Back in 1995 when I was in Smartypants Class in secondary school, I did a school research project on highly intelligent “gifted and talented” children – partly because I could and partly because it pleased me to think that I was experimenting on my classmates.
My project was an independent study on children who were identified via the use of standardised testing to have IQs within the top 0.5 percentile of their peers. I wanted to compare the emotional and social development of “gifted and talented” children to that of their peers to find out if there was any real or perceived difference.
One of the things that I discovered whilst working on this project is that there are a great number of “gifted and talented” children who are also seen to be underachievers by their teachers and that this in fact a rather common phenomenon. I also realised that in my particular cohort of students, these underachievers were from the group of girls who entered the Smartypants Class at 10 years old during Primary School, and were known to be the “Black Sheep” of the class. These black sheep did comparatively poorly on standardised tests as compared to their peers. It was a mystery as to why this should happen, when they had so much potential so as to be identified as “gifted” at a younger age!
Through surveys of my classmates and their parents, I found out that many of my friends believed (as I also did) that success is based on personal aptitude. Amongst ourselves, we would go through great lengths to prove our God-given cleverness to each other, claiming not to have studied for tests or exams as well as making sport of classmates who did work hard in order to score well, calling them “muggertoads”. In fact, so much of our personal identity was wrapped up in being in the Smartypants Class that one of the biggest fears that we had was that of failure – especially if we had bothered to put in effort – because it would prove that we weren’t special at all.
As part of my project research, I found a book called “Learning and Motivation in Children” at the Smartypants Centre library, and there was an article about how children’s perceptions of their own intelligence affected their ability to learn. In a nutshell, it showed me exactly what I already knew from observation – that kids who were told early that they were smart and talented also became perfectionists who stopped trying when they couldn’t be perfect straightaway. This was called having a ‘fixed mindset’. This article affected me profoundly, as I realised that putting too much stock in my own innate intelligence and abilities instead of valuing persistence and hard work could hold me back from achieving my personal goals.
I didn’t know this at the time, but one of the authors of that article, Carol Dweck, went on to publish many more articles and books about an individual’s implicit theory of intelligence and the importance of children developing and thinking with a growth mindset. She is currently one of the world’s leading psychologists in the field of development and motivation. In her research on learning and motivation, she found that having a growth mindset is a key feature of people who are internally motivated and who are also more likely to succeed when faced with challenges both in school, in work and in life.
Now, as a parent, I have been trying to teach J and Little E to work hard and persevere, to be self-aware and learn from criticism or setbacks. These are important foundational skills that I feel are important for them to develop at a young age. Now, I realise that determination, persistence and perceptiveness are considered to be traits which most people will develop on their own through personal life experience, however, it is becoming quite clear that not everybody has the opportunity to figure these things out before they enter the workforce. This is why even our National University of Singapore has set aside a special department, The Centre of Future Ready Graduates, in order to equip all their tertiary level students with these skills!
However, I’m not an expert in education and pedagogy, and all I am doing is trying to muddle through and guide my kids in the best way that I can. When Michelle, co-founder of The Little Executive, contacted me to ask if I would be interested in sending J and Little E to an Astronaut Training Camp during the December holls last year, I was more than happy to oblige!
The Little Executive actually came into being when one of the founders of Leapfrogs Children’s Therapy Centre, which supports children with learning disabilities, realised that there were more and more parents attempting to enrol their mainstream schoolchildren into her occupational or educational therapy classes.
She realised that all these children, even though they had no learning disabilities at all, seemed to struggle in school on a daily basis as they not only lacked resilience but also had certain learning gaps and a fixed mindset about their innate capabilities. The Little Executive aims to help children develop those essential executive functioning skills needed in order to develop a healthy growth mindset towards lifelong learning.
In my opinion, courses aimed teaching study skills tend to be quite dry and boring as they are often quite abstract in nature – and yes, I have attended my share of such courses as a kid attending the Smartypants Class. However I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Little Executive has found ways to help kids develop these skills in a really fun, hands-on way! I don’t think that the kids even realise that they are learning how to learn – but I have seen the results on my kids and I can tell you that it works. I wish I’d attended these classes myself as a kid, because it really would have saved me a lot of angst.
The Astronaut Training Camp, which was held over 4 mornings, was a real treat for J and Little E. Through games, sensory experiments and brainstorming sessions, the kids used their problem solving, communication and observational skills to learn about various aspects of preparing for space travel – even preparing their own dehydrated snacks from bananas, troubleshooting potential issues that might happen during space missions and working together to construct their own shuttle!
Parents were invited to attend a short presentation on the last day of the camp, and I got to tinker with all their craft projects and find out more about what went on during the camp. I was most impressed with the incredible rapport that the educators were able to build with the kids in such a short space of time. Additionally, they were able to engage not only the youngest preschooler (Little E), but also the oldest primary school kid (J) and cater to their different learning abilities.
The educators also gave me great verbal feedback on the strengths and shortcomings of both J and Little E, which showed me how experienced they were in assessing children and working on supporting their weaknesses. I would also have appreciated some written feedback on the kids that I could peruse and mull over at my own leisure!
Thumper was really excited to see all the things that his brother and sister made during the camp (especially the really cool jetpacks), and I can tell that he is waiting for his turn to attend Astronaut Training Camp with The Little Executive one day.
I think the greatest reward for me was to see how the course affected J and Little E. I’ve been observing the two of them since school reopened and I have noticed two things:
- J’s handwriting has improved dramatically as he has become more conscientious in class, taking more pride in his work.
- Little E has started revising her Chinese language readers on a daily basis, asking her brother for help with words that she doesn’t know.
Needless to say, I am more than pleased!
Trial classes for The Little Executive’s regular programme are held every Saturday (SGD$48 for a 1.5 hour parent-accompanied class). For more information on trial classes click here.
The Little Executive has got two very exciting camps lined up for the 2017 March school holidays: