To be an informed, concerned and participative citizen, one has to be inquisitive about the environment. In an increasingly complex world faced with challenging global issues, the role of an educator today has become even more important in helping young people constantly develop curious minds to better understand what is happening around them, and take positive actions that can make a difference to others and their environment. For one NIE lecturer, this can be done through inquiry-based learning that takes place beyond the classroom.
Citizens need to be curious. This is something Lecturer Dr Sim Hwee Hwang from the Humanities and Social Studies Education (HSSE) Academic Group at NIE strongly believes in. “Being curious about the things around you is important to understand the people and the world we live in,” she says. “Having a curious mind is the first step towards being an informed, concerned and participative citizen.”
In the inquiry-based learning coursework she teaches at NIE, Hwee Hwang focuses on equipping her student teachers with the essential knowledge, skills and disposition necessary in primary social studies teaching to pique young learners’ curious minds.
“During the coursework, student teachers will learn that inquiry-based learning involves asking pertinent questions, seeking information through various means, analysing and interpreting the information, and drawing conclusions based on the findings which can contribute towards informed decision-making and predictions and socially responsible actions,” Hwee Hwang explains.
To ensure authentic and experiential learning for children, Hwee Hwang guides her student teachers, as part of the coursework, to create fieldwork packages that can promote the spirit of inquiry outside the classroom and also cultivate a sense of citizenship in students.
“Having a curious mind is the first step towards being an informed, concerned and participative citizen.”
– Sim Hwee Hwang, Lecturer, Humanities and Social Studies Education (HSSE) Academic Group at NIE
Inquiry Beyond the Classroom
“First-hand field experiences can enrich students’ learning as they help them make the connection between what they have personally experienced and what they have learnt in the textbook,” explains Hwee Hwang.
To her, nothing beats going to a place and experiencing and understanding it with one’s five senses. This includes interacting with the people in the environment, finding out who they are, what are their views, and how the interactions between the people and the environment have impacted one another.
The fieldwork packages produced by her student teachers are typically framed around overarching key questions that provide the learning foci. They also designed relevant on-site activities to help students answer the more specific guiding questions derived from the key questions.
Students learn actively, searching the answers for themselves through their interaction with the site. The fieldwork allows them to apply a range of skills such as observation, map-reading and interviewing. Through answering the inquiry questions, students’ conceptual understanding for the fieldwork experience is deepened.
“First-hand field experiences can enrich students’ learning as they help them make the connection between what they have personally experienced and what they have learnt in the textbook.”
– Hwee Hwang on how field trips can be a relatable experience for students
One such inquiry-based fieldwork package created by her student teachers is based on the ENVision Gallery. It is designed around one key question: How do people’s actions affect the environment?
“What makes such inquiry-based fieldwork different from the ‘Cook’s tour’ type of fieldtrip is that it is question-driven to arouse learners’ curiosity,” Hwee Hwang explains. “The key and guiding questions are coherently linked with the aim of deepening students’ conceptual understanding through the on-site activities.”
In the case of the ENVision Gallery fieldwork package, the big idea is for students to understand that human actions can have consequences on the environment. They learn that these consequences can be both positive and/or negative.
“Reflection is built into the fieldwork activities to encourage students to appreciate what they have learnt and to reflect on the roles that they can play as citizens in environmental care and conservation,” she adds.
Generally, the inquiry-based fieldwork packages her student teachers designed are catogorized under the theme of “people and environment” – such as the one based on the ENVision Gallery – and “culture and identity” like the package based on the Peranakan Museum.
These instructional packages are valuable resources that student teachers can utilize in their teaching in future. To further support both beginning and experienced teachers, Hwee Hwang has collated a resource bank of outstanding inquiry-based fieldwork packages produced by her student teachers and these have been made available online at: https://www.hsse.nie.edu.sg/SHH_IBF_2017/doc-template/IBFPart1.html
Looking Beyond the Challenges
Hwee Hwang acknowledges that the incorporation of inquiry-based fieldwork into primary social studies teaching in schools comes with its own set of challenges. Meeting the curriculum goals, designing the fieldwork instructional packages, conducting the fieldwork and managing students outside the classroom are some of the areas that teachers struggle with in their implementation.
However, with supportive leaders, collaboration with like-minded colleagues who understand and appreciate the value of such out-of-classroom learning experiences for students, and a proper mentoring system, the benefits of this approach outweigh their challenges.
“Although inquiry-based fieldwork is a lot of work, it is very worthwhile as citizenship education goals can be achieved,” says Hwee Hwang. “It is a pedagogy that should be implemented for meaningful and powerful learning for all students taking social studies.”
Adapting an inquiry-based approach not only makes for a more engaging and purposeful learning experience for students, it also cultivates a sea of curious young minds who are well on their way to be effective citizens of the nation.