Friday, September 5, 2008

A day in the life of a GEP kid

Since there appears to be considerable interest in the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), I thought I'd share a little more about the programme itself and the curriculum, based on what Lesley-Anne has gone through over the past 1½ years.

Obviously, as you know by now, I'm generally pleased with the programme. There are many plus points, some of them being:

More individual attention
The class sizes are small - max 25, compared to 40 in the mainstream classes. This means the teacher is better able to cater to each child's needs. At the beginning of each year, the kids take a test to assess their learning styles, developed from the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. From there, the teachers and the kids know what sort of learner they are, and try to tune in to their strengths.

The teachers also look out for any problems, like inability to cope or social issues, and these kids are then sent to the GEP counsellor for help. (Although according to Lesley-Anne, most of the kids feel uncomfortable at being scrutinised and try to avoid being called in for a session). Lesley-Anne was sent to the counsellor last year because all her teachers reported her as looking "tired and sleepy" in class and were worried that she wasn't coping well. She came home and protested "but my eyes naturally look like that!"

Lots of teamwork and independent learning
Many kids find it hard to adjust initially from P3 into P4 GEP because the learning concepts and assumptions are completely different from what they were used to. Instead of focusing on learning content given by the teacher and doing copious amounts of exercises and drills to perfect their abilities, suddenly they are told to find things out for themselves. Lesley-Anne does a lot of research on the internet for practically every subject.

They also do a heck of a lot of projects. In a year, they have two English projects, one research study, a few science and math projects, and a social studies project. Some of these are individual but many are team-based. This is great preparation for teamwork. Through these projects, the kids quickly discover who the skivers are, who don't put in their fair share and who are the terrific team players. There are many phone and email exchanges between Lesley-Anne and project mates, from the research to the division of labour. I once heard her on the phone with classmate who was part of her team presenting the next day (and obviously not the most on the ball individual): "Did you write out the script? The notes are with you. I gave them to you yesterday. Are you sure you wrote it out EXACTLY? Ok, read it out to me now." (Hmm... sounds like she'll make a great mum someday.)

Focus on presentation skills
I think the GEP realises that many of these gifted kids are great thinkers but when they open their mouths, they mumble or stammer and can hardly get any point across. As we all know, in the world today, being able to speak well is terribly important. I have personally come across many people with absolutely zero substance that have managed to wrangle their way in life by being eloquent and convincing speakers, while their brainy but reticent colleagues are being glossed over.

Presentations are a huge part of the GEP curriculum. Most of the projects require presentations in front of the class. This needs not only preparation of the script but also accompanying props like powerpoint presentations, models and sometimes even role-play. Last term, all the P5 GEP kids had to undergo a compulsory six-week course on public speaking. For Lesley-Anne, this focus is very beneficial and has enabled her to come out of her shell (somewhat).

These are the plus points. There are also not-so-plus points in the programme. (Of course there are! What, did you think it was all sugar and spice and all things nice?) I wouldn't say these are disadvantages per se, they are more like trade-offs, which come hand in hand with what the GEP is trying to achieve.

Long, long hours
This is inevitable, I guess. With all that they're trying to teach the kids, you're not going to be able to fit everything within half a day. Lesley-Anne has lessons on average till 3.30pm three days a week. On top of that, they often have ad-hoc additional activities, like the public speaking course or service learning (giving tuition to younger kids) which takes up another day. Once you throw in the compulsory CCA, they're basically clocking eight hours in school almost every weekday. This can be tough on the kids, especially as most Singapore children don't just go to school, they still have to fit in other outside activities like piano lessons, ballet lessons, sports, etc. And not to mention, homework. (Of course they have homework!)

Less practice in mainstream topics
The breadth and depth of subjects explored under the GEP is truly mind-boggling. Lesley-Anne tells me she learns things in maths like
Fibonacci numbers and Pascal's triangle. I know there are some very conscientious GEP parents out there who will then quickly rush to research these and give extra coaching to their kids. I'm not one of them. I go "huh?" and then "as long as you understand what the teacher is saying." The only time I googled these words was two minutes ago, to provide the links above, haha.

It also means that less time is spent teaching mainstream topics, which are tested at the PSLE. So if your child is not as fast to catch on in certain subjects, like Lesley-Anne with maths, he or she might have a problem when it comes to the national exams. Although the teachers did assure me that they devote an entire term in P6 just coaching for the PSLE. So we'll see.

Funnily enough though, Lesley-Anne finds it less pressurising in GEP than in mainstream. I realise this statement is contentious and not necessarily true for all GEP kids, but this is just from her experience. In the mainstream classes at her school, the children are ranked by class and standard in their report books. From P3 onwards, they are streamed each year by classes according to these rankings. What happens then is there is the inadvertent pressure, usually by parents, for the kids to get into the better classes or to achieve a higher ranking. When Lesley-Anne was in the top class for P3, she felt the pressure of not falling behind and it was very demoralising for her when she performed less than stellar in her mid-year exams.

In the GEP, there are no rankings. Last year, the kids were asked to list the pros and cons of GEP. One child wrote (for pro): "No need to get first in class!" (Parents, what are you doing to your kids??) There is only the prerequisite baseline that the kids need to meet, 70/100 for all subjects except English which is 65/100. Even then, if the child doesn't meet the baseline, he or she gets sent to the counsellor and is helped to improve. They consider all other factors, including attitude, which is regarded as more important than the actual grades.

Overall, I find that the camaraderie among the GEP kids is strong, partly because of the class size. I think the removal of the competitive aspect helps.


Alcovelet said...

Hi Monica,

I've been lurking on your website, having been directed to it from Lilian's. I wanted to thank you for your insights and your inside views (too obvious a pun not to use, hehe!). Cheers!

monlim said...

hey thanks! I'm new at this, glad to know that others find it interesting :)

Suan said...

hi Monica,
I came across your blog by chance :) I enjoy reading it very much! After reading this particular post, I found what you've described in the GEP class to be very similar with what I know are already being done in regular (ie.non-gifted programmes)schools overseas (accounts related from friends) - research, projects, independent/ team work etc. I've always envied that and wished they do the same in Singapore. Of course there are the limitations of not having enough teachers, lack of resources etc, but I truly believe a holistic education like that would benefit not only the gifted but the regular child as well, instead of the rigid rote-learning ways that we're so used to that merely produces more exam smart kids.

My son is only three so I'm still a long long way to making important decisions on schooling, but looking at how our local schools still are today, obsessing over grades and numbers on report cards, I'm not at all very enthusiastic about keeping him in Singapore. I mean, unless he turns out to be gifted and lands in GEP, being a regular kid in a regular school just isn't good enough. (sorry, I'm not being snobbish at all, I just feel rather injusticed because children are capable of so much more than what they're recieving in schools, i guess that's why many chose to homeschool?)

I'm definitely a new mum, so I'd like to hear your comments and experiences!

Once again, I love reading blog! :)))

monlim said...

Suan: Very glad to know you enjoy my blog! The SG school system is stressful for sure, but to be fair, it's not just the schools - it's the system, parents and students themselves that add to the grade obsession, I think it's just inherent in the Asian culture. The syllabus nowadays has de-emphasised rote learning significantly, esp for maths but unfortunately, many still try to rely on rote learning to churn out results.

I wouldn't give up on SG yet, since your son is only three. Hopefully in a few years time, the emphasis on creative thinking and learning will make a bigger impact. What I find is that the system here evolves very quickly since it's centralised, making it easier for MOE to institute changes fast.

Thanks again for reading!

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