Thursday, August 28, 2008

One parent's experience with the Gifted Education Programme

My daughter, Lesley-Anne, now in P5, is in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP). When she first got the news 2 years ago, I was truly surprised and had some misgivings. She had generally done well in school, but I had always attributed it to her being conscientious and hardworking. The GEP doesn't have a great rep and like many other parents, I had heard horror stories about how the kids turn out to be elitist brats, how some kids can't cope with the syllabus and become overly stressed, etc.

So my husband and I tried to find out more (we weren't given a lot of time, basically about a week to decide). The MOE talk was very enlightening. It gave a lot of info on what the programme tries to achieve and why it was necessary to create a different type of education for this group of children. We thought it sounded quite promising, but we left the decision to Lesley-Anne, and told her we would support her whatever she decided. She decided to give it a try. And we knew that if it really became too much to take, she could always opt out of the programme and return to the mainstream curriculum. There wasn't too much upheaval as her school offered the GEP anyway.

So two years on, what are my thoughts? I would say unequivocally, it was the best thing that could have happened to Lesley-Anne in terms of education. Before GEP, she was a painfully shy, introverted child afraid of taking a wrong step. In P3, she was in the top class in the school, but she was miserable because it focused on drills and exercises, all designed to sharpen the exam skills. She was never remotely near the top of the class, in fact in one exam, she came in 4th from the bottom.

Today, she enjoys school because the work is focused on exploring concepts beyond the normal curriculum. For example, they examine patterns in maths, the historial evolution of maths in different empires. Projects feature greatly, instead of say, just going through grammatical skills, they have to do analyses of different genre types and even try to write them. For instance, this term, Lesley-Anne had to write a detective story after reading mystery books and discovering the unique aspects of this genre. The emphasis is on discovery, not on exams, which explains why GEP kids don't always have the top scores in the PSLE. She has also opened up considerably because the programme encourages expression. Although she's still an introvert, she's much more confident and is better able to express her thoughts.

Oftentimes, I feel the views on GEP are very blinked. Parents who have all their kids in the programme tend to laud it, parents without tend to slam it. Many views are given with very little knowledge or just anecdotal evidence which supports what they want to believe. I have one child in the programme and another whose chances of getting in are as good as winning the $3.2 million lottery. So I do feel I have at least some objectivity in this. I don't believe one programme is superior to the other, it should be, let me stress this, according to the needs and abilities of the child.

So here's my take on the GEP:

1) It is not a programme just to make smart kids smarter. The GEP is a programme which caters to the learning needs of the intellectually gifted child. It is like a sports regime tailored to suit a kid talented in sports. Or an arts programme for artistically inclined kids. The ambiguity arises because "intellectually gifted" tends to be associated with "smart" so people commonly mistake it as a special, intensive booster programme. Ironically, the same people who tend to call the programme elitist are the same ones who will turn around and criticise it when the kids don't top the PSLEs to say it has failed. It hasn't. It simply isn't the goal of the GEP. If you want your kid in the programme because you think it's an enhanced tuition programme for 4 A*s, then think again.

2) It is not for everyone. The majority of gifted kids do enjoy the programme, mainly because it is specially designed for them. But the caveat is that the kid needs to be truly gifted. While I think the sorting tests are quite reliable, I do believe it does occasionally slips in a few kids who are "smart" but not gifted. Because it has been shown that you can improve your scores slightly if you do a lot of these types of tests (not much but maybe enough to squeak by). If the child is not really gifted, the programme can be a nightmare simply because the concepts it teaches can be completely beyond the child's ability to assimilate. Again, this sort of ability is mostly inborn, it can't be taught. It took me a while to be convinced that Lesley-Anne was not just "smart" but gifted. I will elaborate on the differences of the two concepts in another post.

3) The programme will not determine how your child will turn out. The GEP has been blamed for churning out elitist snobs. My take on it is, it's a combination of factors. If you keep telling your child how wonderful she is because she's in the programme, treat her like a special jewel better than other kids and wait on her hand and foot, of course she's going to be a brat! Don't need to be a psychic to know that. Under the GEP, the students have to do a service learning project every year. Lesley-Anne has given tuition to P2 kids (with worksheets that she prepared), and prepare math lessons in a group to teach other classes. Studies have shown that upon adulthood, a higher percentage of ex GEP kids continue serving the community as compared to their mainstream counterparts.

What I like about Lesley-Anne's school is that although it has a great academic reputation, it's still a neighbourhood school in the heartlands. No hordes of merces or beamers, many kids cycle or walk to school. (This is not a judgement against other schools, this is just my personal observation and preference). I have met parents of GEP kids who are simply obnoxious - they adopt an attitude of entitlement and behave like everyone else is beneath them. With parents like that, it's not hard to see why some children turn out the way they do.

