29 Nov 2005

Elitism in stratified education.

There's been some talk in the news lately about Singapore's Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and whether it breeds elitism. While acknowledging that people should, generally, move on from their narrow educational backgrounds and create lives which are not defined by which class in which school they went to decades ago, I would have thought this was so obvious as not to require controversy. Of course the GEP - and all stratified education - breeds elitism.

The justification frequently raised in favour of stratified education is that it helps children learn better. The argument goes that the teacher can pitch the tenor of the lessons according to the abilities of the children involved, so that brighter kids can be taught at a faster rate without leaving others unable to follow, while slower kids can be instructed at a pace appropriate to them without boring the more talented. The result, it is claimed, is better education for all. And because children are streamed into the GEP or other better streams according to tests that determine their merit, this ensures equality of opportunity, regardless of socioeconomic background.

But is this what really happens? I'm going to address this question on three bases: first, the one of equality of opportunity; second, the one of pedagogical effectiveness; third, the question of what primary and secondary education should seek to do.

First, equality of opportunity. Any streaming system and the GEP presuppose that the tests that separate children into various strata do so on the basis of innate merit, and that such merit can be effectively identified at the ages when the tests are administered. But the criticisms of this are obvious. First, there are always children with the potential to be late bloomers, for whom being labelled as underachieving or a failure at an early age may prove a major obstacle to what would otherwise be a successful academic career. Secondly, these tests are undeniably biased towards those who with cultural advantages such as English-speaking parents or parents savvy enough to know the consequences of passing these tests, as well as towards those whose families have the money to supply them with books, tutors, and pleasant surroundings in which to study (and who don't have to have their kids hold down part-time jobs to help the household make ends meet). The result is that children end up having a different quality of education not according to merit but according to class.

But does this matter? Don't kids who have the disadvantages I've talked about need to be taught at a slower pace anyway, so that not being in the GEP or in a more advanced stream would ultimately be better for them? This brings me to the second question, that of pedagogical effectiveness. The argument that "everyone gets a better education" from stratification might be arguable if there were indeed equal resources being poured into both "good" schools and "bad" schools. But there aren't. Motivated teachers prefer to teach classes full of bright kids rather than classes full of kids who are seen as disruptive wastrels, so clever children get better teachers and other children get worse ones. Moreover, the GEP has historically had a disproportionate amount of money allocated to it by the Ministry of Education, manifested most obviously in smaller classroom sizes.

Moreover, even if equal amounts were being spent on each kid per capita, regardless of their stream, this doesn't neutralise the problem with stratified education in terms of classroom dynamic, which is a large part of the reason for streaming to begin with. It's probably true that clever kids do better academically in an environment full of other clever kids: most of the kids who pass these tests are likely to be fairly well-behaved and task-oriented, because, as I've already mentioned, the selection procedure favours kids with at least moderately well-off, pushy and savvy parents. But this is at the expense of kids who've achieved less, because, by definition, if the proportion of disruptive kids in GEP and other high-stream classes has decreased, the proportion of disruptive kids in the other classes has increased. So that children left in these classes - the vast majority of children in the educational system - face an environment that makes it harder for them to learn. In many cases, these kids don't need to be taught at a slower pace so much as they need to be in an environment where a focus on teaching is possible at all.

And I haven't even begun to talk about the psychological effects of being told from an early age that you're not as smart as Johnny Tan or Michelle Lim from the school next door, and you never will be, and that's why you need to get dumped in the thicko bin.

But that ties in quite nicely with my third objection to stratified education. Is the point of education simply to churn out people who can do sums and write summaries? Or is part of the value of education the social factor - the opportunity it provides for children to learn to interact with a peer group and socialise with people? It seems to me that if, as I have suggested, kids with inherent advantages from their background will do well in any case, it is far less important that they learn one more scientific theorem or Shakespearean text than they otherwise could have, and more important that they learn what it's like to be someone who doesn't come from the sort of background that they come from. To learn that they are not those "other people" who go to that "other place" which is for people who aren't as smart as you. It's equally important that children who don't achieve as much academically learn that they can interact with those who do as equals and peers, and that not everyone who goes to a good school is a rich snob.

People say you don't need school to do this - that children can mix with other children in their own time - but you can't discount the influence of the school environment. Children spend the vast majority of their time there. What they see in their classes becomes, in their minds, a sort of normalised, representative vision of the world they live in. It may well be the case - it should hopefully be the case - that they may change their minds about this the more they see of the world, and come to realise that they came from a very specific background. But too often this takes the form of a sort of subcutaneous elitism, a deeply rooted assumption that as a gifted or highly educated child one is innately better or more rational or intelligent in some overarching, holsitic way - when all they've done is answer test questions better. Yes, people can shrug off the influence of the school environment towards elitism, but why install that influence to begin with? We shouldn't underestimate the impact of the place that they spent every working day for years upon years during a formative stage of their life, especially as many children who do well in school then go on to tertiary education where they continue to be surrounded by others who share their social and economic status to a large degree.

A final word: it seems to me much of the claims relating to better teaching in streamed systems can be answered by simply having a much less weighty syllabus to begin with. Teach kids less in the regular curriculum, so that most kids can keep up with it; and then offer completely optional courses and extra-curriculuar activities so that kids who are interested in finding out more have the opportunity to do so. I think bright kids will do even better out of a system that lets them shape their own intellectual - and other - exploration in their free time.


Mr Wang Says So said...

