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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Singapore's Royal Jelly Education

Royal Jelly is what bees feed the bee babies that are destined to grow into Queen Bees. Larvae fed Royal Jelly grow into Queens. The same larvae fed honey grow into Worker Bees.

I received a series of WhatsApp messages last night from C ranting about Royal Jelly education in GEP and IP. The royal jelly in Singapore education is the set of Higher Order Thinking (HOT) skills that characterize the Gifted Education Program in primary school (that prepares one for the most difficult questions at the PSLE)... and the Integrated Program in secondary school (that prepares one for the most difficult questions at the A levels). The logic supporting the heavy focus on HOT skills GEP and IP experience is that these are smart kids who CAN handle HOT skills, whilst lesser children can't. 

Now, I don't doubt that kids come with different intellectual capabilities, and different talents. I have taught enough kids to be well aware of this. What I doubt is how accurate the system is in streaming our children for differential feeding (based on the results of one IQ test at Primary 3 or one major exam at Primary 6).

The different feeding in turn leads to kids in GEP and IP being given maximum chances at (A) choice opportunities in top schools, (B) choice scholarships and (C) choice spots in Medicine and Law Faculties. The excerpt below is taken from an article by Sandra Davie in the Straits Times of 29th November 2012, entitled "Time to Redefine Academic Success"...

"The Government needs to examine why parents are not buying the argument that there are many paths to success and every school is a good school. I took the opportunity to ask the parents eyeing IP schools, such as Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls' Secondary, why they were not convinced. One of them had done an analysis of the Overseas Merit Scholarships given out by the Public Service Commission. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of those receiving the scholarships came from the IP schools.
His son wants to study medicine, so again, the resourceful parent went to talk to a relative of his, an RI alumnus, who is studying medicine at the National University of Singapore. The second-year student confirmed that quite a few of his classmates in medical school were former schoolmates. I referred to students from the lesser-known junior colleges and even the polytechnics making it to medicine, but the parent was quick to point out that it was so rare for polytechnic graduates to qualify for medicine. No wonder, when they did, they made the headlines in the newspapers."

The GEP Royal Jelly
Like I said, I question the accuracy of the classification - GEP and mainstream. In 2011, the PSLE top scorer (Yasmin Ziqin Mohammad Yusof) was NOT from GEP even though the PSLE exam tests HOT skills that are extensively taught in GEP (and to a far lesser extent, in mainstream). Yasmin Ziqin Mohammad Yusof mentioned that her mother resigned from her job in Primary 6 to teach her the most difficult questions of the PSLE (aka, the HOT skills). Clearly, this girl had external school access to a Royal Jelly education via a highly educated mother. It also helped that her father could afford the fees at The Learning Lab. Was Yasmin misclassified as non-GEP? What if her Mom were uneducated and her father earned the equivalent salary of the PRC bus drivers who went on strike?

Where would Yasmin be today in mainstream education without an educated Mother and wealthy Father? No wonder I went through 2 years wondering why schools test what they don't teach! The PSLE tests GEP stuff that 99% of the cohort can only get to learn OUTSIDE school!!

In one particular year, in the not too distant past, the top scorer in Nanyang Primary School was a non-GEP child. Her mother explained to me (rather bitterly) that it was tuition that had helped her child because mainstream classes in Nanyang Primary do not get the same kind of teaching as GEP. I rather think that this gave Nanyang Primary School some food for thought and may have encouraged the school to spill GEP methods and materials over to more and more of their mainstream classes. There is nothing wrong with this. Any responsible school would do the same. I, the school, possess the methods and materials. Why withhold these from students who could benefit even though not labeled GEP?

Whatever GEP parents might say about PSLE drilling that helps non-GEP children do better at PSLE, some facts can be verified.
(1) Fact 1: GEP curriculum is heavy on HOT skills.
(2) Fact 2: PSLE's most difficult questions test HOT skills.
(3) Fact 3: Mainstream teaching hardly emphasizes HOT skills.
(4) Fact 4: I know for a fact the schools like Nanyang give their GEP kids loads of PSLE practice papers to do in P6... after building a good foundation in HOT skills.

These drilling practices PLUS the HOT skills training give the GEP a clear advantage at the PSLE. Now, if a GEP child cannot handle the PSLE as well as a mainstream child DESPITE having been fed all this Royal Jelly, then there is a good chance the GEP child was wrongly identified.

