Related Posts with Thumbnails

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Praising Kids: Hail Efforts and Not Achievements

I was both shocked and pleased to see Professor Carol Dweck featured in the Education Minister's speech at the Primary School Education Seminar and Exhibition. I was shocked because the last thing I expected from MOE was the citation and acknowledgment of more recent psychological research than Professor Lewis Terman (who died in 1956, and whose dated research is STILL the rationale for the form and shape of Singapore's GEP).

I wrote about Professor Carol Dweck HERE and HERE.

I was pleased because finally, someone important, and with influence, is telling bureaucrats and practitioners in MOE that celebrating SMARTNESS is a sure way of demotivating a child in the long term. In fact, this finding is not as recent as that. Professor Carol Dweck has been working on this area for the past 30 years. This said, 30 years ago still brings us to 1983, which is still way more recent than Professor Terman's research done in the 1920s!!

What has not been said is that there are systemic mechanisms in MOE that on a daily, monthly and annual basis celebrate achievements and smarts, not effort. It's not enough for parents to NOT praise the child for smartness, parents have to UNDO the smartness (or stupidness) message sent by the system.

I know because I have been doing this UNDOING business for YEARS. I spent 6 years telling The Daughter that she WASN'T smart. My excuse was - I'm not smart and The Husband is not smart. Since you're our daughter, you can't be smart. I made sure The Daughter knew that even though she was in a special class in a top school, she wasn't smart. Thank God she believed me!! I spent 3 years telling Little Boy that it's OK not to be smart, we just have to work harder.

I tell you... it's not enough to NOT praise the child wrongly. One has to UNDO the subliminal "praises" or "judgments of stupidity" from the school system!

(1) Streaming
When children pass tests and get into GEP or Express or Normal, the system shouts at them
(1) "You're smart" (Gifted)
(2) You're OK smart"(Express)
(3) "You're dumb"(Normal)

The systemic message is "You're born that way and it doesn't matter what effort you put in, you're either destined for great things OR you're run-of-the-mill."

Every single day of existence in that particular labeled stream tells the children how smart they are... or not.

What Happens to Gifted Kids?
Many GIFTED children pull back and tell themselves. I know I am gifted. The IQ tests have confirmed it. Why should I work so hard? It doesn't help that in certain GEP centers (certainly not all), kids are badly taught and many gifted kids hate it there. There is no joy in learning for these precious children with an innate propensity to learn fast and an innate propensity to love learning.

The child is smart, right? It doesn't take long for him/her to decide "Hey! This is crappy. I have no life. Whatever it is, I'm gifted, right? Even if I don't try, I'll get somewhere. Let me just coast along." In the short term, that's ok because the child is bright enough to still scrape through again and again. Nonetheless, an entire childhood spent like this moulds one's character a certain way, no?

Are we really maximising the potential of our precious Gifted children?

What Happens to OK SMART Kids With Wise Parents?
The OK SMART ones with wise parents who focus on effort... will pour in resources of time and money. These are the students who will bypass many of the GEP students to do very well at the PSLE. These are the ones who come through with strength of purpose and attitude. They tell themselves "I'm not gifted but I will do well if I put in effort."

In the end, it is these who will be more useful and productive citizens.

It's a crying shame because these kids are nowhere near bright as those in GEP. If the GEP were motivated to put in half that effort to excel, perhaps we would have a few Nobel prize winners by now? The system has done our gifted children a terrible disservice, and GEP parents often don't realise what the system is doing to their kids by labeling them.

This said, if the parents have little time or money for enrichment, then the OK SMART kids will just let the label "OK SMART" define them, and not try. You see, learning outside school is UBER important if one wishes to do well.

What Happens to OK SMART Kids With UNWise Parents?
The OK SMART ones with UNwise parents who focus on nothing but achievement blight their children's entire childhood. Learning is stressful and days are filled with recriminations and tuition.

The Straits Times reported a while back that teens in a certain top school populate an entire tuition centre specializing in IP tuition for that certain top school. It was also reported that this was not because the teens NEEDED the tuition. It made them FEEL better. Clearly, here are students who cannot face failure because achievement defines their self-esteem. These children will suffer when they meet REAL LIFE because no matter how clever you are, REAL LIFE always always deals you blows. Somehow.

The system has done our OK SMART children (with UNwise parents) a disservice too.

Speaking from my own experience, it took a lot of courage for me to deny my OK SMART son tuition in Math, Science and Chinese (subjects that I could not teach because I knew so little)... and letting the PSLE chips fall where they would, based on HIS OWN EFFORT alone. Not many parents have the nerve to do what I did to my son (in view of how PSLE results are used to allocate places in good and not-so-good schools).

I only found the nerve to do so because I had read Carol Dweck's research and I was prioritizing long-term character development before short-term achievement.

What Happens to Kids Labeled Dumb?
Many give up.

