BRIEF NOTES AND SELECTIONS ON THE HISTORY OF MALAYSIA’S GIFTED AND TALENTED EDUCATION WITH REFERENCE TO THE MRSM (MAKTAB RENDAH SAINS MARA/MARA JUNIOR SCIENCE COLLEGE) SYSTEM
By Azly Rahman
(Originally written as part of a proposal to the Stanford University School of Education, 1997)
A nation’s greatest asset is its intellectual resource cultivated through the process of education. From the times of Plato to the post-modernist revolution in cognitive psychology, the emphasis burdened onto the enterprise of education is to create individuals able to function intellectually and productively in society. Key to this ongoing cultural and social struggle is the development of thinking skills and personality traits “desirable” and socially apt in the process of educating or “drawing out the best out of the child” so that he/she will be able to be holistic in thinking. This enterprise has been approached in many ways depending on the times and the socio-economic and political climate prevalent. One of the most remarkable and landmark studies which has emerged in the field of assertaining human potential is that done by Prof. Lewis Terman of Stanford University. For 34 years and one which continued after his death, Terman spent his life, beginning as a graduate student, closely following the intellectual development of over 1500 children he defined as gifted and talented through the Stanford-Binet test (Sisk, 1987:7). Terman and Oden (1959:2) described the purpose of the study entitled Genetic Studies of Genius.
In 1921 a generous grant from the Commonwealth Fund of New York City made possible the realization of this ambition. The project as outlined called for the shifting of a school population of a quarter-million in order to locate a thousand or more of highest IQ. The subjects selected were to be given a variety of psychological, physical and scholastic tests and were then to be followed as far as possible into adult life.
Terman was working within the paradigm of intelligent testing based upon the Stanford-Binet IQ concept; a time wherein the structural-functionalist and empirical approach to ascertaining intelligence was flowering. Seventy years hence has passed and countless criticisms were leveled against IQ testing-based selection and determining of the concept of giftedness. Numerous instruments have since been developed to give a “fairer” approach to defining intellectual ability. Albeit the above-mentioned summary of the controversies which has plagued intelligence testing up to this day, Terman’s classic study remained much revered as an attempt to comprehensively and longitudinally analyze the life events which has shaped and sustained the “giftedness and talentedness of his subjects”. Terman (1959:) was specifically attempting to find out the following:
(1) what intellectually superior children are like as children; (2) how well they turn out; and (3) what are some of the factors that influence their later achievement. (page 2) The history of gifted and talented education has not recorded any attempts by others into follow-up studies of such magnitude. Sisk (1987) in analyzing early education efforts on behalf of gifted children concluded that “[i]n reviewing the early educational efforts on behalf of the gifted, the genius of Terman cannot be ignored. He was a major catalyst for education for the gifted and devoted his life to bright and quick students”. (page 7)
It is within this backdrop of literature on the history of giftedness and talentedness that the foregoing discussions leading to the stating of problem statement and hypothesis need to be set. Whilst the American experimentation on the selection and identification of children designated be academically gifted began with the Terman study in 1921, more than 50 years after that, Malaysia as a developing country emerging out of the shockles of colonialism and undergoing a process of nation-building through education, began a similar experiment.
A study into the process of systematic filtration of children designated as academically gifted and placing them in special schools for the academically superior was documented in a doctoral dissertation by (Sulaiman, 1975). A nationwide search was made for the “best and the brightest” to be screened and admitted in a newly established group of three schools named MARA Junior Science Colleges (in Seremban, Kota Baru and Kuantan). Sulaiman’s study focused on the 1974-75 selection process and stated that:
... a total of 2,070 candidates were eligible to participate in the selection process. Out of these, only 818 managed to qualify for the interviewing stage. And out 880 interviewed candidates, only 330 were finally selected based on the cumulative results of the MJSC tests, which formed 60% of the total, the socio-economic considerations which formed 20% and the interview criteria which form another 20%. (page 144)
If there are similarities in the manner Terman selected his subject, it is in the manner IQ testing is used which focused primarily on the logical-mathematics and linquistic abilities of those tested and selected. Sulaiman (1975) stated that “[t]he MARA test comprised an IQ test, an English test, a Science test, and a math test, each having a total of 60 points making a total score of 240 points for all four subjects.” (page 145) Having been tested and succeeded, thus began MJSCs’ experiment’ in “enriching the lives of the children through a differentiated curriculum modeled after The Bronx School for the Gifted in Science. A historical survey into the development of Terman’s study as well as MJSC’s experimentation and its mission and vision will certainly be dealt with in the section of literature review. The above discussions, albeit at length for a section on problem statement and hypothesis, nonetheless is necessary to arrive at a jucture to understand a parallel experiment which was done at two different times.