Based on a SINGLE IQ test, judgment is made about our children's ability to handle HOT skills? And then the 2 groups of children are fed different curriculum material as if the SINGLE IQ test is the last word in child capability (that can justify feeding some children more HOT skills and other children less)? And THEN both sets of children take a common exam that clearly puts one group (taught HOT extensively) at an advantage over the other (taught HOT sparingly).

What makes things worse is that the GEP children have a largely frictionless path into schools like RI, where it appears, that 42% of the cohort is GEP. Given that GEP is 1% of the whole country's cohort... 42% in a single school is a shocking over representation considering that there is ample evidence that the single IQ test DOES misclassify.

Next, the GEP has been around for 20+ years. One wonders how many movers and shakers today hail from GEP. If very few, then why is it that 42% of RI (the school that traditionally produces leaders of the country) is GEP? Should not RI have greater diversity in student population so that it can produce future leaders that understand the populace?

Some claim that despite the low economic returns of 20 years of GEP, the program is still worth funding because gifted children are special needs children, like those in Pathlight. Has RI become a GEP special needs school on par with Pathlight?

Why do we put so much faith in one IQ test to the extent that we would feed 2 groups of students vastly different intellectual input? IF the PSLE has evolved towards HOT skills, why is not EVERY mainstream school properly equipped with the wherewithal to teach HOT skills to those who CAN manage even if they're not labelled GEP?

The IP Royal Jelly
In my discussion with C on IP, I found myself on the other side of the divide. You see, The Daughter went to an IP school in the days when there were few IP schools. In my passionate exchange with C, I found myself saying the exact same things to defend IP that GEP parents say to defend GEP.

I said, "IP focuses a great deal on higher order thinking skills but the A levels are far more structured. IP students have difficulty adapting to the prescriptive (read: model answers) style of A level testing. IP doesn't drill the students. That was The Daughter's experience."

I can almost hear a GEP mom say "GEP focuses a great deal on higher order thinking skills but the PSLE requires drilling, and the kids have difficulty adapting to the prescriptive (read: model answers) style of PSLE testing. GEP doesn't drill students."

Then C wrote this on WhatsApp "If the A levels is HOT skills heavy, then it'll be an uphill battle for O level students exposed mostly to LOT (lower order thinking skills) to bridge the gap to HOT skills, in the run up to A levels. However, it is easier for those exposed to HOT skills in IP for 4 years, to dumb down slightly to the drilling required for A levels in the run-up to the exams."

And that is so true.

I had to concede that C had won a point in our discourse. The Daughter received a good IP education in HOT skills that formed a critical foundation for her to achieve excellence in A levels. Nearer the A levels, she was drilled. Dumbing down was not a problem at all. And mind you, based on PSLE t-score alone, there were plenty of students who scored far higher than The Daughter... but these students could not handle HOT skills well enough to do well at A levels. Some of these PSLE high scorers performed rather poorly despite getting a surfeit of HOT skills in the years of IP. Is this an instance of misclassification into IP using PSLE scores? Who/what to blame? That A levels requires drilling that IP doesn't provide?

That is not true you know, a fair bit of drilling does take place nearer to A levels.

The Illusory Promises of Streaming
It was not too long ago when MOE explained that streaming was to ensure that every child was taught to his/her ability. The PR line was "Develop each child to his/her highest potential".

Does streaming really do that? Let's look at some counter examples.

The PSLE aggregate determines access to HOT skills education. What about the child (without tuition) who scored a high A* in Science but A in the other 3 subjects? This child could well possess the innate talent for Science that predisposes him to HOT skills in the Sciences but too bad... this child will never be able to develop his innate potential in scientific inquiry to the fullest because he will be shunted to a non-IP school.

It seems to me that streaming makes teaching easier, so that Teachers have time to write reports and devise lesson plans that are only good for audit purposes because no one uses the lesson plans. Now that the School Excellence Awards have been done away with, perhaps the teaching service will now have time to REALLY be student-centric. Right now, Teachers are stream-centric or class-centric. Not in the least student-centric. The only ones who are student-centric are parents and private tutors.

