Elitism or pragmatism? We interview an ex-GEPer and how it shapes (or not) our curriculum.

A Personal Insight on the Gifted Education Programme in Singapore and Preparing for the GEP Examinations.

The Gifted Education Programme has always been perceived as an elite stream of sorts. Is it truly a mere purveyor of elitism? Or is there a more pragmatic and grounded rationale for it? Regardless, many Primary Three students partake in the examination, or what is also known as the identification exercise.

Here, Academia goes on a deep-dive into the GEP with an ex-GEP student, breaking down the pragmatic aspect to it, and how it can also help to push for a good foundation in English — a core aspect not just exclusive to the GEP preparation, but that we instill in all our Lower Primary students in our Level 0 Fundamentals (Primary 1 and 2) and Level 1 Programme (Primary 3 and 4) as well. We also lay out some of the common misconceptions on the English component of GEP, as well as insights to the programme and how we help prepare our students for it.

A Personal Insight on the GEP & Preparing for the GEP Examinations

We speak with Mr Johann Loh, our Managing Director and ex-GEP student himself, on his experience, views on the programme, as well as how we guide our students and structure our curriculum to prepare for the GEP examinations.

1. As a former GEPper, what do you think is the point of the GEP?

Plenty of people feel that the GEP is an elitist programme and that GEP students are full of themselves. Admittedly that is what it tends to look like from the outside, but perhaps a more productive way of understanding it is that for students who are “early bloomers”, the GEP provides an environment where they can be pushed to exercise their mental faculties without losing interest in their work. 

Prior to the GEP, I remember feeling like I did not enjoy learning at all and being somewhat disinterested in my school work, which felt mundane and unexciting. Paradoxically, I didn’t do all that well in lower primary – because I spent the entire time sleepwalking through school.

Another perspective is that the GEP is filled with frivolity, fun and games – but in fact, it was some of the most difficult work I had ever done relative to my age group. The GEP forced me to learn things and get out of my own head. Effectively, it made me less complacent, spurring me to actually set concrete goals for myself, because for the first time I had to begin preparing myself for my examinations. 

It also helped being around like-minded peers. In my personal experience, and as an educator, many early bloomers do not have a lot of friends because they have different interests and wavelengths from the other children around them. They might be more comfortable with their teachers instead, or around adults. From Primary 1 to 3 I had few friends in school; as an educator now looking back, I would have been concerned about my own emotional and social development as a child. The GEP helped push me to make more friends in school, and without the GEP I probably would have ended up more introverted than I am. Socialisation is an important part of what the programme helped me with, and I’m grateful for that. In addition, the GEP is a rare opportunity for students who were unable to get into the school of their choice due to a lack of priority admission. 

2. How can parents prepare their children for the GEP examination?

There is no good answer to this question because the parameters of what constitutes giftedness changes. It’s not a monolithic concept. I’ll deal primarily with English, since we are an English centre – I think the most important notion is that true literacy in English is extremely important.

I’ve seen Gifted preparatory programmes where students do a bunch of MCQ questions and cloze passages. Yes, to some extent some drills might help, but the most important requirement has to be real, insightful and sophisticated understanding of the language and a wide, instinctive yet layered vocabulary built up over the course of years (not months). Doing drills is not going to meaningfully improve your chances of getting into the GEP. 

More importantly, it’s counterproductive to try to get into the GEP through drills without the appropriate language foundation to begin with. My personal take is that getting into the GEP through shortcuts and drills is quite simply pointless and creates a lot more stress. The GEP English curriculum is fundamentally different from the regular curriculum because it already assumes a basic level of competence in English and focuses on higher-order skills, such as literary analysis, critical thinking and reading between the lines. Without this basic level of competence, all of these exercises are fundamentally pointless if basic skills in reading comprehension and writing are not even in place. 

