vision. How the curriculum functions as political text merits its own discussion.

According to Apple et al. (2009), one of the ways critical education targets injustice is to transform assumptions about what counts as “official” knowledge, for such knowledge forces the oppressed to adapt to a reality that retains the power of the oppressors (Freire, 2000). In accordance with this notion, Professor Dumol’s course challenges the official Philippine historical narrative taught in schools, which has encouraged superficial conceptualizations of Filipino nationhood and citizenship. At best, these conceptualizations do nothing to ameliorate existing relations of exploitation and domination in Philippine society; at worst, they aggravate and perpetuate injustice. By rectifying certain points in our national narrative, the Rizal course provides an alternative basis for the formation of new conceptualizations of Filipino nationhood and citizenship.

The dynamic between Philippine history education and societal injustice must first be explained further. Historians and sociologists have argued that our local communities are organized politically along patron-client lines, a remnant from our pre-Hispanic past (Dumol, 2004). This argument reveals the reality of Philippine political structure: a shell of a democratic national government (Dumol, 2004) imposed over a social structure that is highly hierarchical and essentially still segmented into families and tribalistic communities (David, 2018). In consequence of our social structure, sociologist Randy David (2013) writes that Filipinos have an “underdeveloped” concept of citizenship:

While we profess a strong attachment to our country, this is mainly emotional. It has not matured into a commitment to abide by the formal institutions of government. That is why our most basic loyalties and obligations are still reserved to members of our kin group and narrow circle of friends, patrons and dependents. (para. 3)

The patron-client dynamic fosters relations of exploitation and domination in Philippine society. The most glaring example is the mass poverty that compels ordinary people to view politicians as patrons who provide them with access to public services like healthcare, housing, and educational assistance (David, 2018). In their eyes, elections have become the opportunity to vote in personal protectors rather than public servants, allowing seemingly benevolent yet corrupt politicians to remain in power (David, 2018). Evidently, it is impossible to “erect a democracy on the foundations of feudalistic communities” (Dumol, 2004, p. 299).

Philippine history education does nothing to repair our current concept of citizenship, so harmful to democracy. Stemming from the so-called “nationalist” school of Philippine historiography from the 1970s (Schumacher, 2008), the official historical narrative gives the impression that the nation emerged “as a matter of course—the way for instance a seed eventually becomes a tree” (Dumol & Camposano, 2018, p. 18). It ignores the concrete economic, social, and cultural conditions that made a national identity possible among individuals of diverse ethnicities (Dumol & Camposano, 2018). Treating the nation as a historical and cultural given (Dumol & Camposano, 2018) that existed even before Spanish colonization, the narrative reduces Philippine history to the simplistic story of an already united Filipino people reclaiming an independence that had been seized by foreign oppressors. The climax of this narrative is the 1898 Philippine Revolution, through which the Philippines gains her independence from Spain. Ironically, Rizal, who had died two years before and had opposed revolution, has been claimed as its inspiration, diminishing him in Philippine history as the mascot for the Philippine Revolution.

The national narrative holds consequences for Filipino identity and citizenship and, ultimately, for the nation. John N. Schumacher (2008), one of the most prominent historians of the Philippines, criticizes “nationalist” history thus: “Reconstructing a Filipino past . . . on false pretenses can do nothing to build a sense of national identity, much less offer guidance for the present or future” (p. 13). With the narrative’s primordial representation of the nation, the Philippines becomes a static entity, denying modern Filipino citizens any active role in its formation. Furthermore, the narrative encourages us to build an identity on a series of revolts and rebellions, a legacy that is difficult to live out as modern citizenship. Philippine history education, therefore, promotes a notion of citizenship that is sterile and inactive, leaving patron-client relations to continue festering in Philippine democracy.

Returning to Professor Dumol’s Rizal curriculum, the course’s primary form of counterhegemonic action is to challenge the current historical narrative. In doing so, it provides fresh soil in which new ideas of Filipino nationhood and citizenship may grow.

As demonstrated by my personal experience, the course questioned the narrative on three points: First, by continually situating Rizal’s contributions in the nineteenth-century colonial context, the curriculum taught us that the nation is a work in progress that citizens at every age have the responsibility to mold. Second, by allowing us to reflect on the Noli’s social cancer, the curriculum forced us to reconsider the national narrative’s viewpoint that foreign oppressors were the Filipinos’ sole obstacle to independence. We were encouraged instead to contemplate our own defects as a people so that we could amend our understanding of Filipino citizenship to building ties with compatriots and working towards the common good. Third, the course clarified Rizal’s political thought and effectively overturned his reputation as the inspiration behind the Philippine Revolution. For Professor Dumol’s students, Rizal, as national hero of the Philippines, became a paragon of civic virtue rather than a symbol of revolution. 

By challenging these points in our national narrative, Professor Dumol’s Rizal curriculum cultivates in Filipinos a deeper notion of nationhood and citizenship through which a new social vision may materialize: a society where individuals have learned to love the common good above their ties to an immediate few. My own experience has proven the transformation this curriculum is capable of producing. By promoting this social vision, the course labors to dismantle the feudalistic conditions that allow relations of power and exploitation to prevail in the Philippines. Ultimately, it encourages the building of a civil society upon which a functioning democracy may be erected.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Through the method of autobiographical research, I endeavored to understand how Professor Dumol’s Rizal course was transformative for me and, effectually, for society.

My memories have revealed that my personal transformation was propelled by the course’s emphasis on the individual’s role in the ongoing project of the nation. First, regular contextualization of Rizal’s life and works during class discussions, as well as the explication of the development of his ideas, created a compelling portrait of our Philippine national hero: an ordinary man who had searched deeply and earnestly for solutions for the social conditions of his time. Second, Professor Dumol’s reading of Rizal’s novels conveyed the important lesson that the success of a social institution relies first and foremost on individuals who will defend and uphold its values.

As political text, Professor Dumol’s curriculum builds a new social vision by overturning a national narrative that has undermined the role of the Filipino citizen. The narrative represents the nation as a historical given that denies citizens any role in its continued formation. Furthermore, it promotes sterile conceptualizations of citizenship that allow relations of exploitation and domination to continue thriving in Philippine society. With its reading of Rizal’s life and works, Professor Dumol’s course casts new light on the nation as a work in progress, a political inheritance that Filipinos must continue to mold in the face of present-day challenges (Dumol & Camposano, 2018). The course thus re-defines citizenship as a life of civic virtue and, on this foundation, builds its counter-hegemony: a democratic institution that flourishes in the hands of individuals who have learned to love the common good above their own interests.