Little Boy was a 90+ student in English, Math and Science in P4. He went into the 2nd best class because he was more than ordinarily poor in Chinese. In the 2nd best class, he was taught as if he were 80+ in every subject. He was taught above his ability in Chinese. He was taught below his ability in the other 3 subjects. The teaching was not at all student centric. It was class-centric, and it was class-centric in such a way that not a single child in there had his/her learning needs met. Every child in the 2nd best class had at least one REALLY strong subject and 3 above average subjects. They were all taught as if they were only slightly above average in all 4 subjects.

Within the GEP, children also have different abilities in the different subjects. The GEP crams every child with HOT skills in all 4 subjects. SUGGESTION: Would it not be better to identify children with giftedness in each subject and pull them out for specific niche classes, rather than put them together and cram them indiscriminately like geese for foie gras? Meanwhile, these gifted children can still benefit from fulfilling and learning-rich social interactions with kids in mainstream.

It has come to a point that even GEP/IP kids feel like losers because they fear they can't measure up in their subjects of ordinariness.

That streaming helps each child to his/her ability is an illusion. In truth, all it helps is make teaching lazier because Teachers can tell themselves that they are fulfilling the needs for a particular group of students when actually the coarse-grained streaming fulfills very few individuals' learning needs indeed.

Student-centric? How to be student-centric in classes of 40?

(1) Every primary school should be well-equipped to teach HOT skills (small classes and GEP materials) even if they are not GEP centers.

(2) Every secondary school has IP and O levels so that the permeability between the 2 streams is maximised allowing for misclassifications to be easily addressed.

(3) Do as Hri Kumar suggests. Remove GEP DSA into top schools. GEP kids (with their surfeit of HOT skills teaching in small classes of 25) should compete with mainstream (who get precious little HOT skills teaching) for places.


Rachel Tan said...

Hi Petunia,

In response to your point that GEPs have a fairly seemless path to RI/RGS, perhaps its useful to consider how GEP has evolved.

The GEP cohort today is already spread across more secondary schools than in the past. During my time, GEP was a through-train program from Primary School to Secondary School, i.e. it was a 7 year program. All girls, regardless of PSLE results, would progress to RGS. All boys, would proceed to either RI or ACS.

Also, KSP has a thread on MOE GEP Branch's recent efforts to extend the HOT curriculum, by subject, to the various school clusters. Some schools have been given the resources to conduct these extra small group learning for kids who demonstrate aptitude in certain subjects. For schools without the resources, these HOT math classes for example, are conducted in school clusters.

There are gradual efforts to become more student centric, though of course there is a even longer way to go. I recall during my time, you need to be within the top 10% of PSLE to read Higher MT. Today, the opportunity to read HMT in Sec School is expanded to a much wider range of kids, esp to kids who show aptitude in MT at PSLE. Same goes with third language; kids who show some aptitude in languages, though they may not be within the top 10%, they are offered Third Language Studies in Malay or Bahasa Indonesia. There are also dedicated alternative pathways for kids who are good at Math and Science, through SST, NUS High etc. So the education options have broadened and deepened towards becoming more student centric. Now, the IP places are also being expanded.

Just some thoughts.

Petunia Lee said...

Rachel .. thanks for these thoughts. They shed more light on the issue. I hope MOE continues to extend HOT... and more schools get IP and O level combinations. Still... the teaching infrastructure should not lag the testing options. In the present years alone, the Royal Jelly syndrome has wreaked havoc with individuals' dreams and possibilities... even as MOE deepens and broadens.

Unknown said...

This is an interesting post. There are some misconceptions about the GEP content and curriculum that I'd like to address, having been part of the system in the old days.

Yes, the GEP programme trains kids and hones their "higher order thinking" skills, but this does not necessarily translate to results for PSLE and 'A' Levels. I think the reason why kids trained in that system generally produce better results is mainly because of aptitude. A non-GEP kid who possesses a high aptitude for certain subjects will do well even if he or she is not trained in the system.

GEP kids also have their fair share of drilling as the exams draw near. The HOT skills needed are useful only to tackle a handful of very difficult questions in exams. These difficult questions are specifically designed to separate the A from the A* students, or the A1s from the A2s.

HOT skills will not teach you how to avoid careless mistakes, which is what drilling is for. Drilling does not teach you how to work through questions that require out-of-the-box thinking, which HOT skills are for.

