Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Debunking the myth of the GEP label

A p6 girl, whom I shall call HL, wrote a comment on one of my blog posts. We exchanged a few emails and I found her to be a very sweet, mature and unassuming 12-year-old. She told me she loves to write and sent me a link to her blog, where she posts her compositions and other written work. Let's just say I was very impressed - she writes lucidly and expressively, her command of English is masterful for her age.

Academically, she's doing very well too, topping her cohort in her neighbourhood school. Yet she seems to feel that she isn't top A calibre because she's not a GEP student.

I find this mindset to be quite prevalent. I have a close friend with two very bright daughters who are not in GEP. I think they're doing marvellously well in school but she's worried about letting her elder daughter (p5 this year) apply for a top secondary school because she's afraid her daughter wouldn't be able to cope next to the GEP kids.

Lilian and I were just discussing a few days ago that the GEP label is very powerful. People have this misconception that GEP students are super kids of some kind - like they can calculate complex maths formulas in the blink of an eye or maybe write Shakespearean sonnets in a single bound. They're believed to be brighter, faster, sharper, just better all round.

If there is one trait that I think gifted kids have, it's the ability to think more laterally and conceptually than other kids their age, that's all. That's why the GEP syllabus works for them, because the programme challenges their minds to delve deeper into a wider spectrum of subjects.

Ability is not so simplistically defined in a linear format. Achievement in school depends on so many factors, including aptitude, attitude, accuracy, speed, home environment and most importantly, hard work. Gifted kids certainly don't have dibs on all these traits. I've met GEP students who are so slow that finishing a paper on time is a feat in itself. I've seen others who are so blur that they struggle to follow instructions. And then there are the unmotivated who constantly perform below par. GEP kids are certainly not always whizzes in every subject, though often they may have special talents in one or more areas. Lesley-Anne, for example, has a gift for languages (my own assessment anyway!) but she has to work much harder for maths.

The unrealistic label of GEP kids is unhealthy in so many ways. What happens is that mainstream teachers, parents and kids themselves, identify the GEP kids as the target to beat because in their minds, that represents the pinnacle of academic achievement. And if they manage to achieve this goal, I sometimes hear this flippant refrain (or something to the effect): "GEP so special meh? Mainstream also can beat them!"

For mainstream students, the label can create a psychological barrier and give them a false diminished sense of their own abilities, like in the case of HL. I feel she's very capable of doing better than some GEP kids in the PSLE but she first needs to believe that she's not inferior to them. (HL, if you're reading this - I hope you know how talented you are!)

For GEP students, the label creates the pressure of having to perpetually live up to the super kid image and not "let the mainstream kids overtake you". Don't believe me? Lilian sent me this blog post by an RGS girl. She's a GEP student and she found herself trapped in the stress of unrelenting competition and comparisons between GEP and non-GEP. Her anguish is evident. It was written back in 2005 but I think it is still relevant, even more pronounced, today.

In this competition, no one wins. In the same way that when siblings are constantly pitted against each other, all you get is intense sibling rivalry. No one is happy for the other's achievements and no one is willing to help the other. All you get is a bunch of unhappy people constantly trying to outdo each other.

If we will stop obsessing over others for a minute, whether out of pride or insecurity, and just focus on bettering our own achievements, maybe we'll even be able to *gasp* enjoy the process.


LadyB said...

Whether we like it or not, we've to admit tt humans r competitive basically (it's in our blood, only differs in degree n to what extent). Could be 'cos of our underlying animal's instinct (who knows). It takes a lot of courage, confidence, n beliefs for one to stand firm n walks his/her own path in life! Definitely not easy esp for kids n teenagers.

A relative of mine, didn't want to apply for RGS 'cos she said there are a lot of rich pple's kids study in tt sch (inferiority complex? i dun know.). Some pple i met also commented tt they dun want to send their kids to certain pri sch b'cos there r a lot of Malays there. I m pretty concerned if pple started to take status, races or even religions as the main consideration when choosing a sch, instead of more practical reasons such as distance, school's motto,sch's environment etc, will it be healthy to Spore in the long run?

I admire those who dare to take the first step to cross-cultures, cross-religions, cross-whatever....
Just hope tt the harmony we r having now is not superficious.

Monica, is just my 2cents n it's too lengthy. For ur reading only cos dun wan to bore pple to death heheheh

Lilian said...

A powerful and excellent post. It's tough in Singapore to shield kids from labels if they are in the education system, isn't it? I hope all kids, whether GEP or mainstream or whatever other labels there are, rise above such labels, and learn to find their own path in life.

Parents are equally guilty of either limiting their kids' potential or having unrealistic expectations of their kids, so we've gotta remind ourselves and our kids not to let a label someone else constructed define them.

monlim said...

LadyB: Thanks for the thoughts, I published the comment anyway cos I thought you had great points :)

Lilian: It's amazing how we often let little things like labels define who we are. Definitely important for parents and kids to have a clear perspective of themselves and as you say, find their own paths in life.

naggo-nitemare said...

tks for yet another well-written timely reminder tt our children need to be kids, GEP or otherwise.

the RGS girl's 2005 blog entry saddens me. I pray tt this elite sch has addressed these issues n the staff properly guided on how to nurture youths, before more of our young crumble under this crazy intense senseless competition to outdo each other by half a pt for each test.

HL said...

Hi Auntie Monica!

I didn't know that I was talented! Haha. Thks for the kind encouragement. I share the sentiments that everyone has their own strong abilities, so there's no point comparing with others.

P.S. Let me share a good news with you- I scored full marks for my prelim oral! I was greatly surprised. Anyway, thank you for your kind encouragement. :)

monlim said...

NN: I hope the elite schools address this problem too. I know they want to spur the kids on but sometimes, the negative side effects are just not worth it.

HL: Way to go! See? I look forward to hearing your terrific results in the PSLE :)

walfin said...

My apologies for intruding. I couldn't help myself.

Dear LadyB - About socioeconomic status. That should be the least of anyone's concerns when applying to a school. I went to a school where several of the children of the rich and famous went (I stayed in a 3 room flat when I was younger), and nobody ostracised anyone else for having poor parents. A tangential point - where I went, there seemed to be more people from relatively humbler backgrounds in jeep than in the mainstream.

About RGS: I think it's up to the student to decide if the teacher's criticism has real merit or if she's just a raving lunatic. Besides (shh), nobody's gonna care if you failed a few exams once in a while after you leave secondary school (disclaimer to jeep kids - nothing in this post is to be construed as recommendations or advice, and the poster disclaims all liability arising from the opinions heretofore stated :P).

HL - good for you :). I always thought mainstreamers had far more potential for making it irl. Many jeeps have a severe case of schoolwork-uber-hate syndrome.

Anonymous said...


Nice post! I like it especially the jeeps!!! Ha, ha... no offence.
My son is also in the school where there're lots of rich kids, living in big landed properties and chauffeured by 'Ahmad's, so much so, that one day, he started saying to me, "Actually, our house is rather small!" (And we live in a 2000 square feet house)What???

But, you're right...socioeconomic status is not a big concern among his friends.

Simply curious said...


Is it possible to have a link to HL's blog?

Best Wishes

monlim said...

Umm... I think I better leave it to HL to decide if she will share the link, since she didn't give me explicit permission to do so.

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