Taming “Issue Investigation”: Singapore Secondary Social Studies Teachers’ Accounts of Challenges Encountered and Strategies for Coping, pp. 5 of 10

 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]”.

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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