The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, October 30, 2006

Teaching the gifted: an educational perspective

Imagine you are a teacher. You have worked in education for five years, since you left University, clutching your Degree with pride. You teach Primary One - or First Grade as it is called in America. Over the years, you have come to understand what First Graders are like: you know how they think, what they can do and what they can't. You know how to teach to their level, you get into a habit of it. The words come easily. You know just what to write on the board and how slow to go, how often to repeat the material to make sure it sinks in, and so on. You are a first grade First Grade teacher.

Then there comes a kid who won't sit still. A kid who doesn't pay attention - but always knows the answer when you ask him. A kid who tries to attract the attention of his class mates to some unrelated activity: a drawing he has done, perhaps - life-like, yes, but why is he drawing in your maths class? You have often caught him reading books at the back of the classroom. Odd books. Books he seems to have stolen from his daddy or mummy: books of many words and no pictures, books of literature. Why is he reading them? Is he pretending to do so? You take the books off him and confiscate them and ask him to pay attention in class. He begins to say something about knowing it already...but you cut him off and ask, sarcastically, how he can know what you have not yet taught? He doesn't answer and you take that for a confession that he was lying. The boy looks sullen, but he often looks sullen so you don't notice. He's trouble, that kid, you think, as you go back to your desk, resolving to complain to his mother about him. That kid just doesn't know how to behave in class.

At the end of the year, the results come in. The annoying kid is first in all subjects. You say nothing to him, at first, as you hand back the exam papers. Finally, you ask him: "Are you small for your age? Are you older than you look?"

"No." he answers, "I am younger than the rest."

That gets you. You finally snap. "I will not have you being sarcastic with me! Stand in the corner and don't move. You are going to see the headmaster this evening!"

The boy looks shocked. "But I came first."

"Yeh, sure you did. Any ten year old can come first in a class of seven year olds.", you find yourself saying, your thought finally out.

"But I am not yet six," he declares, quietly.

You find your hand lashing out at him, and slapping him. The boy begins to cry. Then he rises and goes to stand in the corner and sobs, for the rest of the afternoon.

You feel gratified. You have finally got through to that kid. He has got to start behaving properly. The sobs make you cheerful and you get back to teaching the class: introducing an item, writing it on the board, repeating it, getting the kids to repeat it, asking questions about it and so on. The whole process is very slow but you know it is necessary, after all, except for Sobber in the corner, they are only seven.

It has been a good day, you think. That kid is finally under control.

Can this happen? Can a teacher so misunderstand a student that she can treat him like this? Yes, it not only can, it is very common. Clearly the little boy in the story above is gifted, at least exceptionally so, from the teacher's age assumption. What does this mean from the point of view of the teacher?

Let us look at the numbers. For argument's sake let us say that the teacher teaches several subjects, as they often do at Primary One. So she is taking five different classes of student for say three different subjects. That gives her a full week. Each class contains forty students, since it is a public/state school and has not enough teachers for small classes. That means she is teaching two hundred students per year. She has worked for five years and so has taught a thousand students. You would think that she was an experienced teacher, able to cope with all sorts of pupils and situations. Not so. You see our little boy is exceptionally gifted. His IQ is 160. Only one student in ten thousand is so gifted. She has taught one thousand students - but she has never met a one in ten thousand boy before. She has no understanding of him, no experience and no insight. He is utterly beyond her.

Her experience has prepared her to believe that she is experienced, that she knows the job well, that she understands kids. Yet, it is NO preparation for a kid who is exceptionally gifted, or profoundly gifted - and may not even have prepared her for a highly gifted kid at IQ145. The highly gifted kid is one in a thousand: he would be the brightest kid she had ever taught in her career - so, even at that level, she would not have anyone else to compare him to. Thus this problem of teachers having no experience of gifted children can cut in at the highly gifted level of one in a thousand. At the exceptionally gifted level of which we speak it is almost certain that she has not met another kid like him or her. At the profoundly gifted level of 180 or above - the teacher will not only have never met another kid like him - but she will never meet another person like him in many lifetimes.

At the highly gifted level, the chance is that he is the only such child she has met. At exceptionally gifted, it is ten to one against that she has met another such kid - and it is likely that that exceptionally gifted kid will be the ONLY such kid she will see in a fifty year career. At profoundly gifted it is one thousand to one that she has met another such kid. It will be one hundred to one that she will meet another in a fifty year career.

You can see the problem now. From the teacher's perspective gifted kids don't exist. She doesn't meet them. When she does she fails to understand that the kid is gifted: she doesn't know what to make of him or her. She may think that the age information is wrong - or that the kid is repeating the year. She may be in denial about the kid's abilities - any number of misperceptions and misconceptions are possible. The one thing that is not likely is that the teacher will handle the situation well.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, a genius or a prodigy, it might help you to understand your teacher's perspective, when communicating with him or her. Unless she has been specially trained to deal with gifted children, or has worked in a school where such children are more common, she may not know how to deal with the situation - and may, because of her experience, not even believe you about the abilities of your child. She may think "in all my years I have never seen a child like such children do not exist: after all, I have taught a thousand kids."

A teacher's experience is rarely so wide as to have encountered an exceptionally gifted child - and almost never so wide as to have taught a profoundly gifted kid. As parents of such special children, we need to remember that, when we try to understand the educational situation our children find themselves in.

Ainan Celeste Cawley is my six year old scientific child prodigy son. Regarding his science ability, his school's Vice Principal said: "We have never had a child like this before...though I heard about a fifteen year old who was accepted from Singapore into an American University to do maths..."

His answer was most revealing. He acknowledged that the presence of such a gifted child as Ainan had never been noted before - but then went on to compare his precociousness with that of a fifteen year old. There is no comparison between a six year old who thinks at an adult level and a fifteen year old who does so. Yet, he thought so. This speaks of the limited experience that our teachers and Principals have: the numbers of the situation are against them.

It is not easy being the parent of a gifted child, if that child is highly, exceptionally or profoundly gifted, a genius or a prodigy - but you must accept that it is likely that the ONLY people who will understand your child are you and your spouse. The teachers will not have met his or her kind, before. The only people who can guide you, therefore, are other parents of gifted children - or people who were gifted as a child and have been through the situation. That is one reason why I have this blog: I can share my understanding of the situation with you - and perhaps help other gifted people worldwide.

If you have a thought, please write a comment. Thanks.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, go to: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:16 PM 


Blogger arifa said...

I commend you on trying to understand all sides of the story.
As always, what impresses me most about your blog, more than the talents of your children, is the decency you show as a human being.

6:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Arifa, for your kind comment. When I began this blog, I didn't know how much I had to say - though I knew much lay unexpressed within. I have, however, since discovered that I can contribute many observations of the situation of a gifted child.

I am glad that they are of help to you.

Where are you writing from?

9:23 AM  

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