Enhancing Positive Peer Relationships through the Teaching of History in the Upper Secondary Classroom

Enhancing Positive Peer Relationships through the Teaching of History in the Upper Secondary Classroom

January 6, 2021

Positive Relationships is the third pillar of Martin Seligman’s theory of well-being, PERMA (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments). Researchers and psychologists define Social Connection as the psychological need of belonging to other people for a flourishing life. The Self-Determination Theory and Six-factor Theory also emphasize relatedness, connections, and relations. Today, we have a wealth of research that demonstrates the importance of social relationships. This article focuses on enhancing positive peer relationships in upper secondary students, in an effort to enhance interconnectedness within a class, and promote a collective learning style towards meeting this psychological need.


When I was in upper secondary school, there was a unique challenge to manage one of the most daunting subjects for most of us – History. Teachers too had a hard time getting the lessons through and have students score satisfactorily in the subject. And due to this trepidation, the actual application and understanding were compromised, unintentionally. In this paper, I will be suggesting interventions and evidence-based activities on how to enrich social connection experiences among students. These will also serve as a guide to derive a framework or model that can be implemented in a formal classroom setting in upper secondary schools for the teaching of History. This model will have a dual purpose – teachers can apply this model to augment interconnectedness and the well-being of the class, as well as use this as a means to enhance the richness of History as a subject. For the scope of this essay, I will be addressing the Singapore History teaching pedagogy outlined by the Ministry of Education.


The rationale behind putting History in the school curriculum is to build abilities of today’s students to be able to connect the past and present, and to make sense of events and be better leaders in the future (Stearns, 2000). However, it has been observed that this skill does not come easy, notwithstanding innovative content delivery mechanisms viz. multimedia, assignments, projects, quizzes, and the like (Husbands, Kitson, Pendry, 2003).

There have been several reforms in the pedagogy and approach in education at regular intervals, and Singapore has a framework for the development of 21st Century Competencies (Tan, Choo, Kang, Liem, 2017). The History syllabus for Upper Secondary provided by the Ministry of Education advocates the use of inquiry to understand perspectives, the role that key historical figures played and their impact on society at the time. This serves as an excellent first step to bring novelty to the subject (MOE, 2016).

Stage 1 to Stage 2

My recommendations begin from here on. Conducting a History lesson in the form of storytelling, followed by character analysis and a discussion of their roles provide substantial groundwork in stage 1 (Eades, 2005). To perform critical analysis (see Fig. 1), ask students to observe what went well in the decisions taken by the historical figures of importance and analyse positive outcomes at that time (Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009; White & Murray, 2016). This exercise will help students to observe the similarities between them and the people in history and bridge the generation gap to establish a sense of shared humanity. It also helps them to take an empathic view of the situation and develop a respectful mind (Gardner, 2009; Sapolsky, 2018).

Figure 1. Building on the Inquiry Process to do a Critical Analysis for moving onto Stage 2

If the topic under discussion pertains to human miseries, then teachers will have to intervene during the course of discussion proactively because some thoughts might lead to empathic distress among students (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). The chances are that the class might even start identifying themselves with a particular group of people and relate well with their actions resulting in a segregated view (Haidt, 2013). Teachers will need to remind students of the importance of observing the people as a collection of individuals and synthesise what they have learnt.  (Gardner, 2009).

Stage 2 to Stage 3

The journey from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is a multi-modal and concurrent one (see Fig. 2). Students will be asked to choose a topic of interest from the chapter under discussion and put up a skit in collaboration with their peers and come up with suggestions and reforms, thereby ushering them into leadership roles.

Figure 2. Multi-modal action path involving Empathy to Compassion, Arts in Education, The Jigsaw Classroom, Play & Social Connection, and Self-Determination Theory

To appreciate this journey thoroughly, we will need to study the portrayal of individual historical figures.  Students will need assistance from teachers to discern the underlying principles behind their actions and only with practice should students be left to drive the show on their own.

Empathy to Compassion

During the discussions at Stage 2, when students might feel empathic distress, teachers could help channel their emotions and gently shift their perspective to providing solutions that would have a better impact on the well-being of the people in the time. It will be an ascension of pro-social motivation and affirmative feelings (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). It has been found that conducting this step will assist in the successful scaffolding of the next steps (Ricard, 2016). Here are some ways to engage students in developing empathy and compassion for the victims and protagonists of history.

