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 +

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Two gifted cultures: America and Singapore

I have learnt that, in America, there is a lot of interest in IQ. In Singapore, however, one never hears of it. It is a subject that appears to hold little interest for people. In Singapore, what people are interested in is examination results. One doesn't hear, in Singapore, of parents talking of their highly gifted, exceptionally gifted or profoundly gifted children. They don't boast of their children's IQ or percentiles. Generally, they don't get them tested, either - though this could be because of the prohibitive cost of up to 1600 dollars per child, I have heard.

Why is that Americans are so interested in IQ results? From what I gather it is because the educational system requires them, to "prove" that one's child is gifted and so allow provision to be made for them. Perhaps that is the root of the matter.

In Singapore, whether a child is gifted or not is judged purely on achievement. IQ is not considered for gifted programs here, generally. Anyway, the gifted education programme is being phased out, so it is becoming a moot question. Children here are pressured to perform as well as possible on every exam. Examinations begin in Primary One and are taken at least twice a year, every year of education. It is an exam mad nation. Everything hinges on them: your higher education, your job prospects, your salary even. Higher qualifications attract bonus salaries here: just for passing a certificate you receive a monetary advantage forever. By this I mean that newspapers will even print different salaries FOR THE SAME JOB, depending on your qualifications. It is bizarre. You don't get paid for the work you do. You get paid for the qualifications you have passed.

All this leads to an incredibly pressured educational system. No accommodation is made for the very gifted: all are educated in age-lockstep from first year to graduation. There are even rules to prevent acceleration, though perhaps that is not their direct intention. It is not a system which understands much about individuality - and not a system which pays much heed to IQ, just hard work. Hard work is the main currency of education here - and of life, too.

I am not sure which is better: the excessive interest, in IQ, I read on American bulletin boards or the absolute lack of interest one feels here in Singapore. Perhaps we should strike a balance between the two extremes and take IQ as but one facet of a child, indicating but one type of function of their minds. The emphasis here on achievement, alone, as an indicator, leads to the danger that the gifted underachiever will be overlooked, in the system. Perhaps an interest in IQ would address that.

However, until testing costs are greatly reduced it is highly unlikely that IQ testing will become the norm in Singapore. Is testing expensive in America, too? Is attention paid to actual achievement in deciding who to accelerate/give access to gifted programmes? Just wondering. Your thoughts please.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:44 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that in the beginning, gifted children were identified first by their acheivement. Ive read that the studies Terman did on the gifted are flawed because he relied on teachers to select children for testing and they tended to select model students while overlooking the smart underacheivers or kids with behavioral problems.

I think word has gotten around now that a lot of times gifted kids end up very bored in class and underacheive or act up. So that may be why they rely on IQ tests.

Im not sure whether they look at acheivement when deciding how far to accellerate... I vaguely remember reading about them checking the acheviement scores on academic tests just to be sure the kid can handle the harder work in all subjects. Im not sure what is normal proceedure or whether there is a standard proceedure.

What makes IQ so fascinating... Hmmmm. For some people, it seems to me that they beleive that nothing subjective can be quantified - so that might be why IQ is boring to some people. I appear to believe that it CAN be quantified, albeit with a limitation to specific aspects of quantification, somewhat imperfectly and a big roughly.

There is something that, for me, is really awe inspiring about thinking about the huge differences in subjective experience and mental power between people of different ability levels - without a scale like IQ, there would be no "picture" by which to imagine the magnitude of difference... Its sort of like looking off the edge of a cliff, or looking up a tall skyscraper... Without the concept of cliff or skyscraper, I may not be able to imagine that kind of distance. "IQ" makes the concept of mental distance more "concrete".

Maybe its that people in other countries havent got a clue how wide the gap can be, they dont have a sense of distance at all, so the numbers dont mean anything. Do you have a strong concept of intelligence there? Maybe people dont even beleive that differences in ability to learn exist, or maybe they beleive that everyone is equal and if there are differences they are due solely to effort?

Numbers like IQ are only symbols. Id say if we are fascinated with anything were fascinated with what IQ symbolizes - power. This may trigger inequality issues for us and maybe that is why it is so interesting...