Condensing these ideas, revisiting my lived experience of Professor Dumol’s Rizal course has unearthed the following principle: For a social studies curriculum to be transformative for the individual and society, it must explore nationhood as an “artifact of the historical process” (Dumol & Camposano, 2018), an ongoing project that is continually formed by the actions of the individuals that comprise it. When the dynamic between nation and individual is clear to the student, the crucial need for civic virtue will assert itself. Through its portrayal of our national hero as one who had toiled to cultivate salubrious roots for the yet unformed Philippine nation, thus initiating the nationhood project, Professor Dumol’s Rizal course deeply impressed in me this relationship between individual and nation. In this way was I roused to continue the project Rizal had started. 

The following guidelines may be gathered from Professor Dumol’s Rizal curriculum to convey the dynamic between nation and individual. First, frame historical figures as people who had made the nation their responsibility; specifically, situate them in their context to show how they lived in response to the social conditions of their time. Professor Dumol took the time to explicate the journey Rizal underwent, however far he would stray in his ideas, in seeking a remedy for the nineteenth-century Philippine social cancer. In this way, heroes are not cold, marble statues to be worshipped, but real men and women to be emulated simply for the way they attempted to confront contemporary social challenges. Second, conduct the class as an investigation into the notion that the nation is the result of the individuals that comprise it, making it a tangible phenomenon for students. Studying the survival of the nineteenth-century social cancer into present Philippine society allowed me to understand that our defects and weaknesses as a people have created the structural conditions that make up a dysfunctional democracy today. It must be noted that the interplay between individual actions and structural conditions to make up the present state of the nation will differ per context. As my personal narrative has shown, when a social studies curriculum establishes the individual as active shaper of the nation, the student gains a sense of his or her own power as a citizen, inspiring transformation in the self for society.


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Where Literacy Meets Geography: Using Talk Moves to Engage Students in Geographical Data


The theoretical foundation of this study is social constructivism which believes that knowledge is produced and constructed in a social setting. This socialcultural perspective emphasises that literacy is shaped by social practices (Moje, 1996) and serves the purpose of knowledge construction in a discipline (Moje, 2008). It builds students’ understanding of the acceptable form of “socialisation into how members of a community talk, write, and participate in knowledge construction” (Quinn, Lee, & Valdés, 2012, p. 49). Like other disciplines, the geography epistemic community has its own ways of seeing and understanding the world (Roberts, 2013) which are different from “everyday thinking” (Lambert, 2017, p. 20).

The demands of each discipline determine the literacy skills that students need to address the domain-specific problems of the discipline in question (Brozo, Moorman, Meyer, & Stewart, 2013). From a geo-literacy perspective, the implementation of a literacy approach in geography should then serve the needs of geographical learning by taking into account the characteristics of knowledge formation and interaction in that discipline (Burke & Welsch, 2018). Therefore, the social construction of geographical knowledge requires students to be “geographically literate” in order to effectively comprehend geographical information, engage in reasoning, communicate their ideas and make informed decisions (Dolan, 2019). Geography teachers draw upon a rich range of data representations to bring the geographical concepts to life in their teaching (Lambert & Balderstone, 2010) and guide students in studying physical and socio-cultural phenomena, and interactions between people and their environments. These data representations include graphs, maps, photos, sketches, table of figures and texts (CPDD, 2013). Therefore, to help students become “geographically literate” entails equipping them with skills to make sense of and critique geographical data presented in multimodal formats (Roberts, 2014). Such data analytical skills are also required in Singapore’s Geography curriculum (CPDD, 2013):

  1. Extract relevant information from geographical data;
  2. Interpret and recognize patterns in geographical relationships data;
  3. Analyse, and evaluate and synthesize geographical data to make informed and sound decisions.

A geography classroom should provide ample opportunities for teachers and students to engage in meaningful socialisation around geographical data and communicate with one another using geographical discourse. This paper sets out to investigate the relationship between talk and students’ ability to analyse and account for geographical data.

Talking to learn

Though the geography classroom is replete with talk around geographical data, geography teachers might still face difficulty in scaffolding students’ active engagement with data (Seow, 2015). This could be because students are not given enough opportunities to engage with the task. Here “engaging students” implies more than just providing a task for them to work on or showing them stimulating learning resources. As much as they are important in triggering students’ interest, if the task/resource is not unpacked by encouraging students’ talk in the classroom, students will still be playing the role of passive listeners and knowledge receivers instead of as active learners. Alexander (2004) argued that “children, we now know, need to talk, and to experience a rich diet of spoken language, in order to think and to learn…Talk is arguably the true foundation of learning (p. 9).” Students need to talk to learn. However, classroom talk is often asymmetrical (Mercer & Dawes, 2008) with the teacher taking an authoritative role to impose his/her way of thinking and the students following (Morgan & Lambert, 2005).

This led me to think about the quality of classroom talk. A “noisy” class involving multiple questioning and answering exchanges does not necessarily guarantee learning. A closer examination of such classroom talk will show us that it is the teacher who controls the knowledge construction. Teachers’ questions are usually less cognitively demanding questions (Kawalkar & Vijapurka, 2013) and a teacher may be satisfied with surface-level answers which contain information often from students’ memory and are not built on one another’s ideas. In other words, such interaction lacks depth (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). As a result, unengaged students remain quiet and high-achieving or active students always give good answers, leaving the teacher no choice but to move on to the next question. On the contrary, dialogical teaching assumes that “knowledge is something people do together rather than an individual possession” (Lyle, 2008, p. 225).

A dialogic classroom aims to construct common understanding by offering structured, cumulative talk that prompts, provides guidance, and reduces choices, risks and errors (Alexander, 2004). The goal is to conduct an authentic dialogue that is more extended, equitable and meaningful. It exerts the power of talk to foster productive students’ engagement, and scaffold and extend their thinking (Alexander, 2004), and eventually advance their understanding and lead to deeper learning (Michaels & O’Connor, 2012).