I began to see these issues about gifted education in quite a different light when I became a father. I have two young children - one is very bright, and the other is not merely bright, but quite obviously gifted. Both are a long way off from the GEP age, but the exceptional development of the older child led me to do a lot of reading up on the literature about giftedness (in children & adults), and of course some of this literature touches on issues relating to special programmes for gifted children.

Before I proceed further, I hasten to add that I do not commenting specifically with the Singapore GEP system in mind - I am out of touch and do not know what it has now developed into, and how successfully it has managed to handle its gifted students. I am commenting mainly from a general point of view about gifted children and their education needs.

I've more or less come to the conclusion that gifted children - truly gifted children, as opposed to children who are merely very bright, or very exam-smart, or very well-tutored - suffer in a normal education environment, as much as a retarded child would suffer in a normal education system. A normal education system psychologically harms the gifted student as much as it would harm the mentally slow student.

And it is therefore very important that gifted children be placed in an environment that at least acknowledges their different-ness, and makes some attempt to cater to that different-ness.

One of the common problems with raising/educating gifted kids is their asynchronous development. Overall, they are well ahead of the normal kid, but they are not uniformly ahead in all areas. In some areas, they may be far, far advanced, in other areas they may be far advanced, in yet other areas they may be on par or slightly behind. Imagine, for example, a 5-year-old Einstein, whose amazing logical-mathematical intelligence so vastly outstripped his perfectly average linguistic intelligence, that he kept very quiet because he was not able to express with the spoken word all the extremely complex logical challenges he was tackling in his his head - he kept so quiet that his teachers mistook him to be retarded. Another example I read about was a three-year-old who loudly chastised three strangers in a supermarket for purchasing unhealthy food. The three-year-old advised the three hapless aunties that the sugar content in their choice of breakfast cereal was too high and in fact provided far less dietary fibre than certain other better alternatives on the same shelf. The 3-year-old, who habitually read the nutritional labels on supermarket items just for fun, knew all about fibre and sugar content (not to mention vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals etc) but his interpersonal intelligence was only a typical 3-year-old's and he did not know that it is not considered socially inappropriate to chastise strangers for their poor choice of food items in a supermarket.

Both the child Einstein and the 3-year-old I mentioned would be traumatised in a normal school environment. If they reached their full potential, it would be despite the system, rather than because of it. They would be much better off in a gifted programme with specially trained teachers who understand better how to deal with these asynchronously-developed children.

Of course, I am only glossing over the issues now. It would be difficult for me to elaborate further in a forum like this. But those who are really interested can always look up the literature.

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pantalaimon said...

Mr Wang:

What proportion of children would you say count as 'gifted' in the sense that you have outlined? My close personal experience with the products of GEP make me sceptical that your remarks really apply to the students on that programme or the way that programme is treated.
But you have already disclaimed any specific reference to the GEP so perhaps we would simply talk at cross-purposes to discuss this in that context.

Wowbagger said...

I agree that the GEP heightens the problem of elitism. However I also agree with Mr Wang that gifted children need a special environment to flourish. To answer pantalaimon's question, my opinion is that 70% of GEP students count as 'gifted' in the way that Mr Wang describes - not fully to Einstein's standards, but enough that they would be 'alienated' in normal classrooms.

Furthermore, GEP is not only about learning more stuff. In fact that is not what I perceive as the main strength of the programme. The main strength is in the learning environment it creates, one of relatively unbounded intellectual curiosity and freedom, which might sound like crap (I used to think it was crap) until you've experienced both GEP and non-GEP environments. A lot of GEP students feel suffocated when they leave GEP after the O-levels.

It is hard to make an ethical case for spending more money per head on GEP students though. I think a compromise might be allowing for a more flexible hierarchy of education in which brighter students are allowed to skip grades and take elective classes (although elective classes might also end up breeding elitism, but perhaps to a lesser extent).

Heavenly Sword said...

(1) "Motivated teachers prefer to teach classes full of bright kids rather than classes full of kids who are seen as disruptive wastrels"

This is not true...There are good as well as average teachers in all streams. Also, you are assuming too much about what motivates teachers. Teachers who are more motivated when they see a bright kid and disinterested/demoralized/unmotivated when they see a not-so-bright kid shouldn't be in the education profession.

(2) (on disruptive kids) "children left in these classes - the vast majority of children in the educational system - face an environment that makes it harder for them to learn."

If that is the case, then the problem is classroom discipline, rather than anything else.

(3) "the GEP - and all stratified education - breeds elitism."

The GEP is also a form of networking. But your 3rd objection does make sense: 'cross-streaming interactions' will be good for the GEP students.

(4) Finally, I would challenge the view that a gifted student must/should be place in GEP. It could be bad for his self-esteem, if he's not the most gifted among the gifted (e.g. if he belongs to the bottom half). He might shine and develop more if he goes to Express stream. And yes, there seems to be an assumption that ALL Express students are nowhere near gifted students in terms of academic cleverness - this is not true: the very good or top Express students are (or can be, as I've seen) as smart or smarter than the bottom half of the GEP.

(5) This leads me to the next point: bear in mind WHEN the test was conducted. The kids are all so young then. Those hundreds(?) of kids who narrowly missed the 'cut-off point' and then entered Express stream (possibly in top high schools) may well develop faster when they are 13-16 years old, resulting in Situation (4) described above.

(6) I think some kids from GEP are indeed 'gifted'. But in principle, I would hesitate to equate test-taking ability with giftedness.

Wowbagger said...