Maybe its something that people fantasize about the same way they might fantasize about being rich. A number of dollars (like a million) seems fantastic. A billion seems astronomical. We know what a million can buy and what a billion can buy, and we know wed like to have that much - it would make life easier, give us a wider range of possibilities. Maybe we believe that intelligence can do something for us, make life easier, or broaden our opportunity. So to have an fantastic or astronomical ammount of intelligence is fun to imagine. Maybe the difference is that Singaporeans dont believe that intelligence can make life easier or give them more opportunities.

Do any of these seem to explain it?

- Kathy

9:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think they place too much faith here in education and not enough in raw intellectual ability. The faith in education is truly overdone: everything has a qualification and is required to allow anyone to pursue a particular job. It is a bit silly actually.

I think this emphasis on education is the core of the issue - intelligence itself has been sidelined, to a degree.

Thanks for your post.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh, that makes sense. Ive read that its people with above average IQ's that tend to go to college and get a degree. This makes me wonder if maybe the reason why education is so important to many of them is because it actually expands their minds.

Imagine trying to do something that is past your ability. This would probably create a feeling of incompetence, and uncertainty at least for me. I would WANT guidance, Id WANT someone telling me whether I am doing it right, showing me how to avoid pitfalls, and filling in things I wouldnt have thought of.

For you and I, we can teach ourselves. To be shown pitfalls has nearly always felt to me like I was being condescended to or needlessly restricted. To be guided has always been annoying - I have my own way of choosing a direction that tends to conflict with guidance. I tend to be the one noticing things that the instructor doesnt notice, and feeling alienated that they will not take those things into account, explain them or integrate them with the learning - or worse, hearing "Youll cover that in later classes". Whatever I encounter, I can figure it out myself with enough effort, and many times, without effort. So being taught has no value to me, except to have the piece of paper that will cause people to hire me.

But if things were different, if I COULDNT teach myself, (couldnt see pitfalls in advance, didnt make enough observations, didnt know where to go from one point to another in my learning) or if the subject matter WAS so difficult that it actually really challenged me, maybe I would value education.

The pieces of paper are definitely silly, for us. But for them... well maybe the world just wouldnt work without these things...

This reminds me of the deep sadness I feel because I have never had a good mentor and barely any role models. I would like to know the joy of having someone who can show me around a subject and save me some time. Id like to know the joy of having someone to look up to and admire. The things that I become I have to imagine for myself, from scratch. They dont exist. I invent them. I wish they did exist before me. It makes me feel very lonely and isolated that this is so. Have you ever felt like that?

- Kathy

10:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Isolated? All my life. I still am in many ways, but now I have my family I don't really notice it so much. My wife and children are great company...and they are inexhaustible in a way. (I should post on that!).

As for mentors...I never found one either (another post).

I really think a mentor is a great idea...but so few people of merit take the time to help others (that is the way it was for me, anyway). I will write about it more.

Best wishes to you in your search: it isn't easy, but it is worth finding one person, at least, to share things with. It makes a real difference. (Just ask my wife.)


9:16 PM  
OpenID 7sigma said...

The owner of the Polymathica blog has gathered evidence that there is such a thing as the "optimum" IQ for academic success, which peaks at around 133 and tails off rather sharply thereafter. He points out that at IQ 140, the chances that the person will have a degree or enter a top profession have halved; by IQ 150, the person's chances have dropped by 97%, by IQ 160, the percentage of such people achieving this type of success is statistically negligible.

Additionally, an article I read some time ago claimed that pupils with an IQ of 140 waste half their time at school; those with an IQ of 160 waste all of it.

It is clear, then, that the type of people most desperately in need of early educational intervention are unlikely to be the sort of high academic achievers typically associated with "giftedness". Thus "gifted" programs end up recruiting the bright and moderately gifted, while leaving the exceptionally and profoundly gifted to be bored, goof off and underachieve.

Why are we wasting our brightest minds like this?

5:26 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your information is very worrisome, 7Sigma. What kind of world thinks it can dispense with the gifts of the most gifted and still prosper? Clearly, there is something dearly wrong with education systems. They are overlooking those they should pay most heed to.

Is the situation Polymathica points out, just an American problem, or a global problem? Whether or not it is global, however, it is most disturbing.

I shall try to read Polymathica's writings on this.

However his/her findings do fit with one historical tale: William James Sidis, who turned his back on academic life altogether despite the "highest IQ in history". He was utterly disenchanted by it. So, too, I expect are many others of IQ 140 and above.

10:48 AM  

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