Dialoguing to be geo-literate

Roberts (2013) defined geographical talk as “talking about the subject matter of what was being studied or investigated” (p. 96). In a dialogic classroom, the teacher invites students to be a contributor to the dialogue. When students are engaged in geographical talk around data, the teacher uses dialogue to support students in organising their thoughts, clarifying, identifying evidence to support their opinions, reasoning, summarising (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011; Lambert & Balderstone, 2010) and eventually writing which are core literacy skills in geography that students should acquire. Also, as students are immersed in the geographical dialogue, it enables students to practice geographical specialised language that they have been exposed to, using sources such as the teacher, learning resources (e.g. textbooks and worksheets), and their peers (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). The use of appropriate geographical language should be encouraged in students’ geographical talk and writing in order to effectively and accurately communicate their ideas. With the increased amount of student articulation (Boyd & Markarian, 2011), the teacher has “something” to work on, which means the teacher can assess students’ responses and develop a more discriminating disciplinary discourse together with the students. It would be a lot more difficult for students to develop these geo-literacy skills and geographical language skills in a teacher-centered monologic classroom culture due to the lack of practice.

Talk Moves

To build a dialogic geography classroom is, no doubt, a big challenge because it involves changing entrenched habits for both students and teachers (Bignell, 2012). Students need to practice active listening in order to build on one another’s responses and the teacher needs to make strenuous effort to improve their questioning skills and structure their talk to meet students’ learning needs. Michaels & O’Connor (2012) outlined four goals that teacher can work towards:

  1. Help individual students share, expand, and clarify their own thoughts;
  2. Help students listen carefully to one another;
  3. Help students deepen their reasoning;
  4. Help students engage with others’ reasoning.

They also provided strategic questioning frames for teachers to support students’ participation and reasoning. Grounded in the theories of dialogic teaching, and Michaels and O’Connor (2012) and Zwiers & Crawford (2011)’s work, the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) adapted Talk Moves for local primary and secondary classrooms (see Appendix A). Each Focus Area can be adapted by the geography teacher to facilitate talk around geographical data. For example, Focus Area 3 – Probe for reasoning or evidence – can be used to prompt students to provide evidence from the data to support their argument, and Focus Area 4 – elicit a student’s view on another student’s idea – requires students to identify the missing parts in another student’s reasoning and complete it with more evidence or prior knowledge.

Talk Moves have been incorporated by Singapore teachers in biology (Ho, Wong, & Rappa, 2019), mathematics (Vijayakumar, Wong, Adams, & Lee, 2015), and geography (Vijayakumar et al., 2015) classrooms. These studies suggested that teachers became more conscious in their use of Talk Moves to facilitate students’ knowledge construction. However, very little empirical evidence, especially quantitative evidence, has been provided on the usefulness of Talk Moves in engaging students in geographical data analysis from the student’s perspective. This led me to ask if the use of Talk Moves enhanced students’ geographical literacy (including analytical skills for geographical data, articulating answers in a geographical manner, writing a geographical account based on data) and students’ classroom participation.


In this study, I drew on a collaboration with 3 geography teachers with classes in 2 different mainstream secondary schools in Singapore. Students were at lower to upper secondary level of study and ranged from 13 to 15 years of age. Table 1 provides more details of the classes involved. School 1 drew from a wide range of students from both upper-middle to lower socio-economic levels, while School 2 had students largely from middle to lower levels of socio-economic backgrounds. Students from Class 1 generally had average or below average academic ability, whereas Class 2’s students showed average academic performance. The study involved 2 research cycles. In each research cycle, the research team helped teachers incorporate Talk Moves into 3 of their lesson plans where geographical data would be used, which totaled 6 lessons for each class. After each cycle, an anonymous questionnaire survey (see Appendix B) was conducted with the students to find out their perceptions of 1) whether their analytical skills for geographical data improved; 2) if they became better at articulating their answers in a geographical manner; 3) if they became better at writing a geographical account based on data; and 4) whether they became better able to contribute to classroom discussions.

The survey consisted of 17 Likert-scale questions. Questions 1 to 6 were designed to measure the dependent variable “analytical skills for geographical data”, while Questions 7 to 10 are for measuring “articulating answers in a geographical manner”, Questions 11 to 14 for “students’ classroom participation” and Questions 15 to 17 for “writing a geographical account based on data”. All the responses were then converted to numerical data for data imputation. “Strongly Agree” was coded as 4; “Agree” as 3; “Disagree” as 2; and “Strongly Disagree” as 1. Data that was missing completely at random (MCAR) was imputed with the column mean of the same class. There were 3 responses where students marked between the boxes of “Agree” and “Disagree” intending to indicate neutral perception towards the corresponding questions. Hence, I used the mean value 2.5 (= (3 + 2) / 2) for the answers in those responses. To address the research questions, I calculated the proportions of all students’ ratings of the questions to look at their overall perception.

Findings and discussion

This section discusses the key findings from the surveys. In general, students were positive about the impact of Talk Moves in classroom discussion around geographical data. I will unpack the findings for each dependent variable below.

Analytical skills for geographical data

The quantitative findings suggest that in general, students felt that Talk Moves helped them improve their skills in analysing geographical data. As shown in Questions 1 to 6 in Table 2, after two research cycles, the majority of the students believed that they were better able to understand the requirements of the questions, decode the data representation, identify and account for the patterns and anomalies. Specifically, as represented by Figure 1, 29.27% (n = 82) of students strongly agreed that they became more competent in understanding what the data is showing. It is equally worth highlighting that 28.05% (n = 82) of students saw greater improvement in identifying key words in the data and 24.39% (n = 82) of them perceived that they improved in identifying the anomalies in the data.

As Barnes (1976) stressed, students talk their way into meaning to increase their knowledge and develop their understandings of the topics. The dialogic classroom that promoted whole-class cooperation in making sense of the geographical data through teacher’s use of Talk Moves opened up a floor for students to talk about the demands of the tasks and the meanings of data representations. They also shared their observations about the data including patterns and anomalies and accounted for the phenomena presented in data with their geographical knowledge. Talk Moves such as “What do you mean by…?” and “Can you put in your own words what Student X just told us?” probed students to make their own or others’ ideas clearer to the whole class and built a common understanding of the data. The use of Talk Moves that elicited a student’s view on another student’ idea, for example “Do you agree or disagree…?”, encouraged students to reflect on others’ ideas and help each other make more accurate observations of the data. This is important to understanding and analysing the data because students were given opportunities to explore different ways of meaning making and to modify existing ideas through the support of the teacher and other students (Hogan, Rahim, Chan, Kwek, & Towndrow, 2012). When students’ ideas are elicited, valued, and built on by another student’s contribution, the teacher’s talk will become less “presentational” (Barnes, 1976) and function as a facilitator of classroom discussion and knowledge construction led by the students.