I just want to stress again that as parents, it's important to do the usual check as with any other child - check out the friends they hang out with, the type of activities they do and so on. Keep them grounded.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

Some questions that I have been wanting to ask:-

Is there evidence to suggest that it is 'cost-effective' (ahhhh... 'government-speak'..) to support a GEP program? In other words, does the country reap the socioeconomic returns that would justify investing in a GEP program?

[My assumptions are that (i)GEP-education is a greater investment for the country than non-GEP-education & (ii) that countries decide to have publicly-funded GEP-type programs because they reap public benefits and would not do it just to cater to personal enrichment or happiness of a very small segment (1%?) of the society. ]

If GEP is there to cater to the needs of this select group of kids, does the non-GEP stream cater as well to the needs of the other kids?

In other words, do you expect a non-GEP kid's parent to respond that their kid's non-GEP education is, in your words, "unequivocally", the "best thing that could have happened to" their kid "in terms of education"?

I agree that in the ideal world, each kid should have the kind of educational approach that is the best fit for them. In your experience, GEP-type education fits gifted kids very well. So does the non-GEP education in Sgp fit the non-gifted kids as well? Do non-GEP kids enjoy their education as much as GEP kids seem to enjoy theirs?

Do you think that non-GEP education should go the way of GEP education--i.e. less grilling in exam-taking and no ranking etc? What aspects of GEP do you think can & should be adopted by non-GEP education?

From what you've described so far, GEP simply seems way-ahead in terms of educational psychology & effectiveness. Perhaps its methodology can & should be adopted by non-GEP stream albeit lesser in content & challenge perhaps.

Can it be that a different team of people run the GEP program and have enough say in it to veto some of the ills of the non-GEP system?


monlim said...

Ahh, the intellectual questions are here! I'm not expert, I'm also not in government, but I'll try and answer this from what I think (ie only my opinion):

1) I don't know how you would determine whether an education is 'cost-effective' but the govt has made no secret abt wanting to develop a talent pool since pple are such a scarce (and most valuable) here, so the GEP is their way of identifying and grooming talent early. They are probably hoping that this segment will become the future leaders (not necessarily just in politics though).

2) No, I would not expect every non-GEP kid's parent to say that their kid's education is the "best thing that could have happened to them" just because of probability. A system that caters to 90% of the population will not be able to meet every single child's unique educational needs. Ideally, there are niche programmes for every type of child, but even if resources were available (which they're not), how would you do this? It's easy to segment the GEP kids cos it's based on giftedness, which can be determined based on a test. But how would you segment the rest of the 99%? They tried doing special programmes for the lower ability kids eg LSP, EM3 but those came under a lot of fire because of the stigma. Within the rest of the 95% cohort, it's not practical to segment according to learning ability - there are just so many variations. I think what they try to do in some schools now is, in the better mainstream classes, they have "pseudo-GEP" type lessons like projects, etc without going the whole hog. Kids with special ability in subjects eg. maths are trained up for Maths Olympiads and special competitions (although there may not be special curriculum for them). There is also some effort made for special abilities, eg. Sports School for sporting talents and upcoming Arts School for the artistically inclined.

My son is an example of one who doesn't thrive in the school system, but if you were to ask me, I would be hard pressed to say what sort of education would suit him. I don't know! Something a little creative, a little challenging, but still able to ground the basics, with less pressure... vague enough? Imagine if I as a parent can't say what's good for him, how the MOE would.

I'm not an MOE mouthpiece - I think they have been slow in developing alternative educational paths and they have made lots of gaffs (ranking, for eg). I think the problem with mainstream education is its competitiveness, because you have 95% of students fighting to get into the top schools, university, etc. The GEP can afford not to have rankings and grillings because they have already been identified, eg. their records show them up favourably at DSA. With that aside, they can focus on the real educational aspects. Whereas with the mainstream, I think even if the powers that be determine that education shd be less competitive, no rankings, etc, the realities of limited places in premium schools, etc will create a natural kia-su spirit among parents and kids. Parents pressurise schools, schools pressurise teachers, teachers pressurise kids. It's a vicious cycle.

The day we can say, everyone who wants a place in a Singapore Uni can have one, the competition will stop.

Anonymous said...