Although Terman’s study began in 1921 and Sulaiman’s analysis of the selection process was described critically and analytically in 1975, one must content with the chronological difference in the transplantation of ideas from a developed country to that of a developing one. Sections in the review of literature will deal with the Center-Periphery Concept of transplantation of educational ideas looked at within the context of Dependency theory. Pertinent to this study nonetheless is the replication of Terman’s study (with minor adaptations) to the products (in the vulgar sense of education/terminology) of the MJSC experiement out of which is based upon the intelligence testing championed by Terman himself.
REVIEW OF SELECTED LITERATURE ON THE HISTORY OF GIFTED AND TALENTED EDUCATION
The history of defining the concept of “giftedness” is one characterized by shifting paradigms of what constitutes intelligence and creativity in the context of a particular society’s ideological, political economic, socio-economic, cultural structure and history. It is also that of a constant flux and controversies in one’s definition of concepts such as “egalitarianism”, “equality” and “equal opportunity” as an art and science of “drawing out the best in every human being” (Kline, 1988)”. As society, in the context of historical materialism, moves towards progressing complexity, the need to delineate the “junior members of the society” borrowing educational philosopher John Dewey’s term (Dewey, 1938) becomes more pressing; the “best and the brightest” need to be systematically groomed particularly into “intellectual elites”.
These elites should then be socially engineered, through the human capital revolution process called “schooling”, to become cadres’ of capitalism able to sustain, evolutionize or even revolutionize the make up of the nation’s ideological structure. As such, the process of creating intellectual elites is not without precedence. Education for the gifted and talented is one such enterprise spawning historically from the days of Plato’s insistence that “philosophers” should be kings (Plato ). Modern-day history of gifted and talented education must be seen within the historical perspective of education in the United States Tannenbaum (1988) chronicled the American effort in educating the gifted; describing the historical evolution of gifted and talented education. From the days of Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotience (IQ) testing in the early 1960s up till the move towards holistic definition and perspectives on the selection process in the 1980s, it is argued that the paradigms of perceiving giftedness have continually shifted, signalling the “maturity” of the concept (Tannenbaum, 1988).
The 1990s is characterized by the definition of giftedness based on brain-laterality and hemispheric models, signalling another paradigm shift which moves into the arena of educational belief that giftedness is a “concept for all” and that “egalitarianism” in defining whether one is gifted or not is essentially a moral-educational obligation, and that what should be looked at and into is the concept of “the genius in each and every human being” (Kline, 1988; Deporter; 1992 Gardner; 1985 Levine, 1991). The discussions and brief mentioning supra of the historical trends in gifted educational conceptual perspective suggests, as stated in the first paragraph of this section, the “shifting paradigms of what constitutes intelligence and its means of “perceiving it”. The following paragraphs briefly outline the review of literature pertaining to the history of gifted and talented education:
Philosophers par excellence of the Hellenistic tradition, notably Socrates and Plato were the first to contribute to the idea that intelligence need to be nurtured in order for society to sustain its cutting edge and competitive advantage in civilization (Nettleship, 1966). Whilst Socrates called for the early identification of individuals’ talent so that more of the gifted can be nurtured, Plato believed that a society can maintain its prominence and intellectual sustenance through the election of gifted and talented individuals to the ruling class. Plato, in essence and in the leit motif of his age, insisted that “philosophers should be king” believed that the giftedness can be defined as the ability to grasp knowledge at the various levels classified and be able to also be highly competent at those various levels.
The Hellenistic tradition, with its primary of classical philosophy as its force majeur, gave birth to the enterprise of scientific inquiry; familiar the maxim that “philosophy is the mother of knowledge.” Scientific inquiry, the soul of rationalistic throught of that philosophical genre transferred the concept of giftedness and intelligence, from a somewhat vague, fuzzy and non-scientific conception based on Platonic idea of the human mental innerworkings, to a more “constructed” one; that intelligence is a fixed human characteristic. One such attempt to search into the fixatedness of this concept of intelligence which later gave rise to the genetic investigations into giftedness is the work of Sir Charles Darwin, an English botanist.
Darwin’s (1868) investigation into the origin of species a “blasphemic and controversial” study on natural selection set the impetus for another researcher to look into the concept of the inheritability of human intelligence. Such was undertaken by the English biologist, Sir Francis Galton, who constructed the first intelligence test based on the data of his research findings. Galton (1869) developed the instrument based on his theory that the general intelligence of infants are related to their sensory acquity (Howley et. al., 1986). The quest for identification of human intelligence saw further development in the work of the Frenchman, Alfred Binet who developed a test to identify slow children. Binet’s work (1905) was focused on searching for measures to help these slow children to develop to their fullest potential.
