Learning according to capabilities, not age

By Jenn Lee

Since PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech exhorting parents not to “over-teach” their pre-school children and let them enjoy their childhoods more, many voices have concurred and called for reducing the stress levels in our school system. For the most part that is good advice, if a more relaxed pace in teaching would result in less stressed-out, happier children in our schools, who are more enthusiastic about learning.
However, there are exceptions to the rule, especially children who happened to be gifted academically. For instance, should a five-year-old child that is well ahead of an average six-year-old, e.g. in reading, writing and math skills (as determined through the relevant tests), be allowed to enroll for Primary One one year earlier? Or do we reprimand the parents for over-teaching and not allowing their children to enjoy their childhood?
No right-minded parent sets out to make life miserable for their children. Instead parents want to provide the best for their offspring. So it is only natural for many who have the means, to sign up for the various programmes to maximise their children’s potential, in some cases, even before the child is born! When a child does respond positively, and develops at a pace way above the norm, it is only natural for the parents to accelerate, not curb, the learning process.
Our child started to read before two, was able to cycle at four, earned a distinction in ABRSM Grade 2 piano and completed the K2 syllabus with above average results at a privately-run kindergarten before his fifth birthday, and he recently got a distinction in ABRSM Grade 5 piano before his sixth birthday. Is he being denied a childhood? We hope not: he has his share of play, fun, holidays and hugs, and he looks and behaves like any other average child – usually cheerful and curious, sometimes mischievous.
So as far as we are concerned, at five years old, our child should be ready for Primary One. We pursued this, through the current MOE policy that allows for early enrollment into Primary One based on an assessment by a psychologist, that the child has attained an exceptionally high level of intelligence. After a process that consumed not insubstantial amounts of time and money, our request was denied. Why? Our child was deemed as ‘gifted’, but not ‘exceptionally gifted’.
We believe our experience is not unique. With parents being increasingly involved in their children’s education from a young age, there are bound to be those who have discovered above average levels of ability in their children, years before Primary One. Instead of being told to ‘slow down’, wouldn’t it benefit Singapore more if the Government, through the MOE, could instead provide the support system to leverage on what the parents have done and maximise these talents?
For instance, one of the chief concerns about such schemes is that children may have difficulty adjusting to the accelerated pace, making them susceptible to psychological and emotional problems. This can be mitigated if teachers are suitably trained, to not only help this group of gifted students to cope, but to bring out the best in them.
More flexibility in the school system would also help. Imagine how it would be if skipping (or taking a longer time for) a grade is not a big deal, if deemed the best option for a child, and that for any given year, there are PSLE candidates from ages 9 to 15. There would be a more individualised approach to learning, instead of having an expectation imposed on each child that they should not be too fast or too slow as compared to a reference group. That should help not only to improve learning outcomes but also to reduce stress for the students.