Arts in Education: Teachers are encouraged to help students in the creative enactment of the resolutions provided by students, e.g., drama or other forms of expressive arts. These innovative forms of learning have shown to be effective in providing students with the opportunity for self-exploration and expression (Gadsden 2008; Winner, Goldstein, & Vincent-Lancrin, 2013).

The Jigsaw Classroom: This enactment exercise encompasses sizeable efforts.  Therefore, we will need to break it down into smaller parts. To accomplish this goal, participating students will have to assume responsibility for their respective roles as an outcome of brainstorming and discuss these with each other. There is extensive opportunity here to exercise cooperation, collaboration and decision-making (Langer & Rodin, 1976; Ricard, 2016). Since the final performance is dependent on each participating student, this exercise provides a training ground for them to build trust among each other as opposed to the norm of self-interest where they submit an assignment, project, homework, and the like (Miller, 1999; Miller & Ratner, 2001; Ariely, 2013).

Play & Social Connection: The dynamics in this inventive and playful way of learning with peers has immense potential for students to consistently demonstrate and build upon diverse skill types through creativity, neural network connections and conflict resolution (Brown, 2010). Teachers will need to guide students into finding a resolution, helping them to practise learned optimism, picturing a successful outcome as an orchestration of events, of people, from distinctive backgrounds and interests, performing in a state of flow on a common platform, and tapping their unique abilities (Seligman, 1972; Csikszentmihalyi, 2009; Seligman, 2018).

Self-Determination Theory: As detailed in the concurrent paths above, with practice and guidance by teachers, students have the autonomy to perform and develop multiple competencies, and a chance to work on towards building a better future for themselves and society at large, the effect of which should result in inherent growth tendencies among students (Deci & Ryan, 1980, 2002).

The Outcome

Admittedly, the move from Stage 2 to Stage 3 is both challenging and fun. From a psychologist who studies grit, these sequences of activities are a unique way to develop intrinsic motivation (Duckworth, 2018) and enable students to find meaning in what they do in class. (Hicks & King, 2009; Fredrickson, 2011; Lopez & Snyder, 2011).

Further studies have shown that students will be able to build on repeated experiences to find a sense of purpose and realise that their actions matter, and that they have a collective responsibility for the events happening in school and sooner or later, to the world at large (Lund, Argentzell, Leufstadius, Tjornstrand, & Eklund, 2019; Costin & Vignoles, 2020).

Figure 3. Unique, hand-on experiences of existential mattering are shown to enhance belonging

Drawing Parallels

The quotes below reaffirm our motivation towards helping students draw parallels and achieve interconnectedness and meaning.

“Could education be one of the roots of the modern crisis, as it reproduces old and inefficient patterns of mass thinking and acting in our society? Or can it become part of the solution, a sphere wherein new practices and new values for a better and healthier world are cultivated and transferred?” – Global Education Futures (p. 14, Benefit Mindset School Guide, Buchanan, 2020)

“…a transformative approach to education would create the conditions for everyone to lead as part of engaged communities who are actively participating in the regeneration of their schools and their society. The more a school collectively transforms, the more they are able to take responsibility for their participation in the interdependent processes of life and become a co-evolutionary partner in life’s unfolding.” (p. 14, Benefit Mindset School Guide, Buchanan, 2020)

“…A way education communities can facilitate this is by participating in an innovation lab or a collective leadership program. Spaces where we can be a true global witness, transform how we see the world and our place in it, and actively respond.” (p. 15, Benefit Mindset School Guide, Buchanan, 2020)

As described in Fig. 4, through a creative approach to teaching history, our students, the everyday leaders come together and play the role of change agents. In the long run, they will be able to appreciate the potential of their role in the communities to which they belong and promote others’ well-being (Buchanan & Kern, 2017).

Figure 4. Belonging generated by daily leadership yields to benefit mindset – a representation of flourishing

Students who draw inspiration from their collective group, stay engaged in their pro-social activities, and reiterate their efforts at belonging, will eventually increase in terms of collective well-being. This is an automatic feedback loop system which can be mutually reinforcing (see Fig. 5 & Fig. 6).

Figure 5

Figure 6

Concluding thoughts

We understand that with every change comes its own set of challenges.  However, with careful planning, the removal of obstacles, the outcomes will be enhanced peer relationships, better collective well-being and the nurturing of future leaders who are reflective and empathetic and who care for the common good.


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