Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why villainising GEP does no one any good

The GEP has recently come under attack once again and many people have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. One of them is NCMP Yee Jenn Jong of the Worker's Party who propose scrapping the programme. You can read his piece here.

Every time I hear of such calls, I feel indignant, especially when it's clear to me that the person asking for it actually has very little understanding of the programme. I don't presume to judge Jenn Jong's intentions but his piece is so rife with error that I feel compelled to dispute it.

What GEP's really about

First and most importantly, the GEP is NOT about accelerated learning for the PSLE. It is a curriculum that is designed to stretch the minds of intellectually gifted kids, to pique their curiosity and expose them to a series of topics that is usually beyond the conceptual level of mainstream kids. While it still teaches the PSLE syllabus, it covers a heck of a lot of out-of-syllabus stuff.

Eg. for English, the kids learn different genres of texts, such as crime, biographies, etc and are taught to write in these styles. For maths, the kids learn things like ancient number systems, Fibonacci numbers and nth term series. Intellectually gifted kids are able to grasp and enjoy this level of challenge precisely because it's pegged at their level of ability and tailored to how their brains work.

The GEP does not hothouse kids for the PSLE. In fact, it might surprise most to know that because of the expanded curriculum, significantly less time is allocated to PSLE drilling compared to mainstream classes. Only in term 3 of p6 do the GEP kids get down to doing extensive exam papers in preparation for this exam. Therefore, it's ludicrous to say, "see, the GEP isn't effective cos the GEP kids don't do better in the PSLE than mainstream kids." That's not the purpose of the GEP to begin with and rightly so.

I find it contradictory that some of the critics of our exam system who lambast it for being uncreative and rigid then turn around and accept the very benchmark they criticise as the yardstick for ability.

Second, there's a lot of misunderstanding about the concept of "gifted kids". As we all know, there are many types of gifts - music, sports, art, etc. Intellectually gifted is one of these gifts. I'd written about this way back in 2008 here. Researchers refer to the intellectually gifted as the top 1% in a cohort where the giftedness manifests itself at about age 9 and that's why MOE restricts the GEP to 1% and why the test is done at the end of p3. It's certainly not an arbitrary figure aimed at grooming a bunch of elitists.

I think the problem in our society is that academic smarts is prized so highly, above all else. When we have a special music programme for music talents or a sports programme for sports prodigies, no one clammers to get in or rants about the injustice that only a select group can gain entry. Yet there has been hue and cry over the GEP and its "unfairness" that only 1% have access to it.

I see it clearly because I have one child who's intellectually gifted and one who's not. And it's important to know that I don't consider one better than the other. I recognise that they have different talents and I also know that the GEP is not suitable for someone like Andre.

Simply put, the curriculum is not designed for kids like him and if we are to force MOE's hand to extend the GEP to significantly more than 1%, in other words, include kids who are not intellectually gifted, we're pushing kids into a programme that does not benefit them. In fact, they will likely feel stressed out and maybe develop low self-esteem cos the curriculum is beyond them.

The value of GEP

Why is the GEP necessary to begin with? Mainly because studies have shown that gifted kids who don't have access to special programmes for them generally display negative outcomes. They either dumb themselves down to fit in with others or become social outcasts because they're considered "weird", and they end up under-achieving. I won't elaborate as I've written about it before here.

Again, to use the same parallel, you'll be better able to help a music prodigy's talents blossom under a specialised programme than in a mainstream curriculum. Likewise, intellectually gifted kids are more productive in a programme tailored for them. I saw this first-hand with Lesley-Anne.

The GEP offers the kind of education intellectually gifted kids need. The problems people have with GEP are issues like labelling, the seeming exclusiveness, elitism, etc, which actually have nothing to do with the efficacy of the programme itself.

Some may argue that gifted kids already have a genetic advantage and therefore should not be given differentiated education but this to me, sounds Communist and smacks of reverse discrimination. Calling for the GEP to be scrapped for the sake of superficial equality is meaningless and benefits no one. I think sometimes, the GEP is an easy target and political one cos it benefits only 1%. If you call for it to be abolished, you'll probably get 99% of the popular vote. But it doesn't make it right.

