Teaching shared histories for mutual understanding and peace in South-East Asia

Teaching shared histories for mutual understanding and peace in South-East Asia

Six years have passed since Dr. Gwang-Jo Kim wrote the article “Getting on the Same Page: Towards Shared Histories in South-East Asia” for SangSeang Winter 2013 issue. Although Dr. Kim has sadly passed on, his vision of the ways shared histories can be taught in South-East Asian schools for mutual understanding continues to flourish. The project “Promoting Intercultural Dialogue and a Culture of Peace in South-East Asia through Shared Histories”, supported by the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Education, is on its home stretch, and many of the ideas put forward since its early days have been concretized at the regional and national levels.

Four units:

People and Places: This unit examines how environment influences living experiences and worldviews and foregrounds historical contexts and South-East Asian pluralism.

Early Centres of Power: This unit examines historical formations of early polities, and their cultural and political contexts.

Rice and Spice: This unit examines the economic, social, cultural, and political importance of rice and spices over time.

Envisioning South-East Asia: This unit explores sub-regional, as well as global, interactions in contemporary times, and their historical formations.

Four themes covering the topics that are common across South-East Asian countries have been selected. A team of historians and educators from this sub-region has been engaged for research and materials development. Guided by a Technical Advisor Committee, the writers’ team elaborated 26 lesson plans, which have been structured in a “menu” format allowing users to select those suitable to their needs and context.  

The pilot phase

From 2015 to 2017, the draft materials were translated, adapted to the national context and tested in seven countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam. In total, 22 secondary schools from seven countries participated in the pilot, involving over 100 principals and teachers and 4,000 students. Some lesson plans were also used for subjects other than history, such as geography, literature, global citizenship and even languages.

The overall response to the teaching materials from teachers was very positive. Most teachers found the lessons engaging, and they helped strengthened students’ knowledge, attitude and understanding about the history of South-East Asia, its people and places. The teaching materials’ focus on social and cultural topics encouraged teachers and students to think beyond the political aspects usually addressed in textbooks, and to pay more attention to close relationships among the peoples of South-East Asia in the past.

The positive feedback applies not only to the content of the materials, but also to the active teaching pedagogy that is not currently in use in some of the pilot countries. The methodology has encouraged teachers to work differently, which has made many of them feel newly motivated and creative in their teaching work. While the lesson plans are quite demanding, at the same time they have encouraged both students and teachers to be more resourceful and open-minded.

The positive actions taken by the pilot countries also serve as a strong testament to the relevance and quality of the teaching materials developed. In July 2018, Cambodia’s new national history curriculum was released, integrating most of the lessons from the Shared Histories of South-East Asia materials. In Thailand and Viet Nam, training has been organized at a much larger scale than the pilot schools, giving very wide numbers of teachers access to the materials. Brunei has committed to providing further training to all 32 schools in the country, and Indonesia is considering the integration of the materials into their new curriculum in the next round of revision.

As all the pilots have successfully concluded, UNESCO is currently going through the finalization of the training materials. Team leaders originally involved in the development of the units have been brought back to work with history teachers to review and address comments received from the pilot teams. Some of the content has been revamped to convey the concept of “sharedness” more clearly and tangibly. In parallel, in collaboration with history teachers, UNESCO is drafting a Guide for Educators to address the need for further guidance, as expressed by teachers from pilot countries. This publication provides in detail the principles of the teaching materials and the concept of shared histories, as well as tools to assist teachers and other users with the use and customization of the materials.

Disseminating the “shared histories” concept

Aside from targeting formal education, the Shared Histories materials have proven to be adaptable for initiatives outside schools. UNESCO has begun to test some ideas to see how the concept of “shared histories” can be brought to a wider audience. Ranging from mobile applications to arts exhibitions, children’s books to museum education programs, the initial results have been positive.

Four volumes of children’s books (with the themes of rice, spices, people and lands, and people and water) are being developed in partnership with Sarakadee Publishing in Thailand. Targeting children between 6 and 10 years of age, the book series will be launched at the end of 2019, delivering the key messages developed in the Shared Histories teaching materials, together with attractive illustrations.

A series of museum education programs is also being developed, under a partnership between Chulalongkorn University, Museum Minds and the Museum Association of Thailand. Using collections of local Bangkok museums, museum professionals have designed activities that illustrate the “shared histories” concept, targeting students from schools in the neighborhoods. For most museum staff and school teachers, this is the first time they have engaged in such an initiative which potentially benefits students with quality knowledge and hands-on experiences.

Going beyond the scholarly work of book publishing and museum education programs, the “shared histories” concept has also been disseminated through innovative channels such as mobile applications and games, and artistic exhibitions. Three apps developed by Thai university and high school students are available for download on app stores. A workshop inspired by lessons in the Rice and Spices unit has been curated by an Indonesian and a Korean artist at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. The materials have also been made available for use both inside and outside of classrooms.

One of the challenges pointed out by teachers during the pilot phase is that the “shared histories” concept can be quite complex and difficult to grasp, especially in contexts where history is taught largely from a nationalistic point of view. However, comments from all those involved in the project since its inception phase over the past six years indicate that UNESCO has made significant advances on a challenging but rewarding route. The teaching materials are succeeding in both cultivating a sense of regional identity and emphasizing the region’s cultural diversity, while the project’s pedagogy is cultivating among students historical inquiry skills and historical empathy.

Although the project finishes at the end of 2019, more work will need to be done for the concept of “shared histories” to truly become a part of South-East Asian mindsets. The content of the teaching materials must be further promoted to contribute to a better appreciation of relationships among the region’s peoples over time, leading to a clear and common vision of a shared future. Once the “shared histories” concept of South-East Asia as a region whose peoples share history and culture has been integrated into the popular consciousness and everyday thinking, we can begin to hope for historical and ongoing tensions to truly be reconciled.

By Duong Bich Hanh, Chief of the Culture Unit at UNESCO Bangkok

* This article was originally published in the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU)'s Serial SangSaeng