(2) Bell Curve
The forced ranking at PSLE that pits student gladiators each against the other SCREAMS smart or stupid, when the PSLE results come out. Even if parents refrain from praising their children for smartness, it matters little. Parents like me have to actively UNDO the subliminal messaging that comes through to our children every day, every quarter and every year of school. The PSLE t-score that arrives in a sealed slip messages Smart. Smart. Smart. ....... or....... Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. With Little Boy, I made an effort to reframe the slip. How many parents know they have to undo MOE's messaging or risk long-term motivation to study?

(3) Class Streaming
Parents don't have to tell their children they're smart. The children tell it to each other when they see all the clever ones go to one class. Those in the top class KNOW they've achieved. The entire system has made judgment and TOLD them without words how smart they are.

Celebration of Achievement or Smartness is Endemic in MOE
The celebration of Achievement or IQ is endemic in MOE. I am hoping that since the Education Minister has cited Professor Carol Dweck's work, some of these outdated systemic features will be reviewed and updated in the light of more recent psychological research.

So... is it any surprise that Singaporean PMETs are a generally unmotivated bunch? See HERE.


Wen-ai said...

Yup, totally agree. We should not let a 3-digit score to define our children at 12 years old.

Kim said...

Hi Dr. Pet,

What should I do, how should I react when my 5.5yo (K2) boy told his teacher he is capable in reading & doing his works, the class is too boring to him? I was so embarrassed when the teacher feedback to me.

Petunia Lee said...

Kim - Do accelerate him by all means... and hopefully, our schools will one day evolve to...
(1) allow more students to skip levels
(2) allow spot-acceleration in subject strengths
... whilst still allowing the child to stay in the same social groups comprised of non-gifted children in his subjects of normal development.

I am not advocating doing away with GEP altogether. We should accelerate those who wish to but we should not pile all the GEP together into the same class and school, thus cutting them away from normal children.

We should not also lump all GEP together and require them to perform at high levels in all FOUR subjects. This really turns off many GEP kids and makes childhood a drag for them too.

Petunia Lee said...

Kim - If yours is a sincere question and not a sarcastic one, then I would sign him onto K12... it's an online American school that I used to accelerate my son in his areas of strength and interest. They allow you to choose modules and you can pursue this as fast and as slow as you wish... whilst listening carefully to your child's interests.

Later on, of course, do please put him in GEP and try your best to help him along in his other subjects of lesser strength and interest.

Unknown said...

Hi Petunia,

Do you actually know any people from the GEP program? I read your blog occasionally, but I find it very difficult to read some of your posts because of the sweeping generalizations you make of students from the GEP programme. There are too many leaps of logic, leading to all sorts of flawed conclusions.

While I agree with you that kids should be praised for their efforts, it does not follow that they should not be recognized for their achievements. Why do you believe the latter?

There are no conclusive studies that show how recognizing achievements dulls the willingness of children to achieve. In fact, if you've read some of the research funded by the Gates Foundation, the reverse could possibly be true. That's why supposedly low-IQ children can outperform those who are "smarter" than them, especially if they've been told that they're "smart".

We're both parents, although you have many more years of experience compared to me. What has shaped your beliefs over the years? Why do you feel that students need to stay in social groups comprised of non-gifted children? On what basis are your beliefs founded on? Is there any scientific evidence to support your beliefs?

Rather than dish out well-meaning, but what I consider flawed advice, why not write some posts about incidents that led you to think a certain way. Then, we can have a meaningful discussion about why certain aspects of the education system are the way they are, whether things should remain the same or different, or whether this rat race is fuelled by pure kiasuism.

Every time I read your posts that talk about GEPs, it just makes me feel very pek chek, because your assertions are so incredibly uninformed that any well-meaning parent shouldn't take you seriously.

Petunia Lee said...

Do I know people from GEP?
Errr... yes... I DO have personal experience with people from GEP. I try to be responsible when I write so I don't make things up. This is especially so when I know that GEP netizen parents are VERY sensitive to any criticism of this program. I write rarely about the GEP.

Unfortunately, one cannot write about streaming without bringing in the GEP.

Increasingly, I am seeing GEP parents turn up for help from me. Even though I don't pitch my services at the GEP, parents of GEPpers have found their way to me... somehow. I also know friends with children in GEP.

A business associate shared many years ago that her daughter's philosophy in life was to do as little work as possible. I was shocked. I thought GEP was fun and engaging... at least, it should be for children who have an innate ability in such areas. Little Boy sometimes chooses to do Science experiments on Sunday play day. It's so fun and he is so motivated, he doesn't see it as work. But wait... I know what the rebuttal here will be. It's the child's fault. She can't have been able to cope in GEP.

It's convenient to blame the child or parent, but not the program.

Then, I heard the SAME thing again from a childhood friend. Her GEP son told me at a CNY party, that thinks that laziness is a virtue. We had a good laugh because that's what I think too (laziness is a virtue) but well... I thought no more of it.

A good friend of Little Boy was a GEPper in primary school who is doing very poorly even in competition with mainstream children. He is smart. Just completely not motivated to excel in anything. What happened to him? His mother tried to get her GEP son and mine to sign up for Tony Buzan. She claimed her son "didn't know how to study". My son said "Please Mom, can I spend my holiday doing what I wanna do? I think XXX (Little Boy's good friend) just wants a companion in misery. I don't feel like being that companion."

