Go with a smile!

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Gifted Education Programme

I was meeting some of my old friends from school, at the same time when I saw this old assertion. The GEP is elitist and should be abolished.

First thing you have to know about the GEP is that there’s a limited upside and quite a big downside. Yes, you get a very good learning environment, even though that environment is not without its flaws. Suppose you were to implement a system which is successful, then that program will be called elitist. Suppose you were to implement a system which is not, then that program will be a failure. You can’t ever win. By definition, it’s exclusionary. But you don’t really know if it’s supposed to be that way.

There will be portions about the GEP that I like, and portions that I don’t like and it’s going to be hard to separate the two since they both came in a package.

A different learning experience
Now, most of us, while we were in school, even back in the 80s, were already aware that the school system didn’t exactly meet the educational requirements of an education system. Schools had been in Singapore for literally a hundred years but many people of the pre-independence generation were the first in their families to go to school, including my father. And although he did very well in school, and was consistently top of his class (thanks to very often being beaten to within an inch of his life by my grandmother) he was able to view the education system from an outsider’s point of view. He always emphasized to me the importance between being street smart and book smart, and later in life, when I thought about it, it seems that when we are book smart, we place an inordinate amount of importance to the forms of knowledge that are easily communicated in print, and not that much importance on other forms.

So if I could sum up the deficiencies of the education system in one sentence, it would be this: any education system which places undue emphasis on books at the expense of all other forms of learning is inherently flawed. Unfortunately, this is also the form of education system that us, as East Asians absolutely love.

In the gifted program, there was a greater emphasis on critical thinking, and they tried to move away from the rote learning. We had field trips – I don’t know what they achieved. There were some multi-media experiences. We were even treated to a visit from an astronaut from NASA at one point. There was a bit of a dislike for knowledge that emphasized a high level of rote memorization and more of an inclination towards critical thinking. We were trained to analyse issues in a more in-depth fashion. We had our own exams, and they reflected this difference in emphasis.

People were encouraged to participate more in class, although I’m sure that teachers are quite ambivalent about this. To a much lesser extent than in other classes are students taught to shut up and sit down. People could ask questions of varying stupidity, although there were one or two guys who asked so many consistently daft questions that they had to be paired up with an editor whose job was to vet the questions before they were thrown out to the class.

Those of you who know me will know this. Most of the time I am quiet. But in certain contexts, I can be loud, rude, opinioned. I can come up with something that sounds crazy but makes sense in retrospect. That dates back to those days. In many ways, it was a more American environment. People who have gone through the GEP will have a better instinctive feel for the full ramifications of freedom of speech. Singaporeans in general are still a little blur about certain aspects, and how it works.

We were also treated to a more nerd / geek friendly environment. It was only later on in life, upon exiting the GEP that I found that life in general is supposed to be more harsh for nerds. And yes I took a few years to adjust to that. But I’m glad it didn’t happen to me when I was younger and developing. When you’re a little older, it’s easier to cope. You don’t have to throw punches, a feel well aimed insults delivered with a sneer (an art honed after years of practice heckling teachers from the back of the class) will achieve a similar effect.

But one of the most important parts of the GEP is that it achieved what I think a grade school education is supposed to achieve. No, it is not about getting your fucking straight As. It is not about showing how many random out of context pieces of knowledge you can shove onto the exam script in three fucking hours. It’s about two things: introducing you to the things you’re most talented in, and getting you to participate in society. I found out I was good at maths, at writing and at music, and I went on to hone these gifts. I participated in holiday camps for talented students and I learnt a lot.

There was a fair amount of work that was project work, not just given a grade based on how well people managed to waterboard you with information. A lot of the traditional testing is just like a lot of water pumped into your stomach and you had to puke it all up in the exam hall.

I didn’t take many leadership role in my ECAs – the one leadership role I did take proved fairly disastrous – but I participated enough in them. Many GEP people went on to take active roles in their respective student organisations. And from what I remember of the high school reunions, the GEP people would maintain closer ties with the school, although the express guys were also very active.

In fact, some of the most important educational experiences we had had nothing to do with school, and nothing to do with ECAs either. I had a few friends, and I spent hours talking with them over the meaning of life, the best music to listen to (at that time 90s alternative music was on the rise, although far from being universally popular). We discussed what we saw, what we came into contact with, deconstructed what our teachers’ lives were like. That was an extremely important component of the education and not something I would have wanted to be without. If you took the average kid today, and their jam-packed “enrichment” filled schedules, they might, though, miss out on all this stuff. I don’t envy them.