This isn’t to say that it is impossible to prepare your child for entrance into the GEP. It goes without saying that reading is extremely important – many GEPpers who gain the most benefit from the programme say that they read extensively for years prior to the programme. However, the quality of what is being read is also important. It used to be the case 20 years ago that people would just say “Go read a book” as shorthand for self-education, because the quality of the books available then, in terms of their educational benefit, could be assumed. Today, the reality is not so straightforward. Children’s books are a global industry that feed directly into the production of movies and television series; the entertainment value of books has supplanted their educational value in many cases. Without this being a diatribe about the quality of books available today, it ought not to be a surprise that “reading a book” is no longer as straightforward a piece of advice as it used to be, and there are many contemporary children’s books that, while entertaining, have zero educational value.

In today’s time-starved world, perhaps the more important question is: what kinds of skills were being taught through reading in the past? Certainly, it used to be that reading provided exposure to good vocabulary, particularly idiomatic expressions. The imaginative quality of reading would also have been something writers and other educators would wax poetic about; perhaps, to be clearer and more precise, the ability to sustain multiple viewpoints and imagine oneself to be in counterfactual and alternate realities and identities is a cognitive skill that is highly valued, especially when it intersects with qualities such as empathy, self-awareness and the ability to reason on a meta-cognitive level rather than on an egoistic and subjective level.

Reading also provides us with the ability to understand language not merely as a 1-1 relation between words and meanings, which is a very basic level of understanding of language, but instead as a language game that is laden with unspoken assumptions, cultural practices and even biases, giving us a view of the world that is fundamentally different from a simplistic 1-1 relationship between what is said and what is meant. 

The million-dollar question therefore is whether simply reading a children’s book in 2022 can perform the task of structuring our brains in a particular manner so as to be capable of this type of reasoning and analysis. My own view is that it depends. 

We’ve structured our own curriculum for our English programme in such a way as to incorporate a lot of these ideas about what English as a subject is supposed to be into our work. Some of it draws on educational pedagogy outlined in books such as “Education of the Gifted and Talented” (Davies et al., 2018), while other aspects of it draws on my own experiences growing up in a system and trying to figure out what was going on. I guess you might call that innovative?

I think a lot of Gifted children always ask the question, “Why am I doing this?” What we might not always realise is that the question is also directed inwardly at themselves; even when we wave their questions away because we don’t even know where to start answering them, they’re already formulating the answer to these questions in their heads and coming up with their own meta-aware theories about what they are experiencing. The fantastic thing is that Singapore’s English curriculum is already extremely innovative in many ways, with test components that are uniquely Singapore and found nowhere else in the world; what we’re doing is building on those parts of the curriculum where there is even more room to go deeper and layer it in ways that stimulate different modes of thinking or language awareness.

3. What advice would you give parents whose children are gifted?

The advice I would give is relevant to all children, really, but perhaps more acutely felt in gifted children because they do bloom earlier and experience challenges at an earlier stage than many others. Being opinionated, irritating, perhaps sometimes even superficially rebellious is absolutely normative of many (although not all, because people are individuals).

Many gifted children behave prematurely like teenagers or young adults but with even less emotional maturity, psychological restraint or social awareness. You have to reason with them on a level that connects with them and that they would consider on an equal intellectual footing with them – not because they are actually necessarily more intelligent than you or any other adult, but because they expect a certain level of intellectual engagement and will not accept simple platitudes if there is no intelligent justification for it. In this respect, you will need a lot of patience and grace! 

I do remember that I was a pretty insufferable little child myself and am grateful that my own teachers and parents dealt with it the best that they could, even back in the 1990s. Patience and grace – and have faith in them. The path for many gifted children is seldom linear and often circuitous, but ultimately they will be fine.

If you are interested in being part of a programme that can support your child's giftedness, or are simply looking for a quality english tuition programme that prepares your child with a strong foundation in the English language, chat with us now on WhatsApp, or click on the chat icon on the bottom-right corner of our page for other contact channels. Find out more about our Primary School English Programmes on these pages:

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