To me, the solution is MORE differentiated learning, not less. Ideally, we should have different pathways tailored towards those good in sports, those good in art, those good in maths, good in English, etc. I know we now have SOTA and the Sports School but I guess the difference is that these are available only at the secondary school level. While I don't endorse specialisation at too young an age as some of these talents and interests take time to develop, perhaps there could be more avenues to identify and cultivate a diversity of talents in primary school instead of the relentless and narrow focus on the four examinable subjects.

Bringing back the true purpose of GEP

In the meantime, what can we do about the bad rep of GEP? One of the areas I feel MOE can re-examine is the GEP's associated privileges. GEP kids are given advantages such as access to a special DSA category (while it doesn't guarantee you a DSA spot, it certainly increases your chances compared to mainstream kids applying through the Academic route) and an EESIS scholarship if you get to a secondary school with a School-based Gifted Programme (SBGE).

It's privileges like these that have raised the desirability of the GEP and spurred many parents to treat it as the instant highway to success. This has led to a proliferation of GEP coaching classes which I've always maintained, sabotage the integrity and intent of the GEP, and possibly skew the population of students who enter the programme.

Attitudes don't help either. GEP students tend to be treated as prized possessions in a school (possibly cos they're expected to turn in stellar results for the school). I've heard that the GEP classes in one school are housed in the only air-conditioned block. I know some teachers constantly compare GEP and non-GEP kids in all areas, which only serves to create a very unhealthy rivalry (I'd written about it here).

So my suggestion is this: revert back to the main objective of the GEP and that is to provide a type of education that allows the intellectually gifted to thrive. Remove the associated privileges and then maybe we'll be able to cool the GEP fever. We need parents, teachers and students to accept that the GEP is not "superior", just different. Only this mindset can evoke real collaboration and teamwork.

This is my first article on the GEP in a long time as Lesley-Anne has graduated from primary school for almost 3 years now. So in that sense, I've no vested interests in defending the programme. If anything, I'm opening myself up to attacks from naysayers. However, as a parent whose child has experienced the GEP, I see its tremendous value and I feel strongly enough to speak up for it. I know other GEP parents who feel the same way.

As a friend said, the angst possibly comes about because the current mainstream primary school syllabus is so stifling and far from ideal, that the GEP becomes an even more attractive route. I agree - I've often wished that Andre had the opportunity to experience an education system that was less rigid and encouraged his creativity.

The way forward then is to focus on improving the mainstream syllabus, not attacking the GEP. Let's not degrade ourselves to the point where if we can't have the ideal situation for all, then everyone should be equally miserable. Scrapping the GEP would be cutting off the nose to spite the face - everybody loses.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Zaobao article on GEP

A Zaobao reporter called me a couple of  weeks ago to ask about my views on the GEP. The article was published last Tuesday - the online link is here (I'm quoted from page 3).

Just in case the link is eventually removed, I've reproduced the article below.  I won't be providing a translation, sorry!  Will also elaborate on my views on GEP in another post, it's just too long to include here.

17 Apr 12

小三学童家长的疑惑: 我的孩子能当1%的高才生吗?

  • 周雁冰




孩子念小学三年级的家长,不久前都获得学校通知,家里的小朋友将在今年8月接受高才教育计划(Gifted Education Programe,简称GEP)的测试。从全国选出来的500名学童,也就是约1%的小三学童,将在通过两轮测试之后,顺利进入从小四开始的高才教育计 划。



记者上网做了一番功课,发现市面上的GEP预备班相当多,从私人学校到补习老师都有,而且价格都不算便宜,从100元到300元一课不等。不过,对许多 望子成龙的父母来说,这样的代价是值得的。不少GEP预备班的报名人数都不算少,而且也不是想报名就能报名,孩子都得先接受私人学校的一轮智力测试。



他说:“要成为我的学生,最迟必须从小二开始接受训练。他们得通过测试,我会从中挑选十名学生,每星期上一次课。训练主要让他们接触课程以外,更具挑战 性的题目,教导他们更有效的数学解题法。GEP测试其实是时间的考验,在最短的时间解答最多的题目,所以只要方法得当,就可以在时间上取胜。”


家长1:GEP = 名校 + DSA


她说:“两个儿子原本成绩不相上下,在邻里学校班里属中等。大儿子因为没有上GEP预备班,结果现在念邻里中学;小儿子上了预备班以后,学到很多解题的 方法,在班上变得很有自信,因为别人不会的他会。他考GEP的时候一点也不觉得难,不紧张。现在他在GEP班上,成绩也不错。”




