Experienced educationists are at a loss on how to get students interested in history.
Moreover, teachers say, it's simply too idealistic to use history to inculcate patriotism among students, as upheld in the objectives of the National Education Policy and the new integrated curriculum for secondary school (KBSM).
Lee Sin Lian, 52, of Kuala Terengganu, who has taught history since 1989 at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Teluk Kerang Pontian, thinks the school history syllabus is just too wide, with too many topics to cover.
Teachers and students skim through the subject, rather than take time to examine, discuss and understand history.
They have just 120 minutes a week to cover the vast span from prehistoric civilisation to modern Malaysia within the two years of Forms Four and Five, before their SPM.
"The subject should be taught in a student-centred way, where teachers facilitate discussions on the topics," says Lee. "But due to the constraints, we rely heavily on giving lectures and notes."
More than most subjects, history demands proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia, with the ability to analyse, associate and conclude an argument.
However, since history became compulsory with the inception of KBSM in 1993, all third formers, regardless of how they did in lower secondary, advance to Form Four. As a result, many lack the aptitude, or even the ability, for the subject.
"The hard truth is that history has to be taught to students who are uninterested, illiterate, and some can't even string a sentence in Bahasa," Lee says.
"Teachers are forced to break away from the required teaching method, including using vernacular language to explain history to the students."
With smarter students, says retired headmistress Mary George, the problem is that their motivation is to simply score straight As.
George, who taught history for 32 years, says SPM history questions are restrictive and do not allow students to explore the subject.
The SPM history paper is divided into two parts. The first has 40 multiple choice questions, while the second has four structured questions and three short essay questions.
"The students struggle to memorise the nitty-gritty facts but do not understand the topic," George says. "In the end although they score A for history, they are unable to grasp the whole idea of learning history."
The marking scheme reinforces this, she says. "For the structured questions in Paper 2, the students must give specific terms and answer. If they do not memorise these facts they won't be able to answer the question."
The previous curriculum had only five essay questions, which allowed the students to elaborate on the topic in their own words, on historical fact. "Marks were given on how they use facts to put forward an idea or argument."
When the Education Ministry revamped the old curriculum, George, a former principal of Convent Johor Baru, was one of the teachers involved with drafting the suggestions.
"The old curriculum was much more manageable for the teachers to teach and for the students to understand, but when the new curriculum was implemented, I was shocked to see that it was more difficult than the previous curriculum."
As stated in the history syllabus in 2000, the objective of teaching history is to cultivate and reinforce patriotism among Malaysians, fostering unity through understanding and appreciation of the country's past.
"But this only looks good on paper," says Lee, a UKM graduate in Malay Literature. "Realistically, these objectives are near impossible to achieve."
New Straits Times, April 18, 2009