I don't think anyone is making any generalisations about express students. In any testing procedure it is inevitable that there is some ambiguity near the cut-off point as to who 'qualifies'. The question is whether the GEP should exist at all. I would suggest that a significant proportion of GEP students would be much worse off without the GEP. Of course there are some who would do well in Express as well, and there are Express students who would do well in GEP. Giftedness forms a statistical distribution, not an absolute standard.

Wowbagger said...

Also agree that GEP classes don't necessarily get the best teachers. In fact, in a school that shall remain unnamed, many otherwise enthusiastic teachers preferred to teach Express classes because they found GEP students too weird. And there were a few GEP teachers found that they didn't have to teach much for the students to ace the exams, and hence fooled around in class without teaching anything, instead of going beyond the exam curriculum and exploring more challenging material.

Anonymous said...

All parents loooovveee to think their brats are gifted and 'special'.

Mr Wang Says So said...

You're probably right about that. Wishful thinking. The objective thing to do is simply to check your child's progress against the standard developmental milestones for child development.

For example, there are typical age ranges for the average child to start learning to speak, start understanding the concept of counting, start learning to draw a coherent picture etc. If your child starts exceeding several milestones significantly, then well, you have a good indication.

Early speaking is one of the easier indicators to spot. Some normal kids do not learn to say "Dada" or "Mama" until they are 18 months old. My kid spoke these words at six months, and at 18 months could name pentagons, hexagons and octagons and explain their differences.

Sometimes things get difficult for parents of gifted children because the parents dare not believe that their child is gifted. It can be a frightening experience for the parents because subconsciously they may wish they just had a normal kid like everyone else. My advice is that the parents will always be in the better position to know better than anyone else whether the child is gifted or not, because the parents spend the most time with the child. But if you do not trust your own judgment, you can always check against the standard developmental milestones I mentioned.

But again, as I said, be aware of asynchronous development. My three-year-old is already able to read simple story books - he can even read sentences in the Straits Times - but he doesn't yet have the fine motor skills to write a, b, c. Given a set of crayons, all he draws are wild squiggles and lines - which is developmentally normal for a child of his age.

Anonymous said...

In Britain and US, the elite is defined as rich and white, and entire schools are known to be populated with the elite. At least in Singapore, anyone regardless of race and income can get to the best schools in Singapore. The fees of certain premiere schools have been raised heftily, but the scholarship which was awarded to most students has been extended to cover the JC period so that students can continue with the through train program.

GEP only makes up a few classes, and these kids are truly smart. They learn without having to excessively study, and their pace would stress children who may be academically inclined, but who do not pick up things at the super fast speed that GEP students do.

The GEP kids go to the same junior colleges as everyone, and they are not separated into classes, and they interact just like anyone else.

Anonymous said...

This is a topic fairly close to my heart. I once raised this question to a scholar at an eminent graduate school of education and was literally dismissed. I don't know exactly how the GEP/Express/Mono tripartite (or is it) has mutated since I was a student of that level so I can only comment very briefly.

Elitism aside, it is a big assumption on the writer to make that students of a 'GEP' level will willingly seek out students of a 'sub-GEP' level and vice versa. As far as I know, kids sort themselves out based on their interests and skills (for example, 'GEP' and 'sub-GEP' Doom players will come together) than their academic scores. Only professors do that :).

Nevertheless, the writer did hit on one good point: are we interested in producing smart kids, or imminently innovative, inventive and creative working adults capable of producing new works at a very high level? At this moment, I think we are assuming that smart kids will at least have a higher probability to becoming such adults. This assumption is by itself not erroneous but by my experience, too much faith is placed in such a direct consequential transformation. Creative work at such high level takes more than book smart. It takes both deep interest and personal investment, as well as environmental support to reach that level. Given this, rationales for GEP and sub-GEP seemed very superficial indeed for this aim. Singapore was sarcastically commented upon in a recent article in NYtimes when the US was analyzing their loss of science students as a place where scores are high but inventiveness low.

I think it is very clear that equality of opportunity is an ideal we strive for which can never be really operationalized in real life. Thus, any argument that attempt to treat this as something that can be grasped is idealistic at its best, or plainly misleading in its worst form. In addition, as far as pedagogical effectiveness is concerned, like what the other participants said, it really depends on the teachers. Some teachers like it more homogenous and some like it more challenging. Personally, I prefer a mix as one engaged in teaching. Pedagogy is also two hands clapping dynamically: one can talk about teaching but the other is the learning attitude and motivation of the students. One affects the other.

In my humble opinon, the real question has less to do outright elitism than the moment when common, human strive for excellence becomes elitism.

Anonymous said...

I also think that the present system of sorting students out based on testing has the potential to be vulgarized (if it hasn't happen already...) to be what the writer was driving at (in the I am better than you because I am here and you are there mentality). Perhaps how to mitigate this vulgarization through better communications or representations is the way to go.

If we argue on the behalf of the folks responsible for this system anywhere, one can say that in a scenario of limited resources, we have to give ourselves some assurance of those who we can throw resources at and hopefully, one or two will become champions to take us somewhere, than to divide resources all equally and risk the former possibility. This rational argument came up time and again before, and as always, the rationale is problematic on two counts: one, a probabilistic guarantee is taken as a real guarantee, and two, we miss out on other possibilities with this type of high growth venture investment.

In this light, I think one can only pick a fight with the GEP program if the GEP takes an extraordinarily high amount of investment when compared to other programs, or an disproportionate amount of fussing given over to the GEP than coming up with alternative models than the tiered system used now.

