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 +

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The problem of creativity: examinations

You would think that the creative child would be the most prized asset of any nation. You wouldn't think it from the way the education system is structured, in all countries of the world that I am aware of.

How does a state evaluate the merit of a child? They examine them in formal examinations. They sit the child down and ask standardized questions, intended to elicit a standardized response with which the child may be marked against a "standard" of predetermined, mark-yielding goals, to be achieved.

You might think that is fair and reasonable. All children are to be gauged against preset examination objectives, designed to elicit specific knowledge taught, universally, by their schools over a course. But is it? Is this a reasonable way to assess our children? For what does an examination actually determine? It determines whether your thoughts CONFORM to expectation. The real result of an exam is the degree to which your child gave the answers required. This is taken to be a measure of "intelligence" - since giving the "right" answer denotes you as having understood the question, understood the course material, and been able to calculate, elucidate, deduce, infer, remember or otherwise think the answer.

Yet, there is a problem. You see examinations always have preset expectations of what an answer should be. Some countries take this to a ludicrous extent. I have taught in Singapore (English Literature, and the General Paper, for a time). There I was expected to do something I thought truly bizarre. Whenever I set an essay paper - note I said essay - and not mathematics problem - I was expected, by the school, to write, beforehand, a model answer, to the question I set, against which I was to compare all the student answers, and mark them according to the degree to which they fit my model answer. I had a truly sick feeling on being asked to do this. For it told me something very clearly: conformity of thought was the intention of the whole process. There were to be NO marks for originality, for originality would mean that your answer would differ from expectation.

What did I do? I didn't write any model answers. I marked the essays on an individual basis against another standard: my internal one of quality of thought. This was fairer to the students and allowed them to do their own thing. Some of them blossomed under this regime: others were a little lost - for tellingly, they "didn't know what to write" because they "hadn't been told" what to write. I tried to introduce originality into the classroom - and it was clearly a strange experience for them. I may write more of that one day.

Examinations measure not intelligence, so much, as conformity to expectation allied with grasp of a standardized knowledge base. An intelligent person may do very well - but also an intelligent person may not do so well, in a misleading fashion. Here is why: if you can think for yourself, you may think in a way that is not expected by the examiner. This means that you will write original answers. You might think this would be greeted with great welcome and result in a stellar result. Not so. If your answer differs from the preset guidelines that the examiner expects, in most instances you would be marked down - for your answer may not be familiar to him or her.

I will give you an example from observation of Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, who has just turned seven, a few days ago. Ainan is very knowledgeable in chemistry - but he displays more than knowledge. He shows, daily, the ability to apply his knowledge in new ways and invent new reactions for doing things or achieving the goals in hand. I was recently discussing some chemical analytical tests with him. These are standardized reactions used to prove the presence of a particular substance. They are answers that an examiner would expect to be stated precisely and without deviation. What did Ainan do when presented with a standard situation, which had a known, conventionalized approach to determine the answer? He made up his own solutions. He pointed out other ways in which you could test for these substances. He invented different reactions which could also prove the presence of the said substance, and told me what to expect in result if the substances were tested in this way. My reaction was mixed. I was impressed by his deftness of mind that allowed him to see a new way to achieve the end required. But I was also worried - for one day, if he is to achieve his ambition of being a scientific researcher - he will have to pass examinations. Would he sit down and give perfectly valid answers which were unfamiliar to the examiner - since they were new ones - and so be marked down, when, in fact, he was doing something few candidates could do: come up with a new answer that also worked?

I think so. I think Ainan would give original answers in a scientific examination. This presents multiple dangers, the first of which is that the examiner may not know enough science to be able to evaluate the alternative answer and determine that it is also correct. Or, the examiner might admire the answer enough, if it has practical or commercial utility, to acquire it for themselves, in an act of plagiarism.

Certainly, in science, they are no rewards for originality in examinations - and plenty potential penalties. It is only at the level of PhD that originality is supposedly rewarded by the system - and that is a long time to wait, to be properly appreciated.

If your child is gifted in creative ways and displays originality of thought, therefore, they may not be very happy in the school system, and their quality of mind might not be truly reflected in their examination results. For they may have thought thoughts no other candidate had ever thought, and write words no other candidate has ever written. Unless your child is fortunate enough to have a very intelligent and informed examiner, this may not produce the appropriate rewards. In some countries, it is almost guaranteed that your child's qualities of mind will not be appreciated, but overlooked by the system.

(If you would like to read about my scientific child prodigy son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, just turned seven, and his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, savant, the creatively gifted, and gifted children in general.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:28 PM 


Blogger EbTech said...

While the level of conformity in secondary school examinations is upsetting, I find that universities tends to be much better in this regard. Many professors try their best to reward creativity as you did.

My suggestion would be to find a top-quality university for Ainan, where world-class scientific researchers are likely to be creative themselves. If the university has an honours program, that's ideal because those classes are specifically designed for bright and creative students, and are often taught by the best intructors.

Having said that, the purpose of most undergraduate courses is to acquire foundational knowledge, so it makes sense for students to be graded on the concepts and critical thinking skills which they are expected to learn, rather than a general trait such as originality.

I don't think any of my science professors would penalize students for solving a problem correctly by unconventional means. The only catch is that you must explain yourself clearly!

7:38 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your experience of University is rather different to my own. I found University (Cambridge) much less creative than my school and much more given to conformity. It was a place positively hostile to creative thought. Creativity was actively PUNISHED by some of my lecturers/supervisors. Perhaps American Universities are better than Cambridge in this respect.

My experience of Cambridge leads me to think that top Universities, especially those interested in research over teaching, might be a bad choice.

Thanks for your view, though.

1:31 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

I'm sorry to read about your experiences at Cambridge.

It's difficult for me to comment in detail on this matter, as my own experience is very limited. I am only in my second year at a Canadian university. Honours math and physics courses here seem to require some degree of creativity, while the non-honours equivalents are more bland.

I once read that even at the American Ivy Leagues, a lot of professors devote more attention to research than to their undergraduate students. Of course, I can't verify the validity of this statement.

With some research, it may be possible to find out which institutions are best known for their quality of teaching. Although they may be hard to find, there are some highly intelligent and inspiring teachers out there!

7:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

My experience of Cambridge agrees with your understanding of the Ivy League: lecturers were interested in their own research and disinterested in teaching. Furthermore, some lecturers saw creative students as a threat - or as a source of material/ideas for use in their own work, to the detriment of the students. Creative students would experience considerable hostility from competitive lecturers who would try to thwart them, rather than help them. It had one hell of an awful culture with respect to student ideas. At least, that was my experience (most students wouldn't experience this because, quite frankly, most students are NOT creative, in any respect.)

I am glad to hear that you are having a better experience. I hope you enjoy it and grow by it.

Best wishes

8:31 AM  

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