Morris Allen中心:天才也有可能落选

Morris Allen英文补习中心,是最早在本地提供GEP预备班的私人学校之一。学校每年年中假期都会举办GEP集训课程,在为期两个星期的十堂课里,教导孩子如何应付GEP测试。

校长世凯洛特(Peter Scarrott)表示,每年参加的学员约有75名,学生除了要经过智力测验还要面试。世凯洛特说,测试一方面让中心了解孩子是否适合GEP,一方面也打 消一些家长对孩子不切实际的要求。总体来说,中心成功进入GEP的孩子约有三成。根据经验,由于不熟悉GEP测试规格,一些特别聪明的孩子也可能落选。

他说:“中心所做的是帮他们应付GEP第二轮的‘一般能力测验’(GAT),这是难倒最多孩子的部分。高才、天才都可能栽在第二轮测试,尤其是那些花一 整天时间就为了解一道题的完美主义者。所以我们的课程除了让他们熟悉测试的规格和题目,也教导他们如何好好把握时间。”






她说:“根据我们的经验,GEP让孩子接触到许多主流课程以外的知识。它不是一个主流课程的快速学习班或者浓缩版,实际上GEP学童所学的常常不一定和 主流课程有关,也经常不在小六会考范围内。和主流课程的孩子比较,GEP学生准备小六会考的时间相对要少要短,因此整体来说,如果孩子不是真正的高才生, 将会感到相当吃力。”


她说:“例如GEP学生在中学DSA方面,在某些奖学金方面所享有的特权如果去除,那么围绕着GEP的光环就会暗淡下来。家长就不会一窝蜂地想要让孩子 进入GEP,而是真正从课程本身做考量,到底孩子是否适合在应付主流课程之上,接受GEP的附加课业?到底GEP是否适合孩子,能否让他们更好发挥?”



Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Best foot forward

Last Thursday, Andre was running around with his friends at recess and tripped. It sounds like a normal, everyday occurrence but for some inexplicable reason, he managed to not just sprain his ankle but sustain a dislocated bone fragment in his foot. The A&E put his foot in a soft cast, to be reviewed by the KKH doctors in a week.

It's overall bad news for this very active boy, who has been swimming, cycling or playing badminton on a daily basis. To be suddenly immobile is punishment in itself. He also discovered that everyday activities that we take for granted, like taking a shower, become challenging hurdles. Negotiating stairs is next to impossible.

To his credit, he didn't complain even though he's largely confined to his room. The only saving grace is that he became very limited in his leisure choices as he can't even get to the tv downstairs. Reading, doing sudoku and playing with Lego - that pretty much summed up his downtime activity, until I took pity on him and brought up some dvds for him to play on the pc. It also means he has more time to do his revisions, which is timely as exams are around the corner.

Ever so inventive, he's taken to moving around in his swivel chair. He would wheel himself about, yelling, "Make way for the handicapped!"

I have to say, his school and form teacher really went out of their way to make special arrangements for him. They temporarily shifted his classroom from the fourth floor to the ground floor (which delighted his classmates and increased his popularity quotient), let him eat in the classroom during recess and even allowed us to park in the handicapped lot while waiting to pick him up. They've been very helpful and accommodating, for which we're deeply grateful.

I was slightly apprehensive about letting Andre go back to school cos I could envision the many accidents waiting to happen. Before he went, I warned him, "Don't do anything stupid!" For some kids, this would be enough but since this is Andre we're talking about, I decided it would be safer to spell out what "stupid" meant:

1) using his crutch as a lightsabre

2) lending a friend his crutches to play with

3) leaving his crutches on the floor for others to step on

4) sticking out his injured leg for anyone to trip over

5) attempting to run, use one or no crutch or having a race

We're praying that the foot will make a speedy and full recovery, and that he'll be back on his feet soon. All prayers you can send his way are most welcome!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The blessing of being

Last year, one of Andre's good friends was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer. Even as he underwent surgery and juggled chemotherapy, he insisted on attending school when he could. The school arranged for his classes to be moved to the ground floor so he could get around more easily and he is determined to sit for the PSLE with his friends this year.

