Taming “Issue Investigation”: Singapore Secondary Social Studies Teachers’ Accounts of Challenges Encountered and Strategies for Coping, pp. 6 of 10

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)

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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