Deterministic View of Ability

(This post by Dr Petunia Lee first appeared on her blog on 20 April 2014. It is reproduced with permission.)

In the Straits Times of Saturday, 19th April 2014, Sandra Davie wrote the following words...

"[The PSLE] also takes a deterministic view of ability and intelligence and flies in the face of recent research which suggests that ability, including academic ability, can be cultivated through effort."

What is the deterministic view of ability and intelligence?

It is the mindset that one is born with a certain amount of intelligence and ability that would automatically determine one's level of achievement 20 years later.

Such a mindset is prevalent in systems that focus large quantities of resources on testing for the purpose of administratively sorting kids into categories. These categories next become THE REASON for why kids in this category are taught differently from those in another category. Such a mindset is prevalent in Singapore's education system.

Strong in Testing

For sure, we have a robust testing system.

4 times a year, all our teachers practise setting exams. Not surprisingly, "education experts have heaped praise on Singapore for its well-designed examinations that test higher-order skills..." Not surprisingly also, our country scores well in PISA. The kids are tested with well-designed exams 4 times a year, using questions very similar to those that come out in PISA. We have a high performing testing system that drills our kids for the PISA, so why would Singaporean students NOT do well at the PISA?

Add to this the gladiatorial competitive pressure to perform created by the bell curve. This gladiatorial competitive pressure creates an urgency for parents to buy external teaching for their kids (since preschool). 4 times a year, kids practice at sparring in the PISA-style gladiator fights (aka exams), train hard outside school for PISA style gladiator fights (aka exams).

At PSLE, they perform at THE PISA style gladiator event of primary school. With all that investment in external tuition and a never ending rondelé of sparring contests, why would Singapore not score well at the PISA?

Is it the Child or the System?

The funny thing is this. When Singapore as a country scores well at the PISA, the results are taken to mean that we have a robust education system. However, when a child individually scores poorly at exams (modelled on the PISA), it becomes a reflection of his/her own calibre/ability/intelligence, no fault of the system at all.

The said child is then sorted and categorised. Hey! You there! Yes, you! You... with the lousy exam results, you are low calibre and therefore dumb. You go here and we will teach you less academic stuff because you're not the sort that can manage.

(1) Very little attempt is made to troubleshoot the child's attitude and emotional state.

(2) Very little is said about the quality of teaching that had gone on that year.

Emotional/Attitudinal Troubleshooting

There are many cases of highly intelligent children who are underperforming for emotional and attitudinal reasons. We have a system that is hypertrophied in academic testing and atrophied in developing the socio-emotional aspects of our children.

I think it is because there is no PISA equivalent for evaluating socio-emotional development.

Socio-Emotional Needs of the Mainstream Child

A few of my students are emotionally fragile. When rested and relaxed, they give me extraordinarily creative work. Yet, they consistently trip up at exams, frozen by fear. I need to give these children strategies to help them stay relaxed during exams.

Others of these students respond negatively to pressure. They drift off, daydream, dilly and dally. They demonstrate an attitude of passive-aggression. I need to get parents off these students' backs. They can do better but they refuse to put in effort.

Socio-Emotional Needs of the GEP

The GEP kids that are with me have some difficulty relating to mainstream children. They are faster and better and smarter but they have never been taught to use their giftings to help friends who are less well endowed. Worse, they have never been taught to use these giftings sensitively in teams composed of children with differing academic abilities. I have one who gets frustrated that his friends think so slowly and he starts yelling at them. He is also very particular about how fairly the workload is spread. I have another who takes it for granted that his answer must be the correct one and he won't allow the other 2 children to contribute answers.

In contrast, I have 2 high ability children from neighbourhood schools demonstrate perfect poise in such situations. They know how to proffer suggestions and delegate non-threateningly. They feel proud to lead in a team and do not complain that others are slow. They delegate gently and don't make the slower children freeze up and withdraw. They know how to hang back and observe their friends, before saying that one thing that would convince. They know how to ask clarifications from their friends and thus doing, they pinpoint the area of misunderstanding... and THEN they say that one thing needed to convince. They know how to do a little bit more to buy their friends' cooperation and love. These children are popular team mates. Everyone wants to work with them.