Now for the part I don’t like. Just because I benefitted so much from it, it doesn’t mean that I’m blind to all the flaws.

First is the general ideology of the whole system, the idea that people are divided into the “gifted” and, euphemistically, “the rest”. It’s a bad sort of meritocracy that poisons the system. It leads to envy and all sorts of negative emotions. Some people in the gifted program started to think of themselves as ipso facto superior, and the express people – let’s say that even though the gifted-express relations in RI were 10 times better than in ACS or RGS, it wasn’t 100% friendly.

Many of the express people were friendly to us, but there was more than the fair share of people letting you have a piece of their mind. It got a bit ugly on one or two occasions. And there was a sense of entitlement on our part too – I felt a little resentful that there were a couple of express people on the school science teams taking places that probably would otherwise have been mine. But I’m still friends with those express guys, mind.

And sometimes it poisons the conversation between the gifted people and the others. I remember discussing with an express person about the need to have exams. I said that exams are a dissatisfactory way of gauging peoples’ performance, and somehow that got twisted into “you gifted people always think that you’re above examinations because you’re special”. After a bit of heated discussion, I went off with the comforting thought that if I were the gatekeeper I wouldn’t have allowed him into the gifted program anyway because no self-respecting critical thinker would have gone so low as to attack straw men.

The most wrong assumption about this “giftedness” is that a special talent is innate and immutable. It’s not true. People get into the gifted program based on where they were when they were 8 or 9 years old. Then they might suddenly trail off. The entrance exam during my time was just an IQ test. Purportedly an IQ test was the most “objective” form of selection, could not be studied for, and an excellent indicator of an individual’s future success in life. All three assertions are wrong. But to go to the other extreme and say that an IQ test is a totally invalid way of selecting bright people, and that it has no correlation to other forms of intelligence – that is of course even more wrong.

The GEP was a product of the 80s. In the 90s, other ideas were in vogue, specifically the notion of multiple intelligences. We have not looked back since. And not only are the multiple intelligences not positively correlated, in many cases they are negatively correlated. Like the jock who can’t study, or the nerd who’s lousy at social situations. Having one index for intelligence is just plain wrong.

Having said that, though, there is a case for picking out the best nerds in your cohort, putting them together and hoping to groom them into supernerds. The nerds, instead of thinking about how to escape being beaten up for protection money, can concentrate on becoming smarter nerds. Many people would chaff at this prospect, but is it really that different from the graduate student’s lounge at a top university, or at the Googleplex? Is there anything seriously wrong with putting all your smart people together and hope they can come up with something that betters society? As far as I can see, this sort of thing has been going on since the time of Leonardo Da Vinci or the ancient Greeks.

Then again, the gifted program has been strangely not effective at pushing people to achieve their best. Strangely enough, once you were in the GEP, people overcompensated for you. There is a myth that life in the GEP is very pressurizing. It’s not the case. People were pushed, but the students were not ranked. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s good because people just concentrate on learning, and there’s not so much elitism within the GEP. It’s bad because when you tell the GEP kids that they’re somehow “above” being ranked, it sends a very bad message. Although my more general query is still valid. Why have ranking at all, for any student?

There were people who became a little lazy because they weren’t pushed that hard. Some people from express studied really really hard compared to some of us. But the hardworking people in the GEP were really pushing themselves hard. You were often in the company of people who would give you shit for being dumb, so there was an element of internal pushing. You just didn’t want to be dumber than the express kids.

However the fact is that we were selected for being smart, not hardworking. And recent psychological research has shown that when people praise effort, it’s better for a kid than when they praise smartness. This entire element of the GEP where peoples’ smartness is always being praised is totally wrongheaded, and I hope that it has been rectified in the last 20 years.

When I was in there I was fully aware of this dilemma whereby people thought that the gifted kids ought to be taught differently (otherwise you have GEP for fuck, right?) and yet you had to prepare them for the standardized exams that everybody else had to prepare for. So there was this dilemma all the time, we were all aware that from sec 3 onwards, our curriculum was hamstrung by the fact that we would have to meet our fate in the “O” levels. Where most of the time we would do well, but not so obviously better than the express kids that it would “prove” our overwhelming superiority. And if you read my earlier remarks about what an education should truly be about, you’d know that this fact doesn’t bother me that much.