To compare Cycle 2 with Cycle 1, I computed the mean of each response for this dependent variable (analytical skills for geographical data) and used a t-test in order to further measure the significance of the overall increase. Unfortunately, there was no statistical significance (p = 0.106) due to the large mean and small standard deviation of the sample in Cycle 1. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the percentage of students who strongly agreed or agreed that they were better able to “explain in their own words what the question is asking them to do” increased from 82.35% (n = 85) to 90.24% (n = 82) (see Figure 2). The proportion of students who believed that they were better able to “identify the patterns/trends in the data” increased by 8.15% from 89.41% (n = 85) to 97.56% (n = 82) (see Figure 2). These two skills lay a solid foundation for students to reach an accurate interpretation of the data, deduce relationships (CPDD, 2016) and construct a logical explanation.

Articulating answers in a geographical manner

Dialogic teaching provides a testing ground for students to articulate their original answer as a tentative contribution (Mercer & Dawes, 2008) which the teacher or other students can then work on to improve collaboratively in verbal and written formats. As summarised in Table 3, the majority of students indicated that Talk Moves had a positive effect in encouraging them to express their thinking regarding the data. Although there was no drastic increase in the proportions, having been through 2 research cycles, 92.68% (n = 82) of students felt that their ability to describe the data to the class was increased and 93.90% (n = 82) of them were more confident that they could describe the relationships in the data.

In the lessons powered by Talk Moves, the teacher drew on his/her language knowledge for content teaching (Morton, 2018) to initiate the correction of students’ use of vocabulary, invite students to use appropriate geographical terms or clarify the meanings of the terms, and encourage them to describe the data and reason using academic language that is precise and concise. Talk Moves such as “So you are saying that…” or “I wonder if you mean…” allowed the teacher to revoice the students’ ideas by replacing their vernacular language with the specialised language that is conventionally used by geographers. The teacher would also lead other students to repeat and improve on the responses by asking “Can you repeat what Student X said in a more geographical way?” By employing Talk Moves, the teacher was able to model a disciplinary way to describe and account for geographical data, and allowed students to help one another using the language knowledge they learned or brought into the classroom. As the teacher and students get accustomed to such interactive modes, it will foster a more collaborative learning environment for the class. Most importantly, the teacher nudged the students to use their linguistic resources, which in the long run has the potential of increasing students’ awareness in not only what they are answering but also how they should elaborate their ideas to the class (Gibbons, 2001).

Students’ classroom participation

Dialogic teaching requires both teacher and students to take on new identities in the classroom. The teacher needs to use a variety of questioning techniques to elicit students’ opinions on other students’ responses, while students are expected to be active listeners so as to understand their peers’ answers and make meaningful contributions or extensions to the discussion (O’Connor & Michaels, 2019). This is how dialogue can be sustained. However, it takes time to achieve this change of students’ role because they are used to taking teacher’s talk as the most important source of information and waiting for teacher’s evaluation of other students’ responses. Some students may have discomfort in pointing out other students’ mistakes and challenging them (Robins, 2011), because again, it is usually considered the teacher’s job. This could be the reason why I did not see a noticeable increase in the percentages in this set of questions except Question 12 (see Table 4), though a large number of students still believed they made improvement. Roberts (2013) suggested that teachers discuss with students to set explicit ground rules. These ground rules can include “listen”, “show respect”, “be considerate”, etc., and teachers need to remind the students of the rules if necessary. Over time, a conducive environment will be created for the students to feel safe in commenting on other’s mistake or misconceptions (Ho, Wong, Leong, Talib, & Lim, 2017) and offering their ideas without waiting for the teacher’s “standard answer”.

Writing a geographical account based on data

Going beyond classroom discussion, I measured the effect of dialogic teaching in translating students’ talk to writing. Statistical results in Table 4 suggest that students were generally positive about their improvement in writing an account based on the geographical data, but most of the percentages were lower than 90%. It is not a surprise that the Talk Moves approach did not have a similar level of impact on students’ writing as on the other variables (i.e. “analytical skills for geographical data” and “articulating answers in a geographical manner”). Myhill and Jones (2009) argued that the patterns of writing are more subtle and may take longer for students to acquire. Writing is still a salient issue in Singaporean students’ geography learning. They struggle with explaining their thoughts effectively (Hassan & Toh, 2018) and coherently (Sukimi, Lim, Tamsir, Tan, & Wong, 2018) through writing. Teachers, as well as educational researchers, need to take students’ difficulties in writing into account when exploring the connection between talk and writing. For this variable, I looked into the proportions within a class and identified that in Class 1, 24% more students thought that they could write a well-organised answer in response to questions about data after Cycle 2. This gives future research an interesting direction – how teachers adapt Talk Moves to guide students in structuring their argumentative writing.


Developing students’ geographical literacy means teaching them skills to process and analyse geographical data and explain the phenomena presented by the data. To help them obtain these skills, we need to engage students with the data through a more dialogic teaching approach. The Talk Moves approach was designed to encourage teachers to be more purposeful in using talk, especially questioning, to create a dialogic learning experience for the students. It can be used to elicit more students’ responses regarding their observations and understanding of the data for a meaningful discussion and provide opportunities for them to practice disciplinary language.

This study examined the impact of integrating Talk Moves to promote dialogic teaching in Singapore’s secondary geography classroom. Of specific interest was whether the integration enhanced students’ geography literacy skills including analytical skills for geographical data, articulating their answers in a geographical manner, writing a geographical account based on the data, and their participation in class. Statistical evidence suggest that Talk Moves helped students improve their analytical skills for geographical data and their ability to articulate answers in a geographical manner. Though there is insufficient inferential statistics to further illustrate the findings due to the constraints in data collection, this study has demonstrated the overall positive perception of students regarding the use of Talk Moves and outlined areas related to dialogic teaching that are worth studying in depth in the future.

I also call for more pedagogical support for teachers to enhance students’ classroom participation in building a safe classroom for students to be more critical towards each other’s answers and to be active learners. More focus can be given to the relationship between students’ talk and writing based on geographical data.


This research was undertaken as part of MOE Academies Fund (MAF) project (Project No.: AFD 04/17 TS). The author would like to express her deepest gratitude to Dr Tricia Seow and Dr Caroline Ho for their trust, encouragement and support.


