Taming “Issue Investigation”: Singapore Secondary Social Studies Teachers’ Accounts of Challenges Encountered and Strategies for Coping, pp. 2 of 10

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

Teacher

(pseudonyms)

Gender

Age

Subject combination

Years of teaching experience

James (T1)

M

30

SS/Mathematics

4

Daliah (T2)

F

26

SS/History

3

Beatrice (T3)

F

28

SS/English

3

Keith (T4)

M

29

SS/History

2

Cherie (T5)

F

29

SS/English

3

Kali (T6)

F

55

SS/History

30

Laura (T7)

F

Undeclared

History/SS

10

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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