Revert back GENIUS to PERMATA

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"TALENTED" IN MATH

In formal education in Malaysia, most high school students will take Modern Mathematics and Additional Mathematics for their SPM. If you have been through high school, you know how hard Mathematics is for most students, especially Additional Mathematics as it is always been lauded as the "killer subject".

But it shouldn't surprise you as well that there are students out there who think Mathematics subjects are easy. You also know that students who are good in Mathematics are the easiest targets to be called "genius". For these students, usually they are looking for something more challenging than formal high school Mathematics, so if they are lucky (as in, if they or their parents or teachers got the news) they will enter Olimpiad Matematik Kebangsaan (OMK), which is a competition of high level, non-routine Mathematics problems. Also, the problems are very hard.

OMK is introduced as a pathway to be a representative for Malaysia in International Mathematics Olympiad. The competition for the IMO seat is fierce, as there are only 6 slots available and there are around 10,000 students taking part in OMK. Keep in mind that the participants are usually the top students in a school who scored excellently in Additional Mathematics (the easiest way to select school representatives).

As one of the examiners of OMK, I can assure you that more than half of the participants will get zero in OMK. Yes, 0 out of full marks of 30, and this is totally normal. So those who can score in OMK can already be considered brilliant, and what do you think of those who can get more than 10 marks?

Anyhow, PERMATApintar also send their students for OMK, and they trained their students to be as prepared as possible. I was one of the trainer for their OMK workshop, which was held twice weekly throughout 2017-2018.

Now, these students are truly talented as they are studying in PERMATApintar after all, and they should be able to breeze through OMK and able to secure a seat for IMO, right? Unfortunately, real world doesn't work that way. PERMATApintar have been sending their students for a few years now, but until today, only one of their students made it to become a representative for Malaysia in IMO. Does this means that their students are not as brilliant as they should be? Of course not, PERMATApintar's students are one of the brightest bunches that I have ever met. Most of them can understand the topics that they are given. They also can find good and creative ways to solve a problem.

BUT TALENTS ONLY PLAY A SMALL PART IN THE SELECTION PROCESS.

Just being talented is not enough to strive in the selection of IMO participants. There are many more brilliant students out there who are not in PERMATApintar, and they were chosen as the Malaysia representatives. All the students who took part in OMK are talented, without a doubt. The only differences between them is the amount of efforts that they take to be a world-class mathematics problem solver. To become the top 6 in Malaysia is not an easy task, and it will take a long, hard training to be on that level.

Please take note that I am not trying to belittle PERMATApintar here. PERMATApintar students are definitely ingenious, and they can compete and study along with the top 6 in Bengkel IMO (BIMO), but they still need to be in more training to be able to represent the country. Here, the most important aspect is not their natural ability, but their willingness to put more efforts in learning high-level Mathematics.

The top 6 did years or training, and it is not a stretch to say that they did their training on daily basis. They were never dependent on their talents alone. By doing that, they are able to be the better students compared to 'just genius' students from all over the country. Just as mentioned by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit, the main recipe for success is not talent, but perseverance and passion.

What do you think will happen to most students of Genius if they cannot be part of Malaysian IMO team? Will they be more inclined to work hard or will they think of themselves of failure? The latter is more likely, it seems.

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THE PROBLEM WITH LABELING

I have seen how the top 6 students did their training, and they never once taught that they are 'geniuses', because they know that that term means nothing when they are competing against the best students from all over the world. They know that it is not easy to win in IMO, and thus they work hard for it. Labeling them as "geniuses" will only bring harm to them, as evidenced by a 1998 experiment by Dweck and Mueller.

In their experiment, what they did was they gave a test to a class of 5th graders, and these problems are designed to be moderately difficult. After they finished answering, their tests were graded and each student were given one of the following response: normal "well done" praise, praise on their ability ("wow, you must be smart at these problems") or praise on their effort ("wow, you must have worked hard at these problems.) These responses are the only variables in this experiment, and the students were treated the same way for the rest of the session.

Then, the experiment continued with another super hard test for the students. The test were designed so that the students cannot solve them, and after the students were finished, their test were graded by the researches and the students were told that they had done poorly. So here is the real question: how did the students cope with this hardship and setback?

The students who were praised for their effort saw this as a learning opportunity while the students who were praised for their talent saw this as a failure.

There are three things of interest here about the students who received praise for the effort:

1) they were more likely to want to take the problems home
2) they got more questions right on the third test
3) they are more likely to choose to take part in a session on how to do better on the test

At this point, it should be obvious on why we should make students focus on their efforts instead of their natural talents.

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FOCUS ON WHAT WE CAN CHANGE

By naming the school as "Genius", it shows that we are more concerned about the students' natural talents, and indirectly we are expecting them to just use whatever they already have instead of learning new set of skills.

By focusing on their natural talents, students will be more inclined to believe that they are worthless if they are facing with setbacks, because they will think that their talent only worth a little. This will make students to become less inclined to work hard because they think that they should be naturally good at things.

We all know that failures are what makes us today, and the best winners are those who always get back up after each and every failure, not those who never lose.

Hence, I humbly ask Dr Maszlee Malik to consider changing the name of Genius. I understand that naming a school, especially a prestigious one, is not an easy task, but there are many downsides to naming the school as Genius. Students should be celebrated for their efforts. By doing this, we can increase the chance of raising students with high level of perseverance, students who knows that efforts play a more important role than natural abilities, and students who can be strive in a highly competitive environment.