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Centering the Periphery: Giving Students’ Voice and Choice

In April 2019, I carried out an action research study with a class of High Ability Primary 6 students to understand how to better engage students in a Social Studies class through discussion of controversial issues. Based upon my observations, these students demonstrated behaviors that showed they were disengaged during the monthly lesson on current affairs known as News Sharing. During News Sharing class, students were typically given an adapted news article chosen by me with a set of questions that tested mainly their comprehension of the article, the relevance of the article to National Education (NE) messages and how they might contribute to society based on the issue featured in the article. I felt that the formulaic nature of the lesson defeated the aim of News Sharing which was initially introduced with the purpose of improving students’ general knowledge about the world and Singapore. The lesson eventually resulted in an English language comprehension class where discussion was minimal and almost perfunctory.

I was quite dissatisfied with the state of affairs as it ran counter to my vision of what a Social Studies class should be and my transformative role as a Social Studies teacher. I felt as if I was oppressing my students, viewing them simply as empty receptacles waiting to be filled up by content. It was an untenable situation. Upon further probing, these students shared that they would like for the lesson to be changed, especially on the topics that were discussed as well as the approach. They expressed the desire to discuss topics that were of interest to them instead of those chosen by the teacher. Among the topics that they suggested were meritocracy, issues on foreign talents, gender inequalities as well as academic demands. I took their suggestions to heart and began to search for a better approach to discuss these topics. I also decided to frame the issues in a way where they could be controversial in nature and thus invite livelier discussion. Furthermore, this was an area that I felt merited further investigation since findings from this action research would have implications for other Social Studies teachers who might be interested to find out how they could introduce controversial issues as a way to engage their primary school students.

From the very start, the decision to use discussion as a pedagogical approach was strategic. Available literature as well as my own observations suggested that conventional instruction that is very teacher-directed would not be as useful in this case. I, therefore, adopted a structured discussion approach in introducing controversial issues to the class of 40 students in a three-period lesson. I leaned heavily to the works of Hand and Levinson (2012) who identify discussion as fulfilling three main criteria: firstly, the articulation of multiple viewpoints; secondly, discussants being receptive to other opinions besides their own; and finally, there is a seriousness to the endeavor as the discussants are desirous to get to the truth of the matter.

Besides the change in approach, my role in this lesson was also different. Naturally, I had my own views of the issues discussed. Heeding, Cowan and Maitles (2016) who argue that teachers’ views should not impede classroom discussion if teachers are honest and confident enough to allow their students to challenge them, I made these views about discussion known to my class at the start of the lessons. I felt this disclosure was necessary for the discussions of controversial issues to develop more organically.

The results of the research were encouraging. For instance, quantitative and qualitative data revealed that the students were engaged in the discussion of controversial issues. Out of 40 students, 26 conducted independent research before the discussion of issues as evidenced by the notes that they submitted. More than half of the students (26 students) changed their initial stance on an issue, based on their response in the Likert scale on the survey. Delving deeper into the data, I found out that out of these 26 students, 6 students had a complete change of stance after listening to the opinions of others during their discussion.

Based upon the findings, I felt validated that the student-centered structured discussion about complex issues was beneficial and preferable as an approach when introducing controversial issues for primary school students. By making my views known, I also opened myself up to be vulnerable as I welcomed students to challenge my views. I felt this exposure would encourage some of my reserved students to make known their views too. 

The positive experience emboldened me to plan a similar lesson with a different group of Primary Six students this year. I felt that I was opening up my students’ mind towards issues that they would not have otherwise encountered in Social Studies. The use of structured discussion provided students with the opportunity to have a dialogue about the issues in a safe environment yet girded by a framework so that the discussion would not go off tangent. As the teacher who was carrying out the lesson, I had taught the class for the last two years and created what I felt was a sufficiently safe environment where the students could engage in conversation without fear of ridicule and contempt of their ideas from others.

However, upon deeper reflection and with some space and time from the teaching event of last April, I now question some of my assumptions and observations of the class. Admittedly, I had tried to ensure a safe environment to have a dialogue by laying down ground rules to be observed by all students and cultivating a conducive open classroom culture. For instance, everyone should have an equal opportunity to speak and there should be no interruption when someone was giving their opinion. I had hoped that in this way there would not be a monopoly of voices, especially by the boys who outnumbered the girls quite significantly (25 boys to 15 girls). However, notwithstanding my ground rules, I now deliberate on how safe the girls or even anyone in my class really felt in voicing out their opinions. Despite the data and my observation of the liveliness of the discussion, could it be that they, as Ellsworth (1989) suggests, “are not talking in their authentic voice” (p. 313)? There could be a possibility that they might have self-censored their initial opinion or “they were encoded, on the basis of speaker’s conscious and unconscious assessment of the risks and costs of disclosing their understandings of themselves and of others” (Ellsworth, 1989, p. 313). I could not completely discount that notion.

Besides the gender inequality which might have contributed to some students’ editing or modifying their responses, I also did not take into account racial “silencing” that might be present when “Others” place themselves against the archetypal myth of dominant groups in society. Chinese students comprised the dominant race of the class (approximately 78%). Therefore, instead of the myth of the ideal rational person being “European, White, male, middle class, Christian, able-bodied, thin and heterosexual” (Ellsworth, 1989, p.304), the dominant mythical types in my class might very well be Chinese, male and pubertal. 

Dialogue is regarded as the lynchpin of critical pedagogy. Not surprisingly, it is defined as “a fundamental imperative of critical pedagogy and the basis of the democratic education that insures a democratic state” (Ellsworth, 1989, p.314). In employing dialogue in my classroom, I was attempting to transform it into a microcosm of the society where “students and teachers can engage in a process of deliberation and discussion…to prepare students as critically active citizens outside of schools” (Ellsworth, 1989, p.314).

However, in choosing dialogue as the approach, the assumptions would be that when armed with the analytical skills to consider an issue objectively, students would be free and rational to make objective and informed decisions. I did not entertain the possibility that students might still be holding on to their views due to non-rational or emotional reasons. How sure could I be sure that my students were not employing stalling strategies that Hand and Levinson (2012) suggest, such as “that’s-just-what-I-believe move” and the “that’s-what-my-religion-says move” (p.620)?

However, I believed that by listening to views from others and armed with their own research, my students would be empowered to make up their mind on a particular issue. Instead of being empty containers to be filled by my knowledge, the students, as Freire (2000) envisaged were no longer docile and accepting but critical and engaged in dialogue. However, just how empowered were they? Was I overstating their agency and empowerment by deliberately silencing or downplaying my power and influence as the teacher? That thought was sobering and not an impossibility.

In reexamining my experience while carrying out the action research and critically assessing my hidden assumptions of past actions and decisions, I am conscious of my teaching objectives. The crux of it is that I am striving towards transforming my practice and that of my students’ learning experience. And in order to transform their learning experiences, some of the crucial things to bear in mind would be to acknowledge the importance of bringing into prominence students’ voices in discussing topics that they feel an affinity to rather than prescribed by teachers. It is noteworthy that topics of interest to the students are highly significant societal issues as well. This shows that students are cognizant of current issues in the society that they live in where they are active participants in their own ways. Although the students’ voices may not be as authentic due to possible racial and gender silencing that I highlighted, the available platform to discuss issues provides the opportunity for their voices to be heard nonetheless. 

This aspiration to transform my practice to enrich my students’ learning experience finds affinity to the educational purpose described by Naomi Norquay who sagely points out that “this work is not merely knowledge accumulation. It is change” (Pinar et al. 1995, p. 566). In revisiting data sources from my study about a now past teaching experience and imagining a possible future for myself and my students’ learning, my focus is for the change to happen in the present.


Cowan, P., & Maitles, H. (2016). Teaching controversial issues in the classroom: Key issues and debates. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nielib-ebooks/reader.action?docID=4636387#

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-321.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Hand, M., & Levinson, R. (2012). Discussing controversial issues in the classroom. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(6), 614-629.

Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. (1995). Chapter 10: Understanding curriculum as autobiographical/biographical text. Counterpoints, 17, 515-566.

Commentary: Inquiry-based Learning and Teaching

Why inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is now considered the gold standard in curriculum and classroom practice. If we consider inquiry to be the methodical building of evidence-based claims and arguments, it is central to authentic intellectual work, disciplinary reasoning, developing an informed and participative citizenry and 21st century skills, such as critical and creative thinking, problem-solving and even empathy. Inquiry is a method for building knowledge and is fundamental to learning. However, despite calls for everyone to jump on the inquiry bandwagon, and it is difficult to find anyone not in favor of the inquiry approach in education, it does seem that IBL is challenging to enact in classrooms.  Research focusing on IBL in Singapore indicates that inquiry instruction remains teacher-centric and teachers are unsure about how to use inquiry as a core pedagogical approach (Costes-Onishi, Baildon, & Aghazadeh, in press). What might account for some of these challenges?

First of all, perhaps educators have set the bar too high for what inquiry should look like in classrooms. Maybe we need a more charitable and age-appropriate view of IBL. Inquiry actually is quite fundamental to being human. Even as infants we begin to inquire about the world; we use our senses to experience both the physical and social world around us, and with the help of knowledgeable others (e.g. our parents or other family members) we begin to make sense of our experience and ourselves. Eventually we learn to ask questions, to wonder, to experiment and to make meaning from experience. As we go through life, we might even engage in fairly significant inquiries about who we are, what kind of person we want to be, how we might contribute to society and what will make our lives meaningful and purposeful. To get good at something in work or play, likely requires some degree of inquiry into the field of interest in order to develop the necessary knowledge, skills and dispositions to perform well in that field. As citizens, we inquire into societal concerns by reading about a public issue, talking with others about it and getting enough information to be able to develop an informed position. The point is, inquiry might be considered part and parcel of so many facets of our lives that we tend to forget that inquiry is what we are doing in varying degrees when we learn something new, think carefully about what we are doing, who we want to be and what is good for our lives and society.

However, whether we call it inquiry or not likely depends on the extent to which these efforts might be considered active, persistent and careful, the degree to which one reflects upon experience and actually learns, grows and develops through that process of making meaning of experience. As Parker (2011) argues, as humans we experience things and we reflect on or theorise what these things mean. We then test our theories – in new experiences or by hearing others’ views and feedback, for example – and revise them in accordance with new experiences, new ways of looking at or thinking about things (i.e., theories) and in light of newfound or more compelling reasons and evidence. According to Stanley (2010), this makes inquiry a “method of intelligence.” While we might be predisposed to these dispositions, these more methodical and intelligent ways of thinking most certainly have to be cultivated, developed and practiced. So, to answer why IBL, we might say that inquiry is core to learners constructing knowledge, that it is fundamental to lifelong learning, and that it provides a “method of intelligence” that is vital to living and working in society.

What is inquiry-based learning?

To understand what IBL is, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at an early age, children are natural-born inquirers, a bit like junior scientists and social scientists, a point made by Dewey (1902) in The Child and the Curriculum. In this treatise, he argued that it might be more productive to see the child and the disciplinary expert on a continuum, that both are fundamentally engaged in sense-making and that for those working in the disciplines it is more a matter of utilising rigorous, systematic methods to build warranted knowledge – knowledge that is justified, tested, proven and valid based on reliable methods in a community of practice (i.e., other scientists, historians, social scientists, etc. who have developed expertise in the field of knowledge). Dewey also highlighted the importance of problems as core to inquiry and to thinking. For Dewey, we only think when confronted with a problem, when there’s some unease, a disruption, a feeling of discomfort, disequilibrium or confusion, where things are amiss in our experience in some way. This problem, whether it be something we directly experience or hear about affecting others second hand, whether it be a social issue or a personal problem, whether it is something in the physical world that is perplexing or that we wonder about, prompts us to engage our faculties to figure it out, to understand what’s going on, and to explore how it might be addressed, solved or managed. Problems, then, prompt inquiry, whether it be for the child or the expert. What experts, whatever their field of study, are especially good at, in fact, is identifying and defining problems and asking really good questions that enable them to investigate problems in ways that lead to new knowledge or solutions. As educators, we hope to instill similar kinds of dispositions with students, encouraging them to identify problems in their experience and ask questions about what they are experiencing; or by helping them become genuinely curious and interested in problems we might pose to them and helping them ask really good questions that will lead them into the problem in an educative way.

Based on what has been discussed above, we might understand inquiry as grounded in experience. If we think about this, problems are core tensions and felt problems arising from experience that drive the need to pursue more knowledge and experience (Dewey, 1938). According to Costes-Onishi, et al (in press), effective IBL is grounded in students’ experiences in some way to provide powerful and expansive learning opportunities. Based on a review of studies about IBL, these authors argue that effective IBL engages students experientially and collaboratively in solving real-world problems, problems worthy of authentic inquiry in which students are engaged in the search for meanings, actively questioning, and sharing and communicating their understandings throughout the process. Doing so, requires building an inquiry culture, inquiry mindsets and social practices that support inquiry (Costes-Onishi, et al, in press).