“”…the govt has made no secret abt wanting to develop a talent pool since pple are such a scarce (and most valuable) here, so the GEP is their way of identifying and grooming talent early. They are probably hoping that this segment will become the future leaders (not necessarily just in politics though). …””

Ah yes, now that you’ve mentioned it, but of course… I suppose this can be a good program for grooming a group of deep-thinking, far-sighted & big-hearted individuals who can help bring the country to a higher level. Unfortunately, somehow many Sgp-reans always like to throw stones at the ‘scholars’ up there in gahmen making all kinds of mistakes in the marketplace, some at huge cost to the national coffers. [silent readers out there don’t sue me for libel ok… I’m just reporting what other people say, ok…] Any grounds for this kind of sentiment? And are gahmen scholars mostly GEP products? [Not branding all ‘scholar’s with the same brush, ok? Touché..  My brother was a top echelon gahmen scholar himself, but then he’s making a career in what he’s really good at, which is academia, so he’s in the right place. ]

“”… A system that caters to 90% of the population will not be able to meet every single child's unique educational needs. Ideally, there are niche programmes for every type of child, but even if resources were available (which they're not), how would you do this?... etc. …””

I find your explanation very satisfying. First time I’m exposed to this idea and henceforth it will lay the groundwork for my understanding of the imperfections that inevitably exist in the non-GEP system. I find I need to gain a lot more understanding of educational psychology, methodology etc... before I can have any useful suggestion to contribute. I suppose these issues have already been closely examined at length by the ‘experts’.

“” .. My son is an example of one who doesn't thrive in the school system, but if you were to ask me, I would be hard pressed to say what sort of education would suit him. …””

Homeschool lor!!

“” … The day we can say, everyone who wants a place in a Singapore Uni can have one, the competition will stop. …””

Well then, why can’t we have it?


monlim said...

I think gahmen (and not just ours actually) does make a lot of mistakes, not just by scholars. But maybe the scholars get highlighted because they're perceived to have special treatment, so should be perfect. If a gahmen clerk make big mistake, you think will have stoning? Don't think so. Maybe also in gahmen, even if you make a big mistake, chances are you keep your job, unlike in private sector, hence the resentment. I don't think bulk of GEP go into civil service though. Many are in private sector. Found this on another site:

"Beatrice Chia is a good example (of ex-GEPpers who've made a name for themselves). Quite a few have moved overseas - the academics and the IT professionals. One participated in the Mount Everest climb. Quite a few were chessmasters - Hsu Li Yang comes to mind. Many of the rest became bankers, doctors, lawyers, consultants and teachers. Tracey Ho is an alumnus from the programme who is a prominent computer science academic in the USA currently."

Re: SGP uni, no place for all leh... they're starting yet another uni and increasing places but still not enough to meet demand.

Re: homeschool - no way. This issue not even ambivalent for me. First, I don't think my life evolves around my child's education. Can outsource, outsource! Second, I will end up strangling him (leave that responsibility to his teacher). Third, Andre will do a protest march - the best part of school is being with his friends, facing just his mother all day is not a dream, it's a nightmare. So in short? Live with the system!

Anonymous said...

OK good explanation. Which reminds me, what was the 'punishment' meted out to the person(s) who let the terrorist escape?

And also, anyone heard of 'academic inflation'?

So says the author of 'Out of our minds--learning to be creative':
""There was a time when good academic qualifications guaranteed a job, but not anymore. one reason is 'academic inflation'. In the next 30yrs, more pple worldwide will be gaining academic qualifications than since the beginning of history. But as more pple get them, their currency value is falling sharply. A university degree used to be an open sesame to a professional position. The minimum requirement for some jobs is now a Master's degree, even a PhD. What next? But there is a second problem. many companies are facing a crisis in graduate recruitment. It's not that there aren't enough graduates to go around; there are more and more. But too many don't hae what business urgently needs: they can't communicate well, they can't work in teams and they can't think creatively. But why should they? University degrees aren't designed to make pple creative. They are designed to do other things and often do them well. But complaining tha graduates aren't creative is like saying, 'I bought a bus and it sank'. ""

Watch the author on this clip, it really made an impression on me:--


monlim said...

No real punishment I think, it was something along the lines of "There's no use pointing fingers, let's move on" which immediately made me think probably someone high up was responsible!!

That video is WONDERFUL. Thanks for sharing. I might post it, it really hit home.

Hannah said...

Dear monlim,
I stumbled across your blog as I was trying to find out n understand more about the GEP. I must say a really great THANK YOU for your honest, balanced n insightful sharing.
I had a really good laugh when I read your other post about your son. 3 good laughs in fact. I wonder how you continue to handle the both of them. They should both be quite big by now since it's about 7 years since you wrote these posts.
God bless you and yours. :)

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