Education Insight| Develop Independent Thinking in History Study

Growing up in an age of information, pupils nowadays obtain an array of information through various channels. Instead of passively accepting information, pupils at Huili are encouraged to find supporting evidence before making a judgment and forming their own opinions, and finally become independent thinkers.

During Chinese history lessons, pupils are inspired to think through answering a variety of questions. They will learn how to collect data and choose meaningful evidence to summarise an opinion of their own. By analysing the cause of past events and how it took place, pupils will understand the logic behind individual and mass behaviour, different thinking modes, as well as social operation and development routes. Let us find out how we achieve this in class and foster pupils into independent thinkers with their individual opinions through analysis and influential argument.

Historical records and relics

Historical records are presented to pupils in history classes as an inspiration to draw their own opinions. They are also encouraged to search for other proof to support their argument.
For instance, when learning the functions of bronze ware, pupils used photographs and videos to observe several cultural relics from different stages of the Neolithic period, such as ceramic bowls from Yangshao Culture, eggshell-thick ceramic cups from Longshan Culture, and Gong, a piece of bronze ware from Shang and Zhou dynasties. 
By comparing and contrasting the shapes and property of these treasures, it was found that they were becoming finer and more sophisticated with time, but less pragmatical. Next, pupils learned from reading that it requires a high temperature of at least 600°C to make a piece of pottery and 1,000°C to make bronze ware. Special fuels were needed for producing them and the way to extract raw materials was also demanding. So, I raised a question to my pupils, why would people then put that much effort and large amount of substantial materials into making these fabulous yet impractical objects? Did they serve other purposes at that time?

Pupils made suggestions that they might have been used for religious routines rather than for daily use, or be used as a symbol of power and social status. Pupils are also required to read books, watch documentaries and search on the internet to source data to support their ideas. During this process, pupils learned to analyse historical records, propose a hypothesis, and then collect data as supporting evidence before coming to an informed conclusion.

In choosing historical materials, I tend to showcase different types of objects and records that underpin different opinions, so that our pupils are supported to build a comprehensive and impartial opinion.

Creating a context

To help pupils further their understanding on historical backgrounds and abstract social mechanisms, I will create a context and engage pupils in role-playing during classroom activities, raise thought-provoking questions, and inspire them to look into the cause and effect of historical events, rather than simply presenting the facts to them.
For example, when learning about Shangyang and his reform, pupils are inspired to examine its cause, rather than robotically memorise all the reform measures he implemented. Learning something that happened over 2,000 years ago poses its challenges, so I put one of the measures into a specific context and asked pupils to assume the role of a character at that age to study and comprehend the abstract policy.
When pupils were learning why Shangyang proposed to abolish the well-field system and acknowledge land property rights, I presented how the system worked by drawing a well-field on whiteboard and distributing the eight outer sections to eight pupils in my class. I asked them to put themselves in the farmers’ shoes, imagine how they would feel differently when cultivating private and public sections, and what consequences would be caused by this.

The well-field system was a Chinese land redistribution method, where a square area of land was divided into nine sections, among which the eight outer sections were privately cultivated by serfs and the centre section was communally cultivated on behalf of the landowning aristocrat.

Then I asked a question from another perspective: if you were the aristocrats, what would you do to motivate your farmers and increase agricultural yields without harming government income? Pupils put forward several measures and discussed their pros and cons, and potential improvements to achieve the goal.

Understanding an abstract institutional or economic issue is challenging for pupils, but by creating a scenario, pupils will find it easier to understand the concept itself and how it relates to daily life. Their confidence grows while solving problems with their own life experiences and independent thinking skills.

Summarising patterns and rules

In teaching, we observe the historical evolvement of a topic to summarise a social development pattern or laws of human nature, so we may learn from them to understand the society better and build a global perspective.
When learning about printing technology in the Song dynasty, pupils were inspired to think about whether technological advances promote or undermine social equality and find proof from history to back up their argument.
When teaching about mid-Ming dynasty and late-Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty, I encourage pupils to explore what challenges or opportunities China have encountered in its interactions with other civilizations at the advent of globalization, what efforts and explorations it made in history, and what might be a more suitable solution from the perspective of modern society.I would like to help pupils to see beyond specific historical events and take a deeper view while studying human society. History may not necessarily predict the future or save us from repeating previous mistakes but drawing from past experiences does grant us a deeper understanding of human nature and social patterns.When our pupils grow up, they may not remember many specific incidents in history, or they may feel that history never left any practical impact on them. However, the joy of exchanging ideas with their classmates will remain as a valuable life experience, and the ability to think independently fostered in class, a lifelong asset.