If we move from a naturalistic view of inquiry, to one that highlights the more methodical aspects of inquiry, we tend to start with particular processes that make inquiry more structured and systematic. First, we might note that there are multiple definitions of what constitutes IBL across different subjects. While a number of models of inquiry can be found in different syllabuses, inquiry has been taken to mean authentic, often discipline-based intellectual work, such as geographic fieldwork, issues-based inquiry (focused on the study of significant societal issues or public policy issues), model-based inquiry (e.g., based on inquiry into scientific models and representations), as well as more interdisciplinary forms of inquiry, such as project-based inquiry and design-based inquiry that promote self-directed learning (Kwek, et al, 2019). Inquiry, then, can take many forms with multiple models of the inquiry cycle offered as ways to engage students in structured inquiry-based learning processes when taken as a whole. While each subject may have its own particular inquiry model, such as the Humanities Inquiry Cycle of “Sparking Curiosity, Gathering Data, Exercising Reasoning and Reflective Thinking,” examining other models of inquiry can contribute to how educators might think about and practice inquiry in classrooms. Sharing different approaches to inquiry from different subjects can add to the repertoire of understandings and practices teachers might employ in their classrooms. As teachers, an inquiry into inquiry, or sharing different conceptions and effective approaches to IBL by others across subject areas can enhance our own professional learning. For example, instead of model-based inquiry in the sciences, humanities teachers might develop case studies for students to investigate as models of causation in history or geography, or as cases of Social Studies issues that might show how different societies understand and address particular issues that are shared across most societies (like inequality or climate crisis).

Studies have also found that there are a range of pedagogical practices that support IBL. Costes-Onishi, et al (in press) argue that IBL essentially should focus on helping students learn how to create knowledge through authentic learning experiences and activities. This would include engaging students in real problems, whether in the sciences or humanities subjects, allowing students to raise and investigate questions that are meaningful to them and allow for rich investigation into the problems through the collection of relevant information or data to develop their own conclusions. Authenticity is key here – the problems should be authentic (actual problems core to the disciplines yet designed for students to investigate in age-appropriate ways) and the methods used to construct knowledge about the problem should provide opportunities to collect and work with authentic data or information sources and develop their findings in meaningful ways. This requires educators to recognize that problems are core to their subjects. As Parker (2010) reminds us, subject matter is often taught as if

the academic disciplines are settled and devoid of controversy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The disciplines are loaded with arguments, and expertise in a discipline is measured by one’s involvement in them . . . Argumentation is authentic disciplinary activity. Social scientists argue about everything they study—about why Rome fell, what globalization is doing, why slavery lasted longer in the U.S. than in England, why poverty persists, how the nation-state system developed initially, and why it is maintained today. (p. 254)

So, to effectively practice IBL in classrooms, it is imperative that inquiry-oriented educators identify and tailor problems that will prompt inquiry and help students develop understandings aligned with curriculum. This requires planning lessons that support students’ inquiry-engagements with these problems.

Kwek and colleagues (2019) found several pedagogical practices in classrooms that effectively structured and supported IBL that can be taken into consideration in planning and enacting IBL. In sum, these included:

  • The effective use of questioning: Studies pointed to teachers effectively using a range of questioning approaches, using questions strategically to seek clarifications, discuss topics and structure different forms of argumentation, especially with a claims-evidence-reasoning framing (e.g., questioning focused on what claims were being made and what the reasoning and evidence were to support those claims);
  • Scaffolding student learning: In several studies, teachers were often seen to scaffold student learning through learning consolidations (e.g., through recapping or reviewing learning by highlighting key ideas, concepts or content), engaging students in evaluation of authentic information sources (using a range of scaffolding, heuristics and guidance), and using ICT-enabled forms of scaffolding (e.g., to organise ideas, structure arguments, share findings, etc.);
  • An emphasis on student-centred learning: Teachers were observed to effectively focus on students’ prior experiences and ideas, leverage these experiences and ideas to promote learning and encourage student experimentations and explorations – the focus was on designing rich tasks for student inquiry and engagement, rather than teacher talk;
  • Perspective-taking and synthesising information: As part of inquiry, teachers encouraged students to consolidate or synthesise their learning and view issues, problems, tasks and ideas from multiple perspectives (e.g., they often asked students to consider different perspectives than those provided by the textbook); 
  • Supporting students’ emotional needs: Teachers also supported students’ emotional needs, including support for students to work through ambiguity or ‘mistakes’ and to overcome fear of experimentation and exploration – they created safe learning environments for students to share their views, consider different perspectives and develop their own conclusions; and
  • Engaging students in the core social practices of disciplined inquiry: Teachers helped students understand the disciplinary nature of their subjects (e.g., how knowledge was constructed in the discipline), emphasised evidence-based reasoning (the evaluation of claims and evidence) and made explicit these practices (by providing guiding heuristics for reasoning or by modelling and making visible these practices).

Taken together, these studies reveal teachers who are effectively using a range of strategies to guide students in IBL processes through questioning strategies, using effective scaffolding as needed to support and guide student learning, and encouraging students to consider different viewpoints and to take initiative and self-direct their learning in a supportive, caring learning environment. While the teacher role is active and provides necessary support and guidance, the focus is on students taking centre-stage in their learning, prompted by good questions, rich and authentic information sources, consideration of different perspectives, and constant encouragement to develop their own conclusions and findings.

Dewey (1910) reminds us that making meaning through inquiry is a process of ongoing reflection. Reflection, like other social practices, is learned as a social process modelled and guided by those who are close to us, such as family members and our teachers. These expert others help us reflect on or think about our experiences, what we encounter in the form of problems, information sources, stories or issues, and through this process help us develop understandings about the world, others and ourselves. The approaches outlined above suggest the kinds of methods that teachers and students can engage with in this endeavour.

Why is IBL so challenging? How might these challenges be managed?

If inquiry is such a natural process, fundamental to human life, something that everyone does to a certain extent to understand and address problems, and considered the gold standard in curriculum and pedagogy, why then is it so difficult to enact in school settings? In Singapore, while the inquiry approach has been a feature of curriculum since the early 2010’s, with a great deal of teacher education and professional development marshalled to prepare teachers to use inquiry approaches in their instruction, there is some evidence that the use of IBL remains uneven (Kwek, et al., 2019). Why is this the case? Why is inquiry pedagogy so challenging? How might these challenges be managed? How might inquiry be more fully enacted in more classrooms?