Contrary to previous ideas put forth that intelligence is a fixated and inherited, Binet believed that human beings can develop their intelligence and that it can be done so through education. The history of gifted and talented education especially at this juncture saw the birth of the “nature-versus-nurture” controversy of intelligence which has up to this day kept emerging and reemerging, gaining prominence in the current “Murray” research published in 1995 (Murray, 1995). Following Binet’s work on the developmental and educable nature of intelligence and giftedness, the thesis was further developed into a revision of the original test by Lewis Terman, one of the most monumental figures in the history of gifted and talented education. Terman was then teaching at Stanford University and in 1916 developed the classic Stanford-Binet test (Binet, 1916). thus, the Stanford-Binet IQ test was born which gave, up to this day the popularity of the term IQ testing; an enterprise claimed by its proponents to be a holistic and scientific measurement of the fixatedness of human intelligence. Subsequent developments followed which saw the further refinement of the measurement of intelligence. Intelligence was then looked at from the perspective of one’s ability to perform certain tasks, depending on one’s general aptitude and unique factors. Spearman (1904) was the first to delineate “s” (specific) factors” in human intelligence.
These “s” factors were then further delineated by research done by Thurstone (1938) who specifically named seven mental abilities as primary to the definition of intelligence. They are namely, “numbers, verbal, space relations, memory, reasoning, word fluency and perceptual speed.” (Sisk, 1987: page 5) Whilst the historical development of intelligence testing is, at this point of discussion, centered around the belief that giftedness is a fixed construct, the work of Guilford (1959) who developed the model structure of intellect (SOI) marked a turning point in conceptualizing what intelligence is. Guilford’s factor-analytical model intelligence, the SOI, was based upon the idea that intelligence need to be looked at from three dimensions: operations, contents, and products. (Sisk (1987) stated:
According to Guilford’s definition, the operations are intellectual activities which involves the processing of information. Contents are the types of information on which operations are performed, and products are the outcomes of the different kinds of mental ability (pg. 5).
Jean Piaget’s monumental contribution to this historical review comes next in significance. Piaget (1952) theorized the stages of growth of human cognition; from the sensory-motor to pre-operational to concrete operational and lastly to formal operational. The human being progresses through these stages through his/her interaction with the environment a life process which is undergone with intensity. Accommodation and assimilation are the key features of the innerworkings of this interaction. Linguistic and thought development enriched or impoverished determines the level of cognition characteristic of the individual. Piaget looks at this development within the context of input-output of information in the process of developing the intellectual structure of the human being.
Since the times of Socrates and Plato to that of Jean Piaget, the history of defining intelligence and giftedness has undergone monumental paradigmatic shifts bringing forth newer perspectives in attempts to educate the human intellect. This brief historical survey would not be complete without the inclusion of contemporary findings in research on brain/mind which has begun to revolutionize the field of gifted education and one which has spawned new and unprecedented directions in this field. Sisk (1988) outlined the developments in cognitive psychology, an interdisciplinary field of the study of human potential and how this “new science” has brought promises in realizing “egalitariarism” in education. Sisk (1988) wrote:
Within the last generation, a new empirical discipline, cognitive science (a hybrid of psychology, computer science, psycholinguistics and several other fields) has developed. Cognitive science explores the interior universe - the mind and the processing of thought. This exploration bears examination by educators interested in building quality education. (page 289).
And thus, the history of gifted and talented education saw a watershed with a burgeoning literature to support the idea that giftedness and intelligence is not only concepts which are fixed and to be measured but can be developed multi-facetly, through multi-disciplinary means in order to create multi-dimensional human beings able to cognitively sustain their intellectualism in, a world of multitude complexities. Among those pioneering such a radical humanistic concept of human potential development are those such as Ivan Barzakov, Geogi Lozanov and Howard Gardner. Important works in the literature of brain/mind science of this genre abound and currently transforming education for the gifted and talented : (Lozanov, 1979; Gardner, 1985) a concept no longer to be tested on and discovered for the reserved few, but one to be developed and nurtured for the masses!
II. ON LEWIS TERMAN’S LONGITUDINAL STUDY
Significant to the intent of this research proposal is a brief discussion on Terman’s longitudinal study of which will be adaptatively replicated as a cross-sectional panel study of Malaysian gifted individuals identified in 1974. In Genetic Studies of Genius which remain up to this day, an unsurpassed and monumental research into giftedness, Terman documented research findings from 1925 to 1959, the year of his death. Sisk (1988) wrote of his work:
Terman’s project to study gifted students was founded in 1921 for $20,000. For 34 years, more than a quarter of a million dollars was raised to fund the study. As students were added, the size of the group studied grew to 1528 children. After Terman’s death in 1956, the study was continued by his associate Melita Oden, who conducted follow-up testing every five years. It is scheduled to continue until the death of the last Terman project participant in 21st Century and is financed primarily from Stanford-Binet test royalties. (page 7).