Another big problem about the GEP was that it created this island, this artificial environment that was cut off from the rest of humanity. So while this nerd-friendly environment was welcome, it was maybe a little too nerd-friendly. There was this overly bookish vibe about the whole place. And if you recall a recent article about nerds vs geeks, it was more a nerd place than a geek place. That wouldn’t be a big problem that real life couldn’t fix – you’d just go out into the real world after that and adjust. But the problem was if people had this elitist mentality. I know some of my classmates had it. When people criticize the GEP, those people would say “these people just don’t understand.” It’s true that some anti-GEP arguments are plain ignorant and daft, but I sometimes wonder if those who are too quick to dismiss them are missing the bigger picture.

Also problematic is the way that GEP people get a lot of perks which could have been shared around a little more. We have a more interactive learning environment, sure. But that requires a lower student: teacher ratio. We have nice holiday camps that were designed for mainly us and maybe a few express people join as guests. There were a few science fairs that were not only exclusively GEP, but also had people from the three schools mingling together, and a few years later, some of my friends were darkly muttering that this was an insidious effort at social engineering – they wanted GEP people to marry each other and make GEP babies.

And most importantly, the GEP alumni get more than their fair share of the scholarships that get dished out after the “A”s. It’s no wonder people think we lead a charmed life. I think in fairness there was this notion of noblesse oblige, that we had to be nice and gracious people. At the same time, though, you had people like the infamous Wee Shu Min who seemed determined to drag our names through the mud.

So this creates a problematic situation for Singapore. Yes, we had some working class people in our midst, and yes, we got along well with them. But it’s true that the GEP people are disproportionately from the upper class. In a way this is not meant to be strange: smart people have smart kids, and smart people are richer, so it’s only to be expected that the GEP kids are richer. But this could lead us down the road of greater social stratification. And remember: you can game the system by studying for the entrance exam. There was one time when I was invigilating for an entrance exam, and because of nostalgia’s sake, I looked at the questions. One of the administrators caught me and we got into a quarrel because of that. But when I think back, she’s right. I shouldn’t have looked at the questions. This entrance exam is pretty sensitive because it has such a big impact on the kid’s future.

So what is the legacy of the GEP? Does the GEP better prepare students to meet the 21st century? I would argue that it does. It’s pretty progressive. For every AnnaBelle Chong or Wee Shu Min who brings disrepute to the program, there’s always a Tracey Ho or Andrew Ng to bring credit to it. Never mind that Andrew Ng decided not to be a Singaporean. It teaches independent thinking, it enables people to thrive in a knowledge-intensive world, it teaches people not to accept the status quo of things. It is pro-freedom of speech, pro-democracy. (Yes it is, in spite of the reputation we have as being pro-PAP stooges). I don’t think these are values that are unwelcome in any society. Yes, many of us are still bookish nerds, but it has helped expand the style of Singapore’s education system to one that’s more open, complete and hopefully inclusive.

Therein lies a second, more dubious legacy of the gifted program. I’m beginning to suspect, given the weird new-fangled questions that have been appearing on the PSLEs, that a lot of experiments that have been tried out on the GEP in the earlier years are being replicated across the board. And parents: if your kids are getting big headaches trying to figure out what’s going on in schools today, it’s because some of those questions have been tested out on us. And sometimes I think that it’s weird. It’s one thing if you have plenty of these brain teasers for fun, and if they’re there to stretch your brain and your imagination. It’s one thing to give it to a group that has already been hand-picked as being bright. But if you want to give it to people who can’t cope, and if there are real life consequences for those who can’t figure it out, it does seem a little cruel does it not?

But then again I can’t 100% condemn this whole business of transferring the GEP material to the larger population. I mean, we’ve done our share of public service haven’t we, serving as willing guinea pigs for practices that may or may not make their way into the broader curriculum. If you think that certain things are good for the GEP then at least some of them are also good for all students. If it’s not something that’s stupid then I’m all for it.

Well I’ve tried to be as objective about this program that has taken up seven years of my life. One thing that I am that a lot of commentators are not: I am an insider. You cannot afford to ignore an insider’s perspective when it comes to these things. Nobody’s going to believe that I’m 100% objective about this thing, but from a lot of what’s been written out there, many people don’t have a bloody clue what they’re talking about, they’re just there to attack something that they think is offensive and exclusive. A lot of people have put a lot of hard work into this program, a lot of hardworking and idealistic people have taught me and I’m pretty grateful to them, even though in general I’m more of a teacher’s pest than a teacher’s pet. Whatever you want to salvage from this, you must let the good continue even as you reform the system. You just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


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