SINGAPORE - What does it mean to be a good citizen? What is the function of having more than one political party in a democratic country? What does the United Nations do?
These were some questions 15-year-olds here attempted in a National Institute of Education (NIE) study - the first such effort here - to find out what students know about concepts of civic society, such as citizenship, governance and rights.
The study, which involved some 3,000 students from 18 secondary schools, found that those from the coveted Integrated Programme (IP) schools understood civic issues better, compared to their peers from other secondary schools.
But overall, students here did not have a strong grasp of concepts of democracy and its principles. They were, however, familiar with issues such as how government institutions work and what global organisations do.
NIE associate professor Jasmine Sim, who led the study, said it is important to gauge students' understanding of civic issues because a more open society today leads to differences and conflicts that will not be resolved by "passive people".
Her study comes amid the Ministry of Education's efforts to strengthen character and citizenship education (CCE). The revamped CCE syllabus starts next year.
Students involved in the study were given questionnaires to answer, and separate interviews were conducted with 308 of them. Data was collected from 2009 to 2011, and Prof Sim is still in the midst of analysing more findings.
The main section of the questionnaire tested students on their civic knowledge. They were asked about things like international relations, social and political rights and democracy.
About 68 per cent of IP students got at least 16 out of 19 questions in this section right, compared to 30 per cent in the Express stream, and about 1.4 per cent and none in the Normal Academic and Technical streams respectively.
Prof Sim, who holds a PhD in curriculum and social studies from the University of Sydney, attributed the results to the "richer" and "more flexible" six-year IP. For instance, students do not have to take social studies at the O levels, and they have time to work on social advocacy projects.
"Teachers expose them to topics beyond the textbooks, and have more time to discuss," said Prof Sim, 45.
In contrast, students in most other schools have less than two years to prepare for the social studies exam, and teachers tend to "drill exam skills" into their students.
But there is room for improvement, even for IP students.
For instance, most students - regardless of the school they were from - were "hazy" about the concept of democracy and its principles, she said, "because it is not dealt with in detail in our syllabus".
Their understanding of citizenship also tended to be limited. Most thought of it as engaging in "responsible behaviours" like respecting government leaders and volunteering. But "citizenship is much more than volunteer work... it is about exercising rights and being compelled to speak up responsibly when something is unfair", she said.
She proposed that schools create "open" spaces like student forums to discuss and debate controversial issues.
"In a sense, that's what education is about - to be concerned citizens who live meaningful lives and contribute effectively to society."
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