I have not yet told the more recent stories of mothers and children whom I meet in the course of coaching parents and running seminars.

It pains my heart to see such talent wasted.

Do I Think We Should Limit GEPpers Potential?
Of course not! On the contrary, we should accelerate them. Like it or not, the GEP is still pretty much a one size fits all. One child I know scored full marks in one subject in GEP and still felt unfulfilled... but GEP offered no other stimulus beyond in that subject. The syllabus in that subject was pitched at the majority of the GEP I suppose, and this one was not stretched in that subject.

At the same time, he possessed no special interest in the other 3 subjects, and found those something of a chore. The mother took him out of GEP and reports a happier child who is revelling in the stimulation is Mother was able to find for him outside... more targeted to his needs. Thank God for the internet because one is able to spot accelerate quite well from online service providers not found in SG. Fortunately, the family is rich and can afford the pricey interventions.

Then there are Pamela Lim's GEP kids -

Petunia Lee said...

Do I Generalize?

Again, I am careful when I write. I have not said "All" because I have not met all the students in GEP. I have said "Many" because errr... I have met many.

It is telling too that NONE of the GEP children I have met so far have been reported to say "I LOVE work." This worries me because the little one who is now being spot-accelerated in his area of strength, LOVES it and doesn't see it as work. How many GEP kids can say that of all 4 subjects?

Petunia Lee said...

Do I Think GEP Should Be Preserved?
I certainly do! These children should be indulged in their passion. It is passion that produces Nobel Prize winners.

It is also telling that after so many years of GEP, the clear cognitive advantages in childhood disappear in adulthood. There should be an over-representation of GEPpers in Life Achiever positions. We are not seeing that. Terman's own research found this too. Some evidence suggests that this lack of Life Achievement can be traced to socio-emotional development or lack thereof.

GEP kids are precious resources. Is there something in their management that (1) caps their potential in their area of passion (2) diffuses their scarce energy resources to areas of non-passion (3) prevents them from relating to normal people (4) opens them to the mainstream prejudice.

HDB had a policy in years past (still in effect today) to encourage social integration between races. If minority races lived together with the majority races, bridges of understanding would develop. If Chinese, Malay and Indian precincts were to develop, then inter-racial tensions could run high.

EVEN WITH this policy, us Chinese can sometimes be extraordinarily insensitive to our Malay and Indian friends. However WITHOUT this policy, the situation would be worse.

I quite understand that being extraordinarily gifted is as much a burden as a blessing. You're not quite like others... you're a minority. People around don't understand you. But separating the minority out for ghetto treatment in the way Jews were separated out in the days gone past, makes it worse.

The sparse encounters with mainstream students through CCA etc... are not enough to build bridges.

Petunia Lee said...

No Conclusive Evidence That Celebrating Achievement Dulls the Willingness of Children to Achieve

Studying the impact of celebrating achievement on the willingness to achieve is pointless. It's a circular study. It's like studying the motivational impact of giving toys to children who like toys. If you are motivated by achievement, then certainly celebrating achievement is going to excite you.

The point is this though... wanting to compete and achieve gives a semblance of motivation. If a child stops working hard after being told that there are no prizes to working hard, then that child was not truly motivated in the first place.

I can see true motivation in the little GEPper I know (whose parents pulled him out of GEP) who didn't even mind when he thought he didn't do too well at an event (when actually he did VERY well indeed) because in his words to his Mom... "Look at the BEAUTY of this Mom!". He revelled in his passion notwithstanding that he thought he had achieved nothing. But then, such passion usually brings about high achievement. So, in effect, he did do way better than even GEP kids his age. It is not achievement that drives passion. It's the other way around.

In fact, 2 robust streams of research warn against celebrating achievement. Prof Dweck's research on fixed and growth mindsets AND Prof Deci's research on autonomous motivation.

We're not even talking about a study or two. We are talking about 2 research STREAMS.

Research in Psychology is NEVER conclusive. Researchers in Psychology all know that there are limits to any single study that throw the light of skepticism on its results. However, findings are more robust when a stream of research supports them. In this case, we have TWO streams of research.

It's the difference between working for money and working because you want to, and love it... in which case, it's not work.

How many GEPper children do you know who will tell you that going to school is not work? The malaise that cuts across the whole system affects the GEP too you know. I began to realize this when I meet more GEP mommies.

Petunia Lee said...

Why Do I Feel That Students Need To Stay In Social Groups Comprised of Non-Gifted Children?

The basis for my beliefs is found in research on the Development of Prejudice and Stereotyping. See the work of Professor Susan Fiske who has done great work in breaking down racial barriers and prejudices in USA.

Petunia Lee said...

Errata - Re-reading the above I am afraid I have to specify that celebrating achievement is not quite the same as celebrating the smarts.

Prof Dweck's research warned against celebrating The Smarts.

Prof Deci's research warns against over celebrating achievement.

My bad. The 2 are distinct and should not be confused.