Anonymous said...

The so called "standard development of milestones" may not be that accurate at all. I read reports before of some kids who top in the PSLE or "O" Level before that they cant even speak a single word when there are 3. Einstien was famous for being a slow learner and shyness to speak when he was young. Beside, training a kid to speak and tell the difference between square and triangle is probably due to the effort of parents to nuture their "gifted" kids.

Personally, I believed a gifted kid will excel eventually if he puts in hard work and determination. He doesnt excel simply becos he was put in a class surrounded by fellow "gifted" kids, expecting to success. Such scheme, i think, create a pressure for the kids to pursue what the education want for them, instead of what they want for themselves. I known of a friend, who was from GEP before. She told me that the govt keep tracks of their progress throughout the years, and even organised gathering for fellow GEP pple to meet up in an effort to "match-make" them, so as to bred the next generation of "super gifted"...

Mr Wang Says So said...

See my earlier comment about the child Einstein. I believe that it was an example of the problem of asynchronous development that I mentioned. His amazing logical-mathematical intelligence vastly outstrupped his average linguistic intelligence, leading him to be mistaken to be slow. The reality is that he was probably very quiet because his ordinary level linguistic intelligence was totally inadequate to express the extraordinary level of complexity in his head when he used his logical-mathematical intelligence. The conventional schooling system that he was exposed to utterly failed to understand this.

This is a common problem for gifted children - they are too far advanced in some kinds of intelligences and not so far advanced in others. Imagine the child Mozart - after finishing his breathtaking piano performances to stunned audiences, he probably cried because he needed to go to toilet and didn't know how to do it himself.

On kids learning shapes etc - well, I knew someone would mention that. Even my mother used to look at me suspiciously when my young kid said things like "Hexagon" etc. The thing is that gifted kids are so curious and they learn so quickly. Once they understand that there is this concept called "shapes", they want you to tell them all the shapes there are. They watch one episode of Sesame Street and they already know what's a square, circle, rectangle etc. Naturally, they move on and next learn what's an oval, a star, a heart shape etc. That again takes like a grand total of two minutes to master. So what to do next? Obviously you move on to pentagon, hexagon, cone, cylinder etc.

Meanwhile the average kids of that age are dealing with the challenge of saying "Daddy" or "Mummy". So obviously they are not quite ready to learn the concept of "Uncle", "Second Cousin" or "Fifth Auntie". Much less "pentagon" or "hexagon".

Some gifted kids don't excel in school. Some flop miserably, actually (relative to their potential). Studies overseas show this clearly. Every now and then, you hear about the truck driver in the US with an IQ of 150, placing him in the top 0.5% of the human race. What happened? Reasons are complex. Again, a bit difficult to go into right now.

shaun said...

This article is actually not bad, and there are quite a few valid points.

The stratification of students into different schools and streams is, while with it's good points (allows the gifted to be in an environment where learning isn't discouraged and where the "weirdo" isn't as easily made into a social outcast, etc.) also has it's bad points - specifically, prejudice towards those from "better" schools and streams, most obviously (as in the article) the unfair distribution of money and talent throughout the streams. This seems a lot more like condemnation that anything else; if it were truly merely a question of different abilities and paces, why then the difference in avaliable funds?

I agree with the author in the use of completely optional courses and CCAs for children to shape their own learning - mainly because it removes most defining stratifications and lets students mix around more easily, and also because it gives them far more choice - but at the same time there are the parents to consider, quite a few of which I suspect will drive their children into specific courses and lessons, rather than allowing their children to choose for themselves. There are parents out there who frown when their children get to know people from "lesser" schools, and who pressure their kids to get into the top schools, usually with a detrimental effect to the kid's childhood. Elitism rearing its ugly head once more.

With such a system oriented towards rote learning and exam scores, plus use of notes and memorization, it is of course natural that students do not have as much incentive to exercise their creativity - which isn't prized because creativity "doesn't bring in the test scores". The problem is inherent in the system and cannot be easily solved by entrepreneurship CCAs and creativity classes.

Any changes, though, will have to take into account the inertia of the current system and of the current tuition/assessment/exam-based culture.

pantalaimon said...

Thanks everyone for the really interesting comments. A few remarks:

(1) I wonder if there isn't something vaguely contradictory about saying, on the one hand, that GEP children don't generally get better teachers, and then saying, on the other hand, that GEP suits special needs. I suppose this remark is directed at Wowbagger, who is the only person who has suggested both positions at the same time. Would you care to comment? If GEP children don't actually get better teachers, is the only point of putting them all together so that they learn in an environment made up solely of their own - and how would you answer the resulting charges of problematic socialisation?

(2) More generally, I expected the comment about motivated teachers to get some flak, and I'm glad it did. I'm not entirely certain the comment about teachers preferring express to GEP classes in the same school addresses this, if only because my remarks were directed not solely at the GEP but at the entire notion of stratified education to begin with. While accepting the doubtfulness of my specific claim about teachers, I feel the general issue - that more highly achieving children get more resources devoted to them - remains live.

(3) I am entirely unconvinced that the GEP programme in Singapore or that the 'top schools' in Singapore cater to people with 'special' needs in the manner that Mr Wang suggests. I am intimately familiar with the GEP and many of its alumni, and there is no doubt in my mind that the majority of them are simply bright and/or well-schooled children, without needs that couldn't simply be met by having a light ordinary syllabus and many enriching electives. It's also not clear to me that whatever advantages these children may enjoy in terms purely of intellectual and/or academic development if their 'special needs' are catered to separately outweigh the disadvantages of a heavily distorted social experience.