Sisk (1988) in her discussion of the emerging concept of giftedness summarized Terman’s findings as:
• The gifted differ among themselves in many ways and are not homogenous. • The stereotypes of the gifted child as puny, asocial, or prepsychotic, and of high intelligence as akin to insanity, are discounted. • To identify the most intelligent child in a class, one should consult the record book for the youngest. • Superiority in intelligence is maintained through adulthood. • Instructional acceleration at all levels is beneficial • Gifted students who did not attend college had the same intellectual level as PhD candidates. • Research on differences between the most and the least successful men in the gifted group indicate socio economic status and college education of the father as influencing factors, as well as force of character. • Mental age continues to increase into middle age. • There were many more high IQ persons than predicted by the normal curve of probability (Terman and Oden, 1947; Goven, 1977).
It is not the intention here to discuss the criticisms and contestations related to the findings made by Terman in the heydays of Stanford-Binet Intelligence testing. Rather, the purpose is to highlight the significance of Terman’s longitudinal study within the context of this proposal. What is to be studied in this Malaysian context has its parallelism with Terman’s work. The following review of the MARA Junior Science College experiment will throw some light to this parallelism.
III. ON THE MARA JUNIOR SCIENCE COLLEGE EXPERIMENT
The relationship between education and nation-building has extensively emerged in the literature of education particularly since nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia were released by their colonial masters from the shackles of domination (Bock,1971). Analyses of the role education play in these newly-independent nations have ranged from particularly two contending paradigms; structural functionalist and dependency or conflict (Paulston, 1977). Education, as part and parcel of superstructure inherited from colonialism has been seen as an enterprise which has its ideological base in the former colonial countries.(Walters, 1981). In Malaysia, British colonialism has had a major impact in the development of English schools which were instrumental in grooming political elites, predominantly, who would administer the country using ideological and political tools British in character.
Bock (1971) particularly analyses this relationship in his study of education and nation-building emphasizing on the uniqueness of multi-racialism of post independence. Bock stated the educational imperative as such:
... the range of problems which confront Malaysia are precisely those which require a direct attack on the attitudinal predispositions of its ethnically diverse citizenry. Recognition by the national elites that true unity between the ethnic communities in any cultural sense will take years, perhaps several generations to develop, has resulted in the short-run on attempting to attain some kind of accommodation between the communities so that they can live in peace while pursuing modernization. (page ) (1971)
Bock further stated that nation-building in post-colonial Malaysia has focused on the need to provide “crutches” to aid the Malays in their quest for economic and educational equality whilst at the same time to encourage “greater political participation by the non-Malays, particularly the Chinese population” (page 33). Out of this political economic obligation then efforts were made to systematically engineer special educational provisions for the Malays to enter “priviledged” schools which attempt to groom bright and fast rural children to advance the ladder of social stratification. At the time the government was already embarking for several years in these special residential schools project, at the same MARA (Council for the Indigenous People’s Trust), a quasi-government body “ventured in a major educational programme - The MARA Junior Science College (MJSC)”. (Sulaiman, 1975). These special residential schools were to encourage the development and interest of students especially in Science and Mathematics. Particularly relevant is the mention of the issue which surrounded the establishment of these school vis-a-vis the Government’s effort in attempting to do similarly. Sulaiman (1975) wrote:
The steps taken ... in setting up MJSC were received with mixed feelings. Some negated the necessity and justification set forth by the proponents of the project by claiming that if would ‘duplicate’ the government’s efforts aimed at basically the same objectives. That is, to help the poorer but bright intelligent students to excel in academic studies in science and mathematics. The counter claims by the MJSC proponents were that they were not interested in just producing academic ‘geniuses’ (robot-like and insensitive) who are unable to adjust to society’s needs. They claim that MJSC is also an attempt to inculcate ‘enterprising’, ‘creative’, ‘independent’ and ‘all-rounded’ attributes in all their students. (page 109 : underscore mine) Students were selected based on criteria such as good results in the Standard Five assessment exam, a series of tests and an interview. The tests, conducted by MARA “comprised an IQ test, an English test, a Science test, and a Math test each having a total of 60 points, making a total score of 240 points for all four subjects (pg. 146).
The purpose of creating MARA Junior Science Colleges was clear, to screen the “best and brightest” among Malay children to undergo privileged training in science and mathematics based education. The vision was to create intellectual elites able to build the nation which was then in the process of modernizing. The foregoing brief review of literature relating the MJSC experiment as it relate to post-colonial Malaysian education attempt to provide the context of this research proposal. It would be impossible to measure the contributions made by the individuals selected into MJSC in the early 1970s, to the development of the country.
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