By Leow Si Wan & Amelia Tan
MORE secondary schools are combining history and geography into one subject called integrated humanities for their lower secondary students.
Over the past year, several schools like Gan Eng Seng, Hwa Chong Institution and Ping Yi Secondary have switched to teaching the subjects as one. And joining them is the newly opened School of Science and Technology (SST).
Their reasons: It is more meaningful to approach subjects in this manner and it prepares students for the compulsory O-level combined humanities paper - comprising social studies and a history, geography or literature elective - at the upper secondary level.
Said SST's principal, Mr Chua Chor Huat: 'Integrated humanities will allow students to gain knowledge in a multi-disciplinary manner. For example, they will see the historical context of a geographical event.'
The principal of Ping Yi, Madam Shanti Devi Thambusamy, added that the subject helps ease students into social studies at the upper levels. Her school introduced the subject to its Secondary 1 students last year.
With only two batches having gone through the entire programme, it is still early days to make an assessment but the overall pass rate of the O-level combined humanities paper at St Margaret's Secondary - which began offering integrated humanities to its lower secondary students in 2005 - has improved from about 97 per cent to 99 per cent.
The initiative did not affect the school's pass rates for pure history, geography and literature, which were maintained at 100 per cent.
Said the school's humanities coordinator, Mr Andrew Anthony: 'When we were teaching history and geography separately, we found that students learnt the subjects well, but couldn't see the link between disciplines and how they all have a role to play in the unfolding of an event.'
Mr Anthony and a team of five other teachers came up with the framework and teaching materials for integrated humanities in 2004. The subject was rolled out in Sec 1 the following year.
Now, Sec 1 students are taught history and geography as separate subjects for a term to ensure they are familiar with the fundamentals.
Thereafter, integration kicks in and students examine issues from historical and geographical perspectives.
For instance, in Sec 2, students tackle the topic of environmental vulnerability, which could result from the scarcity of resources such as water. The topic is brought home to them when they learn about the history of Singapore's own challenges in water supply, and the political and economic ramifications of the water agreements with Malaysia.
'In other words, students realise that there are many facets to one issue,' said Mr Anthony.
And students agree. St Margaret's Sec 2 student Michelle Chua said that besides the critical thinking skills the combined subject brings with it, it also makes for interesting learning.
She added: 'I think it is more interesting this way. When I learn about the formation of rivers, I will also learn about history - how rivers were used for survival, major floods and the subsequent formation of dams - so knowledge is more complete.'
Other than tests and examinations, students are assessed from worksheets, peer evaluation, literature reviews and show-and-tell sessions.
Teachers too had to learn how to combine the two fields.
Said St Margaret's Karen Choo, 28, who is geography-trained: 'I have to read up extensively to prepare for lessons.'
Geography and history teachers are also paired together to share knowledge. And then there is in-service training provided by the Ministry of Education as well as sharing sessions in schools or clusters to help teachers.
Mr Anthony said that integrated humanities has worked so well, the school has extended this approach to English as well, integrating literature with English at the lower secondary level.
'With integrated humanities, the quality of questions students ask and the answers they provide is of a higher order. At least in our school, the subject is here to stay,' he said.
But for some other principals such as Bendemeer Secondary's Mrs Wong Mee Mee, teaching geography and history separately at the lower secondary level has been adequate in preparing students for combined humanities.
Added Ngee Ann Secondary principal Adrian Lim: 'We have no plans to introduce integrated humanities at this point in time. Our teachers work very closely together and have sharing sessions in lesson planning so that they can make students aware of links between their subject and other subjects.
'In doing integrated subjects, we must also ensure there is rigour.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.