First of all, inquiry-based teaching is challenging. It is not simply a matter of technique or teaching strategies. Unfortunately, there is no formula for effective inquiry teaching. But let us return to this after considering some of the reasons why inquiry is so difficult. There are several factors identified by teachers that Kwek, et al (2019) suggest constrain the implementation of inquiry in classrooms. These include time constraints (inquiry requires ample planning time among teachers and time for students to explore, investigate and discuss problems, etc.), deficit views of students (as not able to engage in inquiry due to knowledge or skills deficits), large class sizes (which makes fieldwork investigations difficult to manage, for example), and the emphasis on exam preparation. In some cases, teachers saw inquiry as a form of skills-based work that could help students prepare for exams, but Kwek, et al (2019) found that this reduced the intent and potential of IBL into procedural steps and skills that had to be learned. These findings are consistent with international literature, which is aptly summarised by Barton and Levstik (2003) that “in study after study, what teachers know has little impact on what they do” (p. 37). Instead, while teachers may believe in the value of IBL, their efforts to implement it in classrooms comes into conflict with other priorities that exist in schools, such as managing classrooms, covering content and exam preparation. As Dewey (1916) noted over a century ago, education systems serve many other purposes, such as socialising students into the norms and values of society, the meritocratic sorting of students and preparing students for work, which may restrict and constrain the full potential of inquiry as an educative process.

How then, might the tensions that arise between IBL and competing educational purposes and priorities be managed? First of all, these tensions and the ways they can be managed can be made an explicit focus of teacher learning at all levels. In other words, managing these tensions requires ongoing, continual inquiry by teachers to explore what works, what problems and questions invite more authentic forms of inquiry, what forms of scaffolding and guidance work, and having opportunities to share among teachers the different insights and practices that contribute to effective IBL. Kwek, et al (2019) found that there were particular teacher beliefs that facilitate the implementation of IBL in classrooms. These included teachers having a strong belief in and commitment to the inquiry process and the purposes of IBL, and that teachers’ dispositions mattered a great deal. They pointed to the need for teachers to be open-minded to trying out new practices and ideas, being adaptable and flexible in their approach to classroom practice, and having high expectations for their students’ capacities and readiness for inquiry. They also noted that school structures that provided support for teacher inquiry were key. Like their students, teachers need to have adequate time to delve into problems of practice and opportunities to engage in reflection, sense-making and problem-solving collaboratively.

How can we move IBL forward?

This brings us to the paradox of doing inquiry in classrooms. If we return to our definition of inquiry as the methodical building of evidence-based claims, this suggests there are particular methods that enable us to build knowledge or learn. There are – we see these used in the disciplines – and this article has suggested these methods can be used in some authentic and age-appropriate ways to support IBL. However, method should not be confused with technique or simply reduced to teaching strategy. This is because doing inquiry well in classrooms depends on a number of things – the students, the curriculum, the problem or issue being investigated, the context – and thus requires judgment and choice. Judgment cannot be simply reduced to a set of rules or techniques (Flyvbjerg, 2001).

Instead, inquiry might be better understood as a set of commitments, values, dispositions, aspirations or practices that effective inquiry educators develop over time. Murdoch (2015) has identified a set of effective inquiry practices teachers are observed “doing” in their classrooms. These include:

  • Creating flexible, open and equitable classrooms where students have choice;
  • Linking learning to authentic contexts, problems and intellectual work;
  • Using a range of questions to prompt thinking, especially open-ended questions;
  • Stimulating student curiosity and encouraging student questioning;
  • Supporting students to figure things out for themselves;
  • Giving students opportunities to research to understand and address problems;
  • Using scaffolds and routines that support a range of thinking processes;
  • Being open to exploration, unexpected turns and different pathways in reasoning;
  • Limiting whole class instruction (and teacher talk), and encouraging students to take initiative, to talk and share their thinking;
  • Building reflective thinking into daily routines; and
  • Being inquirers themselves into students’ lives, experience and interests, into content and into pedagogy.

Rather than particular techniques or strategies, these are manifest as social practices (things we see inquiry teachers do) that are developed through persistent effort over time. To develop these classroom practices requires believing that change is possible, identifying existing routines that inhibit inquiry as well as those that might be more satisfying and productive (such as those listed above), and working collaboratively and collegially to adopt and utilise these new routines in classroom practice. If we consider these as social practices, we recognise that we need to help each other make these changes.

To conclude, effective IBL is less about better teaching techniques than it is about necessary commitments and support to develop particular practices among students and teachers. It requires reconceptualising what it means to teach and learn and the creation of a system-wide culture of inquiry focused on authentic and meaningful problems (Costes-Onishi, et al, in press).


Barton, K.C., & Levstik, L.S. (2003). Why don’t more history teachers engage students in interpretation. Social Education, 67(6), 358-361.

Costes-Onishi, P., Baildon, M. & Aghazadeh, S. (in press). Moving inquiry-based learning forward: A meta-synthesis on inquiry-based classroom practices for pedagogical innovation and school improvement in the humanities and arts. Asia-Pacific Journal of Education, xx, xxx-xxx.

Dewey, J. (1902). The child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1910/1985). How we think, and selected essays (Vol. 6). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: MacMillan.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kwek, D., Baildon, M., Costes-Onishi, P., Yeo, J., Sengalrayan, B.W., Tan, M., & Bhardwaj, D. (2019). Inquiry-based pedagogies & inquiry-based learning in Singapore classrooms. Singapore: OER-NIE.

Murdoch, K. (2015) The power of inquiry: Teaching and learning with curiosity, creativity and purpose in the contemporary classroom. Northcote, AU: Seastar Education.

Parker, W. (2011). Foreword. In M. Baildon, & J. S. Damico, Social studies as new literacies in a global society: Relational cosmopolitanism in the classroom (pp. xiii-xv). New York, NY: Routledge.

Stanley, W. B. (2010). Social studies and the social order. In W. C. Parker (Ed.), Social studies today: Research and practice (pp. 17-24). New York, NY: Routledge.

Note: This article was reprinted with special permission by NIE Perspectives. To access the site, click: https://nie.edu.sg/perspectives and log in with your NIE gmail which is in this format: john.smith@g.nie.edu.sg (log in with your NIE password). Alternatively, you can go to the NIE portal > Staff Services > NIE G Suite and click Perspectives. Following the commentary, is a curated list of related research by NIE faculty.