Singapore’s social and economic progress post-independence can be attributed to one important factor – her citizens. We speak to the guest editor of this issue and Social Studies teacher educator Dr Kho Ee Moi on what makes a good citizen and the important role teachers play in preparing the young to become caring contributors to society.
Equipping our youths with the relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes to become active members of society is a crucial first step towards building a nation of effective contributors.
“In order to have a socially cohesive and economically prosperous country, we need to have people who can contribute effectively to society,” says Senior Lecturer Dr Kho Ee Moi from the Humanities and Social Studies Education Academic Group at the National Institute of Education. “To be an effective contributor, one must be informed, interested and concerned about public life.”
Citizenship in a Global World
The idea that an interest in public issues is necessary for one to become an effective citizen dates back to ancient Greece, where the term “idiocy” was coined to describe a person who failed to demonstrate social responsibility and awareness within his or her society. Derived from the Greek word idios, which means “one’s own”, “personal” or “self-centred”, the original meaning of the term “idiot” is not what it means to us today.
Although commonly used today to refer to an individual who is mentally deficient or lacks intelligence, “when the Greeks talked about the idiot, they were in fact thinking of it in terms of a citizen who was only concerned about his or her own selfish needs and selfish wants,” explains Ee Moi. “The idiot is somebody who is not interested in the public life and doesn’t care about what happens in the public sphere.”
In a world that holds much future uncertainty however, it is crucial to educate our young to take an active interest in public life and international affairs. As a global city, Singapore cannot afford to ignore global developments, be it international disputes or climate change.
“This is why citizenship education in Singapore is very important. Rather than just being concerned with their own needs, we need our students to be aware of what is going on around them,” says Ee Moi.
“To be an effective contributor, one must be informed, interested and concerned about public life.”
– Kho Ee Moi, Humanities & Social Studies Education Academic Group, NIE
Teaching against Idiocy
In his article Teaching Against Idiocy, Walter Parker discusses what it means to teach young people against idiocy and argues that schools are ideal sites for citizenship education.
According to Parker (2005), educating for citizenship is to inculcate in learners public virtues essential for the cultivation of democratic citizens. As a public space where diverse individuals gather, the school environment gives students the opportunity to learn to get along with and cooperate with others who may have different perspectives and values from themselves. The school is also likely a child’s “first real exposure to the public arena”, making it an ideal space to nurture social consciousness and values like tolerance, respect and dignity.
“As such, educators should recognize the important role they play in getting students to be aware of and concerned about the world around them,” says Ee Moi. For effective citizenship education to take place in the classroom, she advises educators to take a head, heart and hands approach.
Nurturing Head, Heart and Hands
To understand objectively, to care and to act effectively – these are essentially what head, heart and hands refer to in citizenship education.
The head is the basis of citizenship. Before one can understand the meaning or significance of a situation, one has to first be knowledgeable about the issue at hand. “The head refers to knowledge of key issues both within the society and in the global sphere that all students need to become informed citizens,” Ee Moi explains. With that awareness, students will be better able to understand and make reasoned, rational decisions.
The study of History, Geography and Social Studies in school equips students with this knowledge base. “They learn about Singapore history and local issues such as land scarcity as well as other global developments through these subjects,” says Ee Moi. Schools also strive to equip students with critical thinking and critical literacy skills to make sense of information and assess the reliability of different sources of information.
Heart in the Right Place
The heart concerns an individual’s attitude and values. Besides having head knowledge, a good citizen is one who is good at heart and concerned about what is happening around him or her. As Professor Marvin Berkowitz explains in the article “Fostering Character and Values”, “We need kids to not just tell us what the core values are, but also to really care about them. Teaching to the heart is very different than teaching to the head” (SingTeach, 2014).
With an understanding of issues grounded by strong core values, students will be better prepared to contribute responsibly to society.
It’s in Our Hands
With a social conscience and the ability to think critically, the next step is preparing students for active citizenship. “We need to have participative citizens in society,” says Ee Moi. Schools should encourage students to take a stand on issues and act to address them as participation will give them a voice in issues and a stake in society.
“Rather than just being concerned with their own needs, we need our students to be aware of what is going on around them.”
– Ee Moi on preparing students to become caring and engaged citizens
Teachers as Role Models
To help students acquire the skills and attributes to become socially responsible citizens who care about and seek to improve their communities, Ee Moi believes that teachers themselves have to first take an active interest in social issues and contribute to society.
“Teachers play a pivotal role in influencing their students’ attitudes and beliefs,” she says. “Their words and actions have a great impact on students, especially primary school students.”
Even though students tend to view subjects like Social Studies and Civics and Moral Education as unimportant because they are often non-examinable, teachers must realize the importance of these subjects in building character. “Not examinable doesn’t mean it is not important,” says Ee Moi. This makes the role of teachers all the more vital – they must work towards changing students’ mindsets by making Social Studies lessons meaningful and impactful.
In school, the humanities subjects offer avenues for students to explore and reflect on citizenship issues and are paramount in creating informed, caring and active members of society. “I hope that by sharing good practices, teachers will understand how to engage students in a more meaningful way to communicate key values, concepts and understandings,” says Ee Moi.
Parker, W. (2005). Teaching against idiocy. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(5), 344–351.
SingTeach. (2014, July). Fostering character and values (Issue 49). Retrieved from https://singteach.nie.edu.sgissue49-people02/