For sure, both the GEP and the high ability children have arrived at the answers way before their team mates have. Both pairs of children have cognitive bandwidth left over after solving the questions. However, unlike the GEP, my high ability children use their extra cognitive bandwidth to troubleshoot their socio-emotional environment.

They can both DO and LEAD.

If I had a deterministic view of ability, I would write off the most intelligent students in my centre. However, that is not my view. In my experience, these students can learn socio-emotional intelligence with some effort and enough exposure.

Followers not Leaders

To some extent, the top echelons of Singapore's MOE are followers, not leaders. Our system is atrophied in its ability to manage the children's socio-emotional development.

I think it is because there is no PISA equivalent for evaluating socio-emotional development.

If there is no precedent elsewhere... if there is no international benchmark... if there is no international ranking, then it is not worth pursuing. Someone somewhere (in the past 10 years) has been too insecure to chart a path of excellence through common sense and first principles. Instead, there is a need to justify MOE's existence and worth through international benchmarks, whilst completely ignoring commonsensical educational principles.

It's like the Emperor's New Clothes. Some international wise men said that the Emperor's clothes is of this loveliness and that beauteousness. The common man, however, can see that the Emperor is naked. Every mother can see that Singapore's schools are poor in socio-emotional education. The very basics of loving, living and caring are missing.

The Emperor is naked. He just thinks otherwise.

Deterministic View of Ability Has Nefarious Effects

Of course, as Sandra Davie mentioned, recent research no longer supports the deterministic view of ability. You basically take a number from a test. Use this number to decide that Child A can learn BlahBlahBloo... but Child B cannot. Then, at PSLE, you test both Child A and Child B on BlahBlahBloo. Hmmm... unless Child B has access to tuition, there is no way he or she can do better than Child A.

That is bad enough in itself. However, when we consider the lack of socio-emotional education here, there are even MORE nefarious effects on our children and future workforce.

(1) Plenty of children with socio-emotional gaps are pushed higher and higher towards success and rewards. They (and society) will only come face to face with their own weaknesses when they join the workforce. One XXX scholar (Ivy League) cheesed off an entire team within 1 week of joining the firm on an internship. Another XXX scholar (also Ivy League) is still studying and thinks nothing of taking a $7000 loan from his parents to fund an lifestyle so extravagant that his generous scholarship is insufficient.

(2) Other children are under-taught because their socio-emotional gaps interfere with their academic performance. Performing poorly at exams, these children are considered unable to handle certain material. They are thus placed in classes where they are not taught certain material. The future workforce loses out on the vast potential of these children - these diamonds in the rough.



Dr Petunia Lee is not the sort of doctor that prescribes antibiotics. She has a PhD in Business Studies, specializing in the science of Human Motivation in organizations.

For many years, Dr Petunia Lee researched and consulted in organizational psychology. She focused entirely on issues of Human Motivation.

In 2010, Dr Lee stopped consulting altogether. Her son, Little Boy, was ranked 28th out of 38th students in class. He hated school and described himself thus, “I am not one of the smart ones, Mom.” Whilst it did not matter whether Little Boy topped the class, Dr Lee thought it urgent to address his issues of self-esteem. There is no better antidote to low self-esteem than actually experiencing success. Hence, Dr Lee stopped helping managers to motivate staff and threw her all into motivating her son. In the process, Dr Lee discovered that many of the strategies she was teaching managers could be used on children too.

Dr Lee coined the term Internal Drive Ignition™ to describe the process of firing up and stimulating human motivation levels. She also compiled a set of motivation strategies that are collectively termed Internal Drive Theory®.


How Tests Make Us Smarter

Marking Guides: Grooming Our Brightest to be Followers

ASPIRE – A difficult but worthy vision towards greater egalitarianism