(4) I am also unconvinced that the 'transition' experience of GEP alumni necessarily says anything about their 'special needs.' A notable alternative explanation for this is that perhaps they were simply getting a better sort of schooling, while in GEP, and that it is a type of schooling that very many people, not just themselves, would respond well to. Hence when they are taken out of it, they feel unhappy. Which says nothing about their supposed specialness.

(5) Someone suggested that if the problem is classroom discipline, that's not a reason to do away with streaming. On the contrary. Pooling well-behaved and well-schooled kids together makes other classes face a higher proportion of disruptive kids. The more disruptive kids, the greater the focus of the teacher has to be on getting through material by rote, and the less mitigating influence there is of attractive role models amongst the educational peer group. The result? Poorer education.

(6) Other reasons for poorer education in classes on the lower end of any streaming exercise: poorer class discussions, poorer group projects, poorer motivation when you're told you can't make it anyway.

(7) There has been some suggestion that elitism "would occur anyway", and that therefore the form of educational institutions we choose don't matter. I think this oversimplifies the matter. Whether we impose rigidly hierarchical categories of supposed merit which then go on to greatly affect children's futures from a young age, and whether we continue to allocate more resources to those we deem 'superior' by this metric obviously influences the way and extent to which latent drives to elitism may be expressed. To draw a parallel, can it seriously be doubted that a system of governance involving kings and aristocracy does not encourage and perpetuate a kind of elitism more than does one involving citizens protected as equal under the law and all of whom participate in choosing their leader? The answer to this is obviously no, and the answer to the question of whether the kinds of institutions we choose contribute to elitism must obviously be yes.

(8) Someone, I forget who, said that equality of opportunity is too nebulous and/or idealistic a yardstick by which to judge policy. I disagree completely. It may not be possible to achieve total equality of opportunity given the complexity of social and economic factors involved, but that doesn't stop us from identifying clear equality issues in any given set-up. If an educational set-up is such that children who grow up in richer families have a better chance of enjoying more resources devoted by the state to their education, this clearly raises an equality of opportunity issue by comparison to a non-streamed system where this particular source of inequality would not arise in this particular way. The notion that equality is completely non-justiciable is simply wrong.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Pantalaimon for your thoughts and response. I have the following counter-remarks:

1. Let's heighten the stakes a little here to sieve more out of our interesting discussion. You said, "that more highly achieving children get more resources devoted to them - remains live." My response to this is that in a sceanrio which is painfully realistic of limited resources, our rationale directs us to devote more of these precious resources to ventures that show some promise hitherto, than ventures that comparatively show less promise hitherto. Logically, this makes no sense since we have only the past as the assured record which do not say anything at all about the future (i.e. the GEP kid could become a mad genius and destroy all we have built up and so on). Nevertheless, this is something that we follow through in all compartments of our life and to a certain extent, cannot be helped.

My take on this is that if resources are channelled disproportionately to the high achievers at an incommensurable costs to the lower ones, than we cannot shake off the accusations of being labelled elitist. However, in a saner worldview, devoting a higher than average amount of resources at these kids is a rational thing to do. Of course, if someone gains, another must lose in a strictly close system. However, the social picture is more complicated than this and I am sure, there is someway in which one's loss is being compensated by some other forms of gain.

2. On remark (3), I stand with you but would prefer to enlarge the claim, such that in most contemporary education system (one can even say that non-tertiary education globally is not so differentiated these days...), special needs are rarely met. Ellen Langemann, an educator in the US, once said that in the debate between the progressives and the conservatives on the mode of education, the conservatives won. What the conservatives stood for was for the 'factory' method of teaching and learning, while the progressives were more allied to what Mr. Wang said in certain parts, of allowing the kids to explore and learn on their own and so on. While the real world picture is a mixture these days (thanks to the rhetoric of the progressivists in schools of education...), the challenge for this present system to meet the special needs of individual kids is a palpable one.

3. Since (8) was directed at my comments, let me clarify further. I claimed in its best form, equality of opportunity is idealistic and in its worst, misleading. Based on your counter-argument that "it may not be possible to achieve total equality of opportunity...", I think we have a mutual agreement here that this is a idealistic vision, hence, a disagreement is contradictory. What I hear you saying here is that you are rightfully worried that the system we have now favors the wealthy and discriminate against those from less endowed backgrounds. I stand by your worries but I think this is truely overstated. Being in a materistically richer environment has its share of woes and distraction that kids from lesser, but no less supportive, environments do not have. My personal experience in one of the 'premier' and 'branded' schools has generally convinced me that the rich ones like to talk about what they have and the materistically less endowed ones tend to concentrate better. Rather, I think the key here is how motivated individual kid is, rich or less rich (I preclude real poverty because it is rare in Singapore. Correct me if I am wrong). From this, I think one can only conclude that children who grow up in rich families have a better chance of enjoying more resources is true if and only if we take their individual motivation into account. To me, kids from rich and less rich environment, given equal family and state support, have equal chances of success.

Lastly, I did not extend my claim so far as to include that 'the notion that equality is completely non-justifiable'. I think equality is a value that must be fought and bled for even though it is arbitrary and idealistic in its best form. It is even contradictory in an ontological sense in a world where we encourage diversity and the development of individual talents but because it tends to stabilize our system so that we can continue to trive, we profess to know it and uphold it. At least this is my folk theory.

Wowbagger said...

If GEP children don't actually get better teachers, is the only point of putting them all together so that they learn in an environment made up solely of their own - and how would you answer the resulting charges of problematic socialisation?
Yes, I would say that the main point of putting them together is the environment. And although the teachers are not necessarily better, they tend to allow for greater exploration of intellectual issues than would teachers in other streams who are usually obsessed about grades and grades alone.

I do not agree that the GEP type of schooling that many people would like. From my experience in a so-called 'top' JC, intellectual enquiry outside of the A-level syllabus was often frowned upon in class, and the reading of non-textbooks during recess and anything that was not Harry Potter was mocked as 'pretentious'. In fact, students often complained when teachers did not spoonfeed enough model answers or when teachers went off on tangents on interesting topics not in the curriculum. Students in general much preferred to engage in conventional rather than intellectual play, and attempts at intellectualisation were interpreted as snottiness.

As for problematic socialisation, one must weigh it against the cost of inhibiting the intellectual development of the brightest students. It is a valid concern for which I have no easy answer.

Wowbagger said...

Sorry, the opening sentence of the second paragraph sould have read "I do not agree that the GEP type of schooling is one that many people would like."

Anonymous said...


You touched upon an interesting issue here. I can say the same in one of the top universities in the US...The students, bright as they are, want only what will be tested. A slight swerve out of the core curriculum will bring upon a slew of complaints ranging from what's the point to we better concentrate on the materials to be tested.

Engaging in "intellectual play" is virtually non-existent until graduate schools and at the undergraduate level (yes, all 4 years...), applies only to the most motivated students valuing the learning for learning's sake.

My folk theory in this is the accursed metric-test evaluation system. It heightens what is cheap and cheapens what is noble.

pantalaimon said...

Thanks everyone again for the replies. Here’s my response:

(1) Anonymous, I don’t for an instant accept the claim that it is more “rational” to devote more resources to children who at age 9 or 12 show that they have achieved more than other children at age 9 or 12. Why is it more “rational”? Doesn’t whether a measure is “rational” depend on whether it is suitable for achieving the aim that you have in mind? What aim do you presuppose when you say, therefore, that disproportionate allocation of resources to the successful is more “rational”?

I have alluded to my stand on this before: I think that the educational system should not entrench existing inequalities of wealth and opportunity (which it does, if children whose achievements can be attributed to private resources then enjoy more public resources). I also think that the educational system should aim at enabling children to develop as diverse, empathetic and complete an understanding of the social makeup of their community as is commensurate with other goals. I think the educational system should aid the development of the latent potential of the children in it. None of these aims leads us to any conclusion that it is “rational” to ask the public to subsidise the development of children who already have either natural or economic advantages, at the expense of those who do not. It is arguable that the third consideration (development of potential) might suggest this, but it’s certainly not straightforwardly “rational” insofar as:

(a) The third consideration may conflict with the first two considerations, and it’s not clear to me that it should be weighted
(b) You assume that these children all have fixed and significantly different capacities for development, and that these are somehow well represented by their results in a test they did when they were 9 or 12, when, as I have already pointed out, material and cultural advantages go a long way to influence these results.

It is absolutely not the case that any state decision to allocate resources “cannot be helped.” The state can simply allocate resources differently. I have already explained how. Moreover, you do not elaborate on your claim that you are “sure” that “there is someway in which one's loss is being compensated by some other forms of gain.” In the absence of any explanation from you, may I suggest that this bare statement comes across as somewhat na├»ve? What ensures that the losers in the system are compensated?

(2) Anonymous, you said: “To me, kids from rich and less rich environment, given equal family and state support, have equal chances of success.” I am glad you have no quarrel with the search for equality, but I am afraid I continue to disagree on this count, at least insofar as “family support” is largely emotional in nature. If family support includes things like providing private tutors, providing good quality books, being able to read with your kids when they are young, not requiring children to do large amounts of housework or part-time work, and providing children with their own rooms or other comfortable environment in which to study, there is no basis for saying that poorer families can give their children as much family support as richer ones. This isn’t even counting the cultural advantages that come with being in, say, a middle-class family where the parents are more likely know with greater detail any of the following: how the examination and school systems work, when the GEP and other streaming tests are coming up and what their impact on their child will be, how to answer children’s questions when they have trouble with their schoolwork; and moreover, in Singapore, where the family is more likely to speak English. The confluence of all these factors means it is almost undeniably the case that richer children generally do better than poorer ones. The question is not just how the children in your “premier” and “branded” schools did and their relative levels of wealth: the question is also how much harder the poorer children may have had to work at some things to get there and keep up, and what a disproportionate number of richer children were there to begin with.

(3) Wowbagger, it seems to me that your complaints about non-GEP students may have as much to do with how they were socialised as any supposed innate lack of interest or capacity. GEP students had 7 years to get used to and enjoy a more playful style of learning, and they had an environment where they were encouraged to be pleased with their own intellectual development, and they were placed in that at a young age where they were likely to have rather flexible attitudes towards learning. Other students, by all accounts, spent the same amount of time being taught by rote, almost certainly at least partly on the assumption that it was all they were capable of. Of course they complained when they weren’t taught by rote as well as they would have liked. If it was what you had come, from many years of experience, to expect of school and regard as its function, wouldn’t you?

