History from Below in Singapore’s Secondary Schools: Student-led Research and Outreach

Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)

Mia shares her experience of developing a project that fosters undergraduate student-initiated research and leadership, including the learning gains and challenges encountered.

Image courtesy of Zen Chung from Pexels

Taking our inspiration from Raphael Samuel’s Oxford History Workshop Movement (History Workshop, 2012) as well as the German Barfußhistorikerbewegung (Barefoot Historians’ Movement; “Ein kräftiger Schub für die Vergangenheit”, 1983), Dr. Sharon Low (NUS), Dr. Ho Chi Tim (SUSS), and I set our undergraduate students on a journey to flex their creative and analytical skills as well as to demonstrate the productive collaboration of amateurs and non-experts when it comes to expanding historical knowledge and understanding. We designed a project based on undergraduate student-initiated research, student leadership, peer mentorship, and collaboration. Our partners included officers from the History Unit of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division, Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore, as well as local secondary schools and teachers. What started as a modest ambition to support student projects became a research mentorship workshop that has realised two primary objectives: supporting student leadership and research work, and building public engagement and collaboration.

The Nuts and Bolts of the Project

Starting in 2017-18, an array of governmental, non-profit, and educational institutions based in Singapore began preparations to commemorate the British landing in 1819 on the island (Yuen, 2017). Inspired by this activity, we asked, “Why 1819?” In other words, what was being commemorated and why? We wanted to consider the various stakeholders that made 1819 a significant date in Singapore’s history, which not only meant looking at British policy and strategic planning, but also the contributions of local inhabitants, including diaspora and migrant communities from Southeast Asia, India, and China. Beyond content-driven concerns, we hoped to foster a collaborative, bottom-up approach that included voices and issues not typically found in the public school curriculum. At the same time, teachers from the MOE’s History Unit of the Curriculum Planning and Development Division were creating opportunities to diversify offerings and provide more hands-on research experience for secondary school students. We ran our first session together in 2017-18, and the second session in 2018-19.

We divided the project into three research areas: “Settlement”, “Resources”, and “Defense & Revenue”. The undergraduate students wrote two exploratory essays based on their research, which became the basis for a 40-minute lecture presentation and half a dozen hands-on activity stations. At the same time, these students mentored junior college and secondary school students by introducing them to the following skills: identifying archives, using catalogues, and reading sources. Finally, they worked together to run a half-day workshop for approximately 60 Secondary One students.

Figure 1. Our undergraduate students in action, conducting workshops for secondary school students.
Figure 2. Our undergraduate students in action, conducting hands-on learning activities with secondary school students.

Our Reflections

This project stemmed from an intuitive understanding of problem-based learning—what pedagogy scholars Charles Bonwell and James Eisner term “active learning” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Eisner, 1991)—alongside a commitment to history from below. Active learning prioritises student initiative and self-reflection. Through our collaborative platform, we captured this spirit by supporting students in their application of skills, their critical assessment of approaches and methods, and their sustained engagement with non-academic audiences. The ability to bring together different perspectives to create a compelling and coherent whole required perseverance as well as vision and creativity.

We also embraced disappointment as part of the learning process. Since the starting point for this project was to support creativity and self-expression, the process of developing ideas was just as important as the final product. We discovered that some activities were unwieldy for a half-day workshop, or some arguments too obscure for teenagers. The mix of “success” and “failure” was a valuable part of the learning process, which allowed students the opportunity to reflect on what “worked” and what did not.

Through the workshop, students witnessed how their research and analysis had the capacity to overturn long-held views on national identity and worldview. Furthermore, they saw the appeal of collaborative history in its ability to engage participants, encourage participation, and develop a narrative of the past that matters to us. We are now in our third phase of this project, which will be a podcast series.

Mia LEE is a historian of Modern Europe at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. Her book Utopia and Dissent in West Germany: The Resurgence of the Politics of the Everyday Life in the Long 1960s was published in 2019 as part of the Routledge Series in Modern European History.

Mia can be reached at mclee@suss.edu.sg.


Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, D.C.: Jossey-Bass.

Der Spiegel (1983, June 6). Ein kräftiger Schub für die Vergangenheit [Spiegel Report on the New History Movement in the Federal Republic]. https://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-14021414.html

Eisner, E. (1991). What the arts taught me about education. In D. Willis & W. Schubert (Eds.), Reflections from the heart of educational learning (pp. 34- 48). New York, NY: SYNY.

History Workshop (2012, November 22). History of History Workshop. History Workshop Online. https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/the-history-of-history-workshop/.

Yuen S. (2017, December 31). Plans to mark 200th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore in 2019: PM Lee. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/plans-to-mark-200th-anniversary-of-the-founding-of-modern-singapore-in-2019-pm-lee