Overall I think that all children need a good mix of both. It is the intensity and depth of the training that needs to be calibrated for different children. For those with lower aptitudes, drilling can pull them up to high Bs and low As. For those who are already ahead of their peers, the HOT training is needed to bring you to a higher level.

That was exactly how it was like in the GEP. Not every student had the same aptitude for each subject. That's why there were literature programmes, math olympiads, science quizzes, and other programmes that were sometimes conducted outside of class hours to cater to the high-aptitude GEP students.

Basically, the idea is to play to the strengths of each child. Bring out the best in each one of them. That's what education should be about.

Lastly, responding to the earlier comment about alternative pathways for kids, I agree that it's a really good thing that the system now caters more to children with specialized interests. With the Singapore economy the way it is, some skills are valued more than others, but having more choice in the system helps to nurture a wider pool of talent with more varied specializations.

Celine said...

MOE needs a lot more teachers to have a student centric ecosystem in place. A LOT MORE Quality and Caring teachers.

I agree with C that it is easier to dumb down for an impt exam than try to cram HOT into students during the exam prep period only.

Petunia Lee said...

Unknown. .. thanks for taking time to comment. I am afraid that the PSLE has changed to a form where HOT skills are a far larger part of the exam. The PSLE of the past is no more. In today's PSLE HOT skills training is needed to do well. GEP gets far more HOT skills training than mainstream. One should therefore expect GEPPERS to do better at PSLE than in the past. One can cram and drill a GEPper last minute to be less careless. But one cannot cram and drill HOT skills last minute.

The past I am afraid has changed to the present. As little as 7 years ago I would agree that one does not expect GEPpers to do well at PSLE. No longer. Because the PSLE now covers skills that GEPpers are extensively taught. The same goes for changes to A levels testing skills that IP teaches.

The prevalent misconception now is that things have stayed the same as before and GEPpers are still disadvantaged at the PSLE. The fact that PSLE now tests skills GEP teaches but mainstream does not teach...means that GEPpers are expected to score better at PSLE.

Since GEPPERS were disadvantaged in the past, it made sense to facilitate their entrance to secondary GEP with a low cut off. Now that the PSLE gives GEPpers an advantage. .. the GEP DSA should be abolished. GEPpers should compete with mainstream for places in secondary because they already enjoy and advantage in the way PSLE is set.

Rachel Tan said...

Hi Petunia,

You sure these HOT are required for scoring at PSLE?? You may send many Mamas panicking :) Most of us do not have GEP kids you know; neither do we have the 'fortune' of attending the GEP primary schools to benefit from the intermingling or GEP-spillover HOT training that GEP primary schools offer.

I do support the GEP program
. I do think it is a good one and a great opportunity especially for kids from for lack of a better word, neighbourhood schools.

My greater concern is however, with the unevenness and disparity between the performances and the resources across primary schools in Singapore for the mainstreamers. Kids in NYPS for example, even if they are not in GEP, will have a plethora of opportunities to develop their language or math inclinations, through many programs in schools. It really isn't the same situation in the rest of the primary schools.

Second, I do agree with the general direction to relook into sorting kids so finely. PSLE sorts kids to such fine grains that top schools may be admitting students only in the top 3% band. I see the merits of streaming. From an efficiency point of view, fine streaming is great. But it must be balanced with the benefits of diversity, broadening of one's view point, and affective education.

Petunia Lee said...

Rachel - Take my word for it. Analyse the English paper requirements for yourself. Borrow a set of top school PSLE Prelim. They aren't too far from actual PSLE. Some are easier... those schools that set 2 Prelim generally have one easier paper.

Petunia Lee said...

I mean DON'T take my word for it.

Rachel Tan said...

Gasp! Petunia, I told you I am no saint. I am sure I will (1) succumb to the tuition bug (2) return to work full time to pay for the tuition.

Okay I agree with you. Royal Jelly for all who are willing and want to consume, please.

Wen-ai said...

Another excellent post on Singapore's Education system. I totally agree that streaming allows teachers to teach more effectively, especially if the class size is at 35-40 students. And yes, so many of my friends who are teachers have complained that they spent more time doing admin and non-teaching centric activities that they forgot that they are teachers, and not some administrators.

fudge said...

Aren't HOT questions a good thing? With all the talk about developing students able to think critically... It seems to me that the problem does not lie with the format of the examinations ( the alternative would be to revert back to those "model" type questions ) but a broad thrust toward a uniformly good education which hones "higher order" cognitive abilities.