(4) Also to Wowbagger, I’m not convinced that the absence of GEP would “inhibit the intellectual development of the brightest.” I have met many GEP alumni, as I have mentioned, and I have also met many, many bright people from all around the world. It seems to me that if there is any way in which Singapore’s “brightest” (at least insofar as academic results demonstrate this) fail by comparison to the others, it is precisely because they lack the breadth of vision and the flexibility that comes from a wide range of social experience rather than a large volume of classroom inquiry. They might do better on tests, but they certainly don’t better in reflective and reflexive situations, especially interpersonal ones (also a kind of intelligence). If a social environment of other bright kids is the main way in which GEP caters to the “special needs” of GEP kids, and that the failure to cater to this need is what makes GEP kids so unhappy outside the GEP, then what I would identify as the “special need” that GEP children have is that they need most of all to learn to be comfortable with people who are not like them! Moreover, if, as I have already suggested, non-GEP/non-high-stream students suffer educationally from the proportionally greater number of disruptive students in their class, and are excluded from gaining from the insights and interaction that might come with having some brighter kids contributing to class discussions and group projects, surely promoting GEP kids’ maximal intellectual development also comes at the expense of intellectually developing other kids? So it’s not just a trade-off between developing GEP kids intellectually and developing them socially, though it might be that – it’s also a trade-off between developing GEP kids that extra bit, and developing non-GEP kids an extra bit. So again my question: why prioritise those with the most advantages, whether natural (I have made my scepticism on this count plain) or socioeconomic?

(5) On a side note, I think America and Singapore have many interesting parallels in terms of turning out really ambitious, driven children who are extremely task-oriented and testing-focused. Having met a good number of Americans and also many people from other parts of the world, I would hesitate to take Anonymous' experience as indicative of the innate nature of people everywhere (especially as that experience is of a top school, no less, where many people would be particularly testing-driven to even get there, either in terms of being motivated to apply or motivated to do what it takes to get there).

Wowbagger said...


I disagree with point (5). My experience with students from around the world indicates that it's not just an 'American' or 'Singaporean' thing, but rather internationally uniform.

As to inhibition of intellectual development, I did not assume intellectual development to include interpersonal skills. I took intellectual to mean solely the 'pointy-headed intellectual' kind of intellectualism. I agree that GEP is unlikely to breed great diplomats, public relations officers or salesmen/entrepreneurs. I was thinking of it more as a route to serious scholarship. But then I suppose you are right and scholars aren't as important to Sg (given our usual economic priorities) as are the former. As a libertarian, I am actually against prioritising those with most advantages , and against govt spending in general - I simply don't believe that utilitarian analysis in this area can be done to any meaningful accuracy. However I feel compelled to at least defend some slurs against the GEP that are commonly propagated.

Also I would postulate that it is rather impossible to become comfortable with people who refuse to think unless one stops thinking as well. It is possible to put on a semblance of comfort, of course. There is a universal sort of herd mentality amongst schoolchildren everywhere that school is something to be avoided, or a necessary evil at best. This happens even in countries where there is no streaming. The presence of streaming in Sg alleviates to some extent the universal problem of nerds being bullied by the popular guys. This does not mean that streaming is necessarily a good thing overall - there are disadvantages as you have pointed out, and as I said earlier I do not believe in cost-benefit analysis on this issue, and so will not take a stand on whether we are 'better off' with streaming.

If intellectual stagnation were not innate, then we should change education such that everyone gets a 'free-wheeling' style of learning. It does not cost any more - in fact with less need to enforce academic discipline, it should cost less. However my conjecture is that the laziness inherent in human nature means that for purposes of efficiency, stressful, rigid evaluations are essential. The reason why GEP gets away with more free-wheeling stuff is that most GEP students can ace the exams without being having to whipped into shape to do it, and hence are relatively freer of exam-based pressures - it's still intense, but not as intense as it would be if they had less abilities. If you could point me to successful examples in which 'normal', rather than 'gifted', students were put through an intellectually playful education, I will be glad to reconsider my cynical opinion of human nature.

Anonymous said...


It is rational simply because one has to act based on what is given at that particular intersection. On one side you have 9-12 over-achievers and on the other side 9-12 who are less than stellar achievers. You can take a big risk, hence, irrational to invest these resources on the 9-12 underachievers, or you can be rational and invest that on the overachievers. On more than one occasion, I have pointed out that this is a given as long as (1) the investment on the overachievers do not incommensurably undermine the developmental opportunities in terms of resources for the underachievers and (2) that one can look into how the investment on the overachievers can be leveraged to serve the constituency of the underachievers. I don't know how for (2), if that is your question. I guess what I am saying is that the picture is not a winner takes all situation as you are repeatedly pointing out as the sole situation or outcome from this.

I will buy your 'rich person takes all' argument if and only if you concede to the fact that a wealthy environment has plenty of negative impacts as well. However, it is clear that your argument only look to one side of the story, which is the rich child has all the advantages while the less materialistically well off one has all the negative of life. Sure, a kid from a materialistically well off environment is more likely to have parents who are well versed with all the English toolkit and Singaporean academic lingo plus tuition fees and books to boot but one can make a diametrically opposite conclusion as well from the same evidence: that the parents are just as likely to be career minded, stuffing their kids with toys and less than affectionate care resulting in a more than a few drop outs with plenty of cash lingering around Takashimaya (used to be Far East or Centerpoint of my generation)!

