Thursday, September 21, 2006

GEP is no more

MOE has decided to close down the GEP in secondary schools although the programme will still be run in at the primary school level.

Although it has been more than a decade since I left the programme which was conducted in a premier secondary school in the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio area, I still remember my days in the GEP with some fondness. Back then, the GEP was a highly exclusive (i.e. elitist) programme which only admitted about 0.4 percent (~200) of each cohort. Strangely, during my time, the sex ratio in the GEP was highly skewed with the number of males outnumbering the number of females by a ratio of two to one.

Looking back, I find the GEP curriculum to be of no more use to me than the express-stream curriculum is of use to the average express-stream student. We sure had a lot of enrichment programmes, which I did and still do not appreciate, and plenty of academic projects in the humanities and the sciences to take up our time. In retrospect, I would say that those projects probably did not play a very formative role in my intellectual development since I had neither the academic inclination nor the maturity to take advantage of them; I was too preoccupied with other things that adolescents of that age were usually preoccupied with at that time, perhaps considerably more so than many of my peers in the programme. A consequence of that style of education was that I was put off serious academic/intellectual endeavours for most of my adolescent years. Things only changed after JC...

Although the curriculum had no effect on me, being in a programme surrounded by many very smart people had a tremendous influence on me. It was only after I had left the programme, when I joined the premier pre-university institution in the Ghim Moh area that I realised how intellectually capable most of my peers in secondary school were, even compared to the average student in the institution. Having classmates like them meant that everyone had to share a smaller academic pie and people like me had to know my place. It was discouraging most of the times. Of course, the upside to it was that one got accustomed to a very high level of academic competition really quickly.

In the programme, we took for granted that everyone had a certain level of intellectual competence. It was no joke to sit in class side by side with people who would go on to top their classes in MIT or to win the only Math Olympiad gold medal for Singapore; it was a humbling experience. Like a good number of my peers in the programme, I believed that I was just stupid and not cut out for academic endeavours because I had to struggle to keep up with many of my classmates and was plain beaten. I don't think I have ever faced that sort of struggle to keep up even in grad school where I know people who come from Peking University, USTC, Cambridge, MIT, MIPT, etc. Then again, things were so different back then that a useful comparison cannot be made...

Another consequence of being in the GEP environment was that I learned to be quite independent and methodical in my approach towards learning something, out of sheer necessity to cope with the quicker people around me. In the GEP, independent learning was encouraged and most people could pick up things quite easily. I remember struggling to learn what a function and a Cartesian plot were in secondary one for a group project in math by reading it up from a textbook in the library. Some of the extra things we learned in class in lower secondary were quite delightful although most of them were over my head back then; I recall being introduced to basic probability concepts, matrices, injections, surjections and bijections, sets, etc.

One disadvantage of the GEP environment is that rote work was discouraged. The volume of homework in the GEP was somewhat smaller than that of homework in the express stream. I think the idea behind the reduced homework load was that 'normal' homework was less useful than doing projects and enrichment work for people in the GEP. Tests and exams were sometimes seen as a gauge of a person's brilliance and not as a measure of a person's to mastery some a certain content. I certainly had no self-discipline to sit down and to do the prescribed exercises, having soaked in the very much anti-work ethos. That, of course, changed later on.

As a result, I knew people who never got around to developing the disciplined capacity for the steady plodding work. It was a pity because I knew my share of brilliant people who could have profited from a more disciplined and systematic approach. I had a classmate in university who was also from the GEP but flopped his degee course because he was less than motivated to do his work. As a result, he ended up with a suboptimal honours class. In fact, a good number of GEP people whom I knew in NUS did not do well in their degree course. A lesson that I learned very early, outside of the GEP, was that an intelligent mind not properly supplemented by regular practice quickly loses its ability to work at a higher level. My only regret is that I never got to learn that lesson earlier during my school days.

Being in the GEP had its pros and cons. Overall, it was a positive experience although there were things that I had to unlearn as a result of being in the programme.


Incompetent Philosopher said...

My experience in the GEP resembles yours. I too was shocked at how different even "top" JC environments were from GEP. I agree that the most important part of the GEP was simply being amongst other intelligent people. There was also a lot more freedom in terms of intellectual exploration, and a lot more tolerance for "weird" people.

I'm not convinced that the GEP is worth taxpayers' money, but I do feel slightly sad that future generations of Singaporeans will not have the chance to experience the unique environment that was the GEP. In my opinion the main advantages of the GEP came not in the primary school stage but in the secondary school stage, since it is only in their teenage years that most people really discover their intellectual interests.

Fox said...

Well, there are pros and cons to the GEP. I do agree that the environment does allow one to be more intellectually unconventional. As to whether it's worth the taxpayers' monies, I'm in no position to say although I will like to point out that the GEP unit is also a research unit on education. In some ways, the students in the GEP are guinea pigs and research is not cheap...

I don't really know what impact the primary school programme had on me.
The secondary school programme also didn't benefit me much intellectually, other than give my ego a sound thrashing.