Just before he was diagnosed, he had come over to our home to play with Andre and so when I heard the news, it struck me pretty hard. It's difficult to believe the active, happy child (with the most gorgeous dimples) I had just seen running around like any other 11-year-old boy should suddenly be afflicted by such a nefarious disease.

Whenever I hear of such cases, I feel like I'm being doused with a bucket of reality check. It hits home especially when it's not the vague image of some unknown, hypothetical child, but is actually happening to someone you know. It's sobering and there's always the nagging question "why them, God?" Then inevitably, there will be the chilling realisation that such a misfortune can befall anyone, which will trigger the pressing, secret plea, "please not us, God."

Because it's difficult enough being the friend of someone going through such a trial, we simply cannot imagine being that parent, having to deal with such unbearable anguish. Sometimes God's design seems so random that we're tempted to try and manipulate or bargain with Him, so that our kids can bypass all the major calamities in life.

In another instance, Andre's best friend successfully overcame leukemia as a young child and looking at this strapping, boisterous boy now, you would never be able to tell he suffered from this disorder. But according to his mother, when he encounters pain in his limbs, he would still ask her with trepidation, "is it the cancer coming back?"

It's not unusual to be moved by such experiences, particularly if the kids fight their conditions with such courage and spirit, as I've witnessed. For me though, the biggest takeaway is that of perspective. Even as we parents angst over our kids' inability to ace an exam, get into the top school or enter some special programme, there are other parents who would rejoice over something as simple as their kids being able to run, to go to school, or to live to see adulthood.

I will clarify though, that I don't subscribe to the "there are always people less fortunate than you" mentality because it implies we should not aim to live beyond the lowest denominator.

Having said that, there's something to be said about appreciating what you have. When we hear of the plight of others, it's not for us to rejoice over how lucky we are in comparison, but to pause and remember how much our kids are a blessing to us. Then we'll scream less at our kids over their minor misdemeanours, annoying habits or unsatisfactory test results because in the larger scheme of things, these blips really are insignificant.

The next time we're unhappy with our kids and think "if only...", it might help us to remember that for some parents, the "if only..." is much more basic and urgent.

Go hug your kids today.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Let's talk character education

A few weeks ago, the Minister for Education announced a new Edusave Character Award scheme where students who demonstrate good character will be given cash rewards.

I know this post is tardy, many people have already openly voiced their views on this. I've been procrastinating, maybe because even though I'm disappointed, to say the least, I wasn't terribly surprised by the news. (Hey look, two prepositions side by side. I'm sure it's grammatically wrong but I'm too lazy to look up the right form).

In other words, the move is so in character with MOE policies that I couldn't even muster up enough indignation to write an immediate response. So why am I writing one now? Well, last week, a friend of mine and I met up with a graduate student from the LKY School of Policy Studies who's organising a dialogue on character education in schools, and the discussion that followed was interesting enough to nudge me out of my lethargy.

So here are my (belated) views on character education. I've added sub-headers cos it's a long post.

A reward system undermines character building

Primarily, why I'm against cash rewards for displays of good character is this: values are about doing something that's intrinsically good, done for its own sake. If you do it for a reward, it automatically negates the value of that deed. It's the difference between a social worker who volunteers at a nursing home and the nursing home employee.

Child psychologists warn against giving rewards for something that the child should do anyway. For example, if you always reward a child for his eating vegetables, he'll be conditioned to think that eating vegetables is an undesirable thing and he deserves something in return for doing it.

That's exactly what is happening here. By offering a reward system, we're teaching our children that doing the right thing entitles them to a payoff. Take away the reward and there's no more motivation to be compassionate, tell the truth or stand up for others.

Ironically, by offering rewards for character, we are weakening, not strengthening the message that character is important.

In an attempt to be fair, I looked up MOE's response to the issue. This was part of their official statement:
"The Edusave Character Award will recognise a small number of students in each school who are exemplary in character, and who can inspire others as role models. For instance, these may be students who have shown resilience and have done well despite their difficult circumstances."
See, I understand that MOE's intention is good. But I can already predict how this will play out. Because the scheme depends entirely on the teachers to identify the good kids and the acts of good behaviour, in the end, the rewards will go to the usual suspects - the prefects, the popular kids, the teachers' pets (usually the ones who do well academically).

I'm not saying that all these kids are necessarily brown-nosers, some of them are truly good souls. What I'm saying is that these kids have already been given ample recognition in their schools. They don't need further motivation. The ones whom we've missed all along - the rowdy boy who patiently cares for his ailing grandmother or the mousy girl in the corner who helps her friends without advertising to all and sundry - these are the kids who will continue to be overlooked.

Basically, we're not enlarging the pool of kids who will be recognised, we're just rewarding the same pool of kids more. As my friend Lilian said, at this rate, some of those prefects would have amassed enough cash to go to Europe by the time they graduate from p6.

Limitations of CCE lessons

Instead of an award, what I think we need is an overhaul of the Civics and Moral Education (CME) classes (now renamed Character & Citizenship Education or CCE). Right now, these lessons are a joke. In the first place, these periods are usually usurped for examinable subjects. Every year, I can count on my kids bringing home their CME textbooks and workbooks clean and untouched.

Even in the odd instance where there is a CCE lesson, the kids find it incredibly boring. First, for some strange reason, the lessons are taught in Mother Tongue. And we are all familiar with the very moralistic Chinese stories. Listening to the teacher drone on about filial piety or patriotism will hardly inspire you to be a model of good behaviour.

I think what MOE needs to realise is that character education cannot be confined to one period in a week, it has to be a pervasive part of the school culture. Otherwise, it's as effective as the self-proclaimed Christian who goes to church every Sunday and then acts in an ungodly manner for the rest of the week.

Added note: Lesley-Anne just informed me that for her CCE class, she has to write essays in Chinese based on values taught in the class. And her conduct grade is partially based on how well she writes the essay! Doesn't the school find this odd?

There are simply limitations to learning character from a lesson in the classroom. Most kids already know what is good behaviour, the challenge is translating the knowledge into action. The only effective way to build character is to experience, to share, to do.

For example, Lilian's sons attend an international school overseas. The school regularly organises community service trips to places like Operation Smile and Habitat for Humanity where the kids help out in a very direct way. These trips are not free (in fact, they're quite costly) and you have to apply for them, not everyone who applies will be successful. The message is that helping others in need is not just part and parcel of life, it's a privilege.

Compare this with our system where kids expect to get CCA points for community service and now, cash rewards. What kind of characters are we hoping to develop?

Moving character education out of the classroom

I have two suggestions for character education in schools:
1) Instead of the textbook lessons on CCE, make them hands-on, community service sessions. Each school, level or class can work with a specific organisation (can be welfare, social or environmental) for this. Eg. if the class adopts an orphanage, every week (or once in two weeks), the kids would visit the orphanage to help out for an hour or so.

It's a win-win situation - charity organisations prefer regular volunteers to those who just show up every Christmas or CNY. The volunteers form bonds with the residents and there's continuity in whatever project is being carried out. For the kids, the benefits are tremendous. The sense of fulfilment and gratification in being able to directly help somebody cannot be overstated.

Research shows that kids who perform community service tasks from young have a much higher tendency to continue them into adulthood. Imagine the impact of every school-going child performing a hands-on community service task every week - to the recipients, to society and to the kids themselves.

2) Schools these days organise myriads of overseas trips for students. But I notice that all of them are for the sake of experience and learning, again me, me, me. Why can't we also include in the offering, community service trips like the ones I mentioned above?

If we say character education is important, we need to back this up in our school programmes. They can't be compulsory of course, but they would send the message - go overseas and make a difference in someone's life.

Sure, some parents may feel why must we spend money for our kids to give back but this is precisely the mindset we want to change.
Some people may say character is not just about community service. Of course not. But I feel that in Singapore's context, compassion, empathy and kindness are what's most urgently needed. The other character traits like diligence and resilience are too closely affiliated to achievement for my liking - we already emphasise too much of them. Want to build diligence? Why, just do a few more assessment books.

Singapore has always said we want to create a gracious society. We need to put our money where our mouth is. It takes all - parents, schools, society. As it is, I'm appalled some parents have complained that the 6-hour minimum requirement for community service for secondary school students is too much. We need to reverse this me-mentality. It's a slippery slope and I'm afraid we've already started on the slide downwards.
"Character is the result of two things: mental attitude and the way we spend our time." - Elbert Green Hubbard

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