Sure, 'rationality' has everthing to do with the aim or what one has in mind in the first place. However, in matters regarding the ultimate aim of education and how education can be bootstrapped for eventual, and perhaps even non-quantifiable national productivity, basing it on a form of meta-aim as you implicitly implied could be seen as foolhardy. In public policy system, it is long believed that planning precedes action but quite on the contrary, action often precedes planning, so to speak in the real world. If there are two groups of statistics in front of me, the body that gives the green light on A vs B is very likely to hedge the bets on A stock than B stock if A looks more favorable than B in both short and long run. Rationality has you have it is never that idealistic in the real world.

pantalaimon said...


I think we are still at the same point. You say it's rational to act based on the information we have now. And I agree. I would hardly suggest acting on the basis of information you don't have, or acting contrary to the information you do have.

The question remains what you have in mind. The maximisation of some notion of global academic returns on resources? If that is your idea of the aim of the educational system, then perhaps it does follow that devoting more resources to children who have hitherto done better is "rational." But you need to add that aim before that's the case. That isn't my view of the aim of the educational system. As a consequence I don't see it as simply "rational" the way you do. I'm not sure we have progressed very far in this conversation since my last post, so I would suggest you read it again.

As for the other part of your comment, with respect to how rich children may be advantaged in some ways and poor ones others, again I'm not sure this is relevant. It was never my claim that rich children in every conceivable sphere of life. It _was_ my claim that at present the educational system's method of stratifying children privileges rich children over poor children and makes it easier for the former to get a better quality education and all the accompanying consequences of a likely better material life. It seems to me to be quite besides the point whether their parents cuddle them less etc.

Re whether the advantages of the advantaged can be leveraged to serve the less advantaged, that's a nice idea in theory but then you have to ask yourself whether things like opportunities for personal fulfillment are not also the products of being educationally advantaged. The chance to develop yourself is a vital part of a good education. I'm not sure this is something in any way transferable between persons. This is why I am sceptical of a set-ups that involve global maxima that are then redistributed. It ignores the important human consequences of the way people operate within systems.


Sorry for the very late reply. I'm not sure if you're still reading this. At any rate, regarding your sentiments about how the only way to become comfortable with people who don't think is to not think, most people don't think, etc., I can only hope you have the good fortune to meet a larger spread of people, and thereby change your mind. The fact is that there is very little in Singapore to encourage "thinking" of any kind besides a kind of weird

As for your request for an example where "normal" people have received GEP style education and enjoyed it or benefitted from it, I need hardly point beyond the GEP itself. I don't believe the GEP picks only people who are somehow marked out as different in some fundamental way, and I have already explained why by reference to the limitations of the testing method, which I'm not sure you have commented upon.

pantalaimon said...


Sorry, I didn't complete that paragraph. I was moving between replies and didn't realise I had left it hanging. My point was simply that Singapore doesn't really encourage much engaged thinking about anything to begin with. It is not at all my opinion - and it has not been my experience, as someone who has met many people from various parts of the world - that this reflects something about a universal "human nature." The fact is that many people have the capacity to be interested in stuff, if only they can find the right fit for themselves. It might not be the sort of hyperabstract stuff GEP children are taught to prize, but there's almost something out there that will fit them nonetheless. Singapore is an extremely rigid society and people don't tend to explore their own 'fit.' This is why I think it is not representative.

Anonymous said...


I think I have read your argument as clearly as I possibly could.

The 'aim' you raised that must precede the action is admittedly implicit. As far as the mechanics of this concept is concerned, an objection I will raise on this is that this implicitness is also often unquestioned. Beyond this, I don't really understand why this aim must be added when it is so obvious. It would appear to me as pure rhetoric without a further explication on why this is as necessary as you have so ardently argued.

Perhaps too that our 'rationality' is different in expression but not in nature. When you argued against the present system, you are expressing your own system of rationality. Given this, both our models assume some ideal global maximisation for the limited resources at our disposal. Indeed, it would be unwise to do the contrary in any utilization of resources.

As for my interpretation of what seemed to be a thinly presented one-sided argument on the haves and the haves not, permit me to reconstruct your chain of argument. What I hear you saying here is that the present system of stratification favors the rich children which is by way of an implicit causal chain imminently effecting their education level which then by the same chain, provides them with a richer material life. On this, what I have to say is that by the same causal chain implied, one can make the opposite conclusion that the rich kids could start out as bad stock and though receiving 'better' education, could be led astray by their own distraction from their richer environment when compared to the more spartan quarters of their less materialistically well-off peers. I must grant you that the likelihood for my case is less probable than yours. However, given that there is always a downtrodden harvard silverspoon to every upwardly mobile once inner city kid, not acknowledging this point in the best case is seen as bad argumentation and sweeping it aside in the worst case is by default, irresponsible.

Truly, I am as sceptical as you are with regards to redistribution of social goods from the haves to the haves not. From our coerced system of taxation, this is not a point I am confident of making very elaborately. However, given the good measure of implicitness to direct rationality I mentioned, something of this sort is not completely out of reach. A simpler way to put it would be extreme measures for extreme behaviors!

Sure, an opportunity to develop oneself could be seen as the same opportunity denied to another in the same developmental bandwidth and dictating that the one endowed more richly to be more charitable to the one endowed with less would be tyrannical. Perhaps this may be an opportunity for the education system to build in more humanitarian and ethical considerations such that the rich may pull up the poorer and perhaps that one day the poor may pull up the once rich. This maybe a better bet against any 'side-effects' of imminent stratification from a slew of other complicated social causes beyond the strictly GEP vs non-GEP argument set up in the argument.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Singapore Education System is the lack of focus on moral education. Moral Education will teach people not to be arrogant even if one is better than the rest.