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Gifted Education


Gifted Education

Comments on Singapore’s Gifted Education Program

I once met a very bright teenage girl in the Gifted Education Program at a top Singapore school. I asked if she knew a girl who was at the same level studying at the same school, but was not in the gifted program. Her reply was "I don't mix with normal girls."

Let me explain what was meant by her reply. The Gifted Education Program segregates the top echelon by an IQ test. They are the elite 1%, and the rest of the cohort (99%) is non-gifted or "normal". Unfortunately the word "normal" has two meanings in the Singapore educational system. The higher IQ children are channelled into the Express stream, while the lower IQ go into the Normal stream. Therefore in Singapore, "Normal" is not normal.

Singapore's Gifted Education Program was set up in 1984. The original purpose was to provide highly intelligent students with better teachers and with a more challenging syllabus that could stretch their abilities to the fullest. (1)

It was argued that such a program was a very efficient way of investing our limited resources. Gifted students, it was believed, have a greater potential of becoming leaders and would hopefully become the major generators of future wealth. Thus, in the long run, graduates from the program would create new wealth which will pay for the program.

Over the years there have been many comments on gifted education. Below are some of the major criticisms.

The definition of "gifted" is too narrow. Currently, the test for entry into Singapore’s Gifted Education Program is based on an IQ test, which focuses predominantly upon language and mathematics. Significantly, what is left out are creativity, social competence, emotional drive, artistic, music, and other abilities.

The program engenders an elite snobbery. This is exemplified by the example given above. There are two further incidents that can be added. The first is known as the Wee Shu Min Controversy. This 18-year-old junior college student posted arrogant and insensitive comments in response to a blog essay. (2)

The second incident was a letter written to the newspaper by a student in the gifted education program, describing “mainstreamers” (students not in gifted education) as immature.

Another criticism of the Gifted Education Program is that it tends to favor the Chinese and the Indians, and disadvantages, albeit inadvertently and certainly unintentionally, the Malays. This is based on the observation Malays have tended to fare less well in state exams compared to other racial groups. Unconfirmed observations by teachers of the program have suggested that less than 15% of their classes are Malay students, although Malays comprise 15% of the Singapore population. (3) (4)

There is also some concern that the program tends to concentrate people with mild Asperger Syndrome because they have the ability to focus and concentrate on a narrow topic and excel in it. This is quite evident when you watch the following documentary video on the Gifted Education Program. Some of the interviewees may be mildly autistic. (5)

Many parents send their children to private tuition centres to train them for the program’s entrance exam. More time is spent being drilled on exam papers, and less time becomes available for other activities. This has the adverse effect of distorting a child’s education. (6)

The Gifted Education Program is now 28 years old. One might expect some shining star graduates that have emerged over these past decades. However, the silence from the Ministry of Education is deafening. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then where are these showcase individuals? What have they achieved?

Let me widen the discussion by having a look at the famous longitudinal study of genius by Lewis Terman. In 1921, he performed IQ tests on California school children, and selected for long-term follow-up those who had an I.Q. ranging between 135 and 200, the top 1% of the cohort. About 1,500 children with an average IQ of 151, mostly whites, an average age of 11 years, fell into this category, and they were followed up until today.

At the 35 year follow-up point, out of the 857 males, 70 earned listings in American Men of Science, and 3 were elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 10 had entries in the Directory of American Scholars, and 31 appeared in Who's Who in America. Altogether, they had published 2000 scientific and technical papers and articles, 60 books and monographs, 33 novels, 375 short stories, novelettes and plays, and were granted 230 patents. However, the majority (88%) of the male cohort had more mundane jobs, such as policemen, seamen, typists, filing clerks, etc. It led Terman to conclude: “Iintellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”

What is even more significant is that Terman had tested and rejected two students, who later won Nobel Prizes. They were William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, and Luis Alvarez, who constructed the first liquid hydrogen bubble chamber.

The IQ of other Nobel prize-winners were also not in the top 1% range. Richard Feynman who proposed the concept of quantum electrodynamics only had an IQ of 125, while Francis Crick, the discover of DNA had an IQ of 115. (They might not even have made it into the top Singapore schools!)

Personally I am ambivalent about the Gifted Education Program. I have never been through one. But looking at the advantages lavished upon students in the Gifted Program, like smaller class size, challenging projects, and the provision of better quality teachers, I think that this program is something that should be made available to all school children, whether "gifted" or not.

I am worried about the compartmentalization of students. Currently disabled children are segregated into separate schools. This creates an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" mentality. When you herd a group of students with the label "gifted" into a special program, sooner or later they might believe in their own superiority over "normal" students. Will this lack of humility rob such students of their humanity? Many of these students have breezed through life and have never experienced failure. Will they understand "normal" ungifted people like most of us? Will they remember to give back to society?

So we have to ask the question: Is the Gifted Education Program still relevant for Singapore?

My impression is that the Gifted Education Program is unnecessary for the top Singapore schools where they are currently situated. However, I believe they may be more valuable if they are relocated to the less prestigious neighborhood schools. Any successful accomplishments of the gifted program should be disseminated, where appropriate, to all schools in Singapore.

And another thing, we should not label children as "gifted" or "normal"!

Kenneth Lyen