But then you will have parents complaining that their poor children will not be able to handle the lessons and blah blah blah you will have the raison d'etre for the GEP all over again.

Petunia Lee said...

Fudge - Errrr... the above post...

(1) Did not say HOT was bad.
(2) Did not suggest to get rid of GEP and it's raison d'être
(3) Did not fault exam format

I made 3 suggestions for improvement and none specified "reverting back to model questions". Don't interpret the post with added ideas that aren't there i.e.,
(1) GEP VS No GEP or
(2) HOT VS No HOT.
These new ideas introduced by you (not inside my post) oversimplifies the issue... and risks polarising the discussion into For and Against GEP. That's unproductive.

Life is not simple so I hope you would be kind enough to read the post and see the nuances... and perhaps you will find a space where we can agree, rather than pull the rhetoric apart into 2 simplistic positions.

The post is not so much a debate to be won by one party (pro HOT & GEP) VS another (anti HOT and GEP).... as it is an analysis of a complex situation and possible solutions that would allow GEP, HOT and equal opportunity to co exist in harmony.

This post is not anti HOT ... nor is it anti GEP.

It also does not advocate teaching HOT to everyone (and run the risk that parents complain their kids can't cope). Instead it proposes that "EVERY mainstream school be properly equipped with the wherewithal to teach HOT skills to those who CAN manage even if they're not labelled GEP". This is not equivalent to teaching HOT to everyone... even those who cannot cope.

I hope it is clearer now?

mummyof3 said...

Little Boy was a 90+ student in English, Math and Science in P4. He went into the 2nd best class because he was more than ordinarily poor in Chinese. In the 2nd best class, he was taught as if he were 80+ in every subject. He was taught above his ability in Chinese.

This describes my boy exactly! He complains that the Chinese class goes too fast but he is under challenged in the other subjects that he finishes his work quite fast and chooses to do more work than assigned and can do some advance work that i give him. How??

In your opinion then, should i go out and get Royal Jelly for my kids (my P5 girl and this P3 boy)? And if that's the case, then how to avoid LL and their like?

My fear is that there is not ennough time for the P5 girl. As for the P3 boy so much time is now devoted to Chinese (3 afternoons a week is devoted to Chinese, chinese remedial in school and chinese enrichment classes). I toyed with the idea of using Potato Chinese but his motivation level is not quite there yet, he won't be able to survive the amount of work needed to memorise the model compos.

Would really appreciate your views. Thank you.

Petunia Lee said...

Mummyof3 - I partially homeschooled him. He skipped school a lot so that he could self-study English Math and Science. From Dec hols of P4, he did Potato Chinese which helped a great deal.

I feared that my P5 Little Boy would have no time because there was so much to catch up on... and the school taught only from the textbook... and took so long to teach simple things. We had to make time for him by getting him to skip regular school sometimes... and ALL the supplementary classes all the time.

My kid had no LL nor Mindstretcher but I provide strong guidance in independent learning skills... and I manage his motivation. If you cannot do both, you're better off with professional help at a tuition centre.

mummyof3 said...

Thank you for your input Petunia.

I am seriously looking at a professional help for my P5 girl in the latter part of this year to sharpen her skills. Thankfully she is diligent and responsible and has generally stayed in the top 10% of her cohort right through school.

As much as I want to help her I am not sure I can do it well. I still have my boy to deal with and a 3rd child, a sweet 5yo boy, who needs my attention too.

The way I look at it supplementary help whether from parents or tuition/enrichment is unavoidable in our present system.

I will continue helping the boy for now (he is in P3 now) and by the latter part of P4 or P5 at the very latest I see us going for professional help too.

Praying for the right fit and the right teachers for him.

mummyof3 said...

I must say though that I am thankful that we have been able to avoid tuition/enrichment (except for Chinese) up to now and hopefully will not need it except in a targetted way for a couple of subjects for late P5 and P6.

I had hoped to avoid it altogether excecpt for Chinese but it doesnt seem realistic.

I shd count myself blessed as it is. No wonder many people find children expensive, if they feel that they need tuition/enrichment all through school in practically every subject.

I know of a child who does Berries, Kumon, LL as well as swimming, piano and ballet. Incredible!