UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Students' understanding of historical significance - a Singapore case study Foo, Delia Wen Xian


Although the disciplinary approach to teaching history has been around since the 1980s, it is still relatively new in Singapore. Attempts to incorporate parts of it in the history syllabuses implemented in 2000 and 2007 were met with limited success. Yet, the desire to move away from didactic methods to more disciplinary and inquiry-based methods remained strong. This study argues that the disciplinary approach to teaching history is integral for helping students manage the complexities of contemporary life. It focuses on one of the concepts within in this approach – significance. I argue that by investigating the sort of ideas students harbor regarding significance, history educators in Singapore would be better positioned to design curriculum and pedagogical experiences that can overcome the obstacles encountered in teaching history. I achieve these objectives by embarking on a small-scale quantitative study with 50 students from 3 schools that reflect students from different ends of the ability spectrum. Data were gathered through student participation in a survey questionnaire and a small group interview that were designed to answer the following research questions: “What criteria do students use when they ascribe significance to phenomena in history?” “Do they see significance as fixed or variable?” Student responses were analyzed using Lis Cercadillo’s (2000) typology for significance as a coding paradigm within a grounded theory approach. The findings suggest that most participants did not have problems employing different criteria to ascribe significance to events in the past; and that the majority of the students seemed to see significance as variable. However, students tended to justify their responses in a cursory manner, displaying their shallow understanding of significance. While this may not be surprising, the value of this study lies in its attempt to make explicit the extent of complexity in students’ ideas of significance in order to help history educators improve the way students are taught. In drawing connections between the findings and the issues it raises, I argue that the socio-political context plays a primary role in influencing students’ capacity to think historically; and I proceed to discuss the implications for history educators in Singapore.

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