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, January 17, 2007

Comparative education: America and UK style

Yesterday, in the Today newspaper, Singapore, there was a letter from a reader referring to a recent offer by an American University to accept students from Singapore directly after O level results. The initiative is part of a Singapore Institute of Management programme.

For readers in countries not familiar with O levels, let me explain. When I was growing up in the UK, there were two major exams taken before University - O levels (where O was for "Ordinary") and A levels (where A was for "Advanced"), there were also S levels which very few students took, where S stood for Special, I think. S level was considerably tougher than A level. In practice, hardly anyone ever took S level. (I did, along with at least one other from my school, but that is another story).

Now O levels were taken usually at 16 years old and A levels at 18 years old (and S levels too, at 18). O levels were a broad based exam with students taking many O levels. Most took at least 5, I think I took about 12. The A levels were more narrowly focussed, students usually taking only three subjects, though some, in schools like mine, took four or more.

As I understand it, American education is very different from the UK style education. In the UK specialisation occurs early, in America a high school education is a very broad affair indeed. So, too is an American college degree. In America, it is usual to study a buffet of subjects, mixing and matching in a modular fashion, with a typical student learning many different things. Not so in the UK (and many other countries which follow this style). There a student will generally study only one subject, with some exceptions, focussing narrowly and deeply on the subject matter.

So, how does American education compare with the UK/European style education? The American, at any given age, will have been exposed to a broad range of subjects, in what is, to a UK perspective, relatively little depth. The UK student, at any given age will have been exposed to a narrower range of subjects, in much greater depth.

What does this mean in comparing the education systems (and the students) of the two different countries? The story in the Today newspaper, yesterday, is very revealing. An American University is soliciting students after O level. This means, very clearly, that the standard of the first year of the American University begins at or below O level, in terms of depth and difficulty.
A UK A level, taken by 16 to 18 year olds, is beyond the level required to begin an American College Degree. Indeed, when I was growing up in England, it was commonly said that a UK A level, at that time, was equivalent to an American College Degree. It is important to know this when comparing a cultural phenomenon that exists in America with what exists in Europe.

In America, quite a few children appear to go to College early. In Europe very few do (and they are generally, but not always, somewhat older, when they do). Does this mean European children are less bright than American children? Not at all. It means that the European University degrees are more specialized, and require a higher standard in greater depth, than an American Undergraduate degree, certainly in the UK (the system I know of, from experience). A child passing a UK A level, when I was a child, was equivalent, in terms of academic demand, to a child passing an American College Degree. I don't know how American Graduate degrees compare to UK Graduate degrees, or indeed to Undergraduate degrees, but it is clear that they will be different, from the different foundations on which they are built.

The situation has changed somewhat over the years, since my childhood, but certain things remain the same. The UK system (and those that follow something similar) remains more specialized than the American system. The academic demand is narrower at any given age than the American system, but deeper in content. The American system remains broader and more flexible, in terms of choice of subjects studied.

O levels are still studied around the world, but generally not in the UK anymore, where most students take the GCSE (which is quite different, though the syllabuses are similar to O level). A levels have become modular, but still remain specialized.

It is important to understand these differences so that, when we read of the academic achievements of a particular nation, or a particular individual student or child prodigy, and the like, that we know what they mean. The American University recruiting in Singapore, has implicitly acknowledged that the O level exam equals or exceeds the standard of High School Graduation - otherwise they would not be recruiting O level students into their first year programmes. So, if one reads of a child who takes an O level at a very young age, this is equivalent in cognitive demand, one would think, to a child of the same age, completing High School Graduation in America. Similarly, a child passing A levels, at a young age, is comparable to a child passing an American College Degree, at a young age.

This situation allows us to understand why it is so rare for children to enter University in UK style University programmes, compared to the situation in America. Like is not being compared with like. The UK style University is narrower, deeper and simply a lot harder than the American University Undergraduate programme: it is a higher rung to achieve, and so fewer achieve it at a young age.

Then there are variations between Universities. The first year of the University of Cambridge's Natural Sciences course (which I took) was much, much more challenging than A level. Yet in some Universities the first year is similar in demand to A level. Again, one must understand the circumstance of each institution and situation to be able to compare one education system with another.

So, which is better, a broad American education, or a narrow, deeper UK/European one? I think it very much depends on what you are preparing for. If you want to be able to handle a wide range of situations in life, and have a broad perspective on things, perhaps the American system has the edge. If you want to be able to meet a difficult challenge, equipped with the deepest of knowledge (such as might be required in many professional situations), I feel the UK style University has the advantage, at least at the Undergraduate level, assuming that particular challenge doesn't require knowledge of more than one discipline.

I debate the merits of each system, because I face a choice for my sons: how do I want them to be educated - American style - or UK style? The choice exists because American style programmes are spreading around the world, as outposts of American Universities - reaching even here, in Singapore.

The first step in making a choice is in understanding the differences. I hope this article has made some of those differences clear.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, my scientific child prodigy son, aged seven years and one month, or his gifted brothers, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults in general. Note that I am unable to update the guide at present because of problems with my blogger interface, which doesn't allow me to edit posts. I am trying to resolve the situation. In the meantime, you will find recent posts in the sidebar. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:22 PM 


Blogger EbTech said...

Breadth and depth each have their advantages. I think a balance between the two is best. Programmes such as International Baccalaureate make a good compromise using a combination of American-style breadth and UK-style depth.

As far as the sciences and math are concerned, the American education system is not good at all! They don't add much breadth to make up for their lack of depth. For example, high school graduates are only required to take one science. Thus, more than half of the student population graduates without so much as a basic understanding of Newton's laws!

2:43 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Yes, both breadth and depth are important. In some ways, the UK system narrows too soon, leaving some students without a full range of skills. Maybe the IB provides a better balance.

As for America's educational shortcomings...doesn't the state realize that it is depriving itself of an optimal future?

1:11 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

I don't know... and unfortunately, I must include Canada in that judgement. Those who want a serious math/science education around here have to find schools offering advanced classes such as AP or IB.

If there's one nice thing about Canadian education, it's the absence of high-stakes university entrance exams. The biggest exams we have in my province are only worth 40% of a grade 12 course. Long-term academic performance and extra-curricular activity are considered more valid grounds for assessment.

By the way, those who seek greater depth in their North American university education can take the honours degree, which I believe is equivalent to half of a UK undergraduate degree, and usually includes a small thesis. This is the recommended path for students intending to pursue graduate studies.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the info. The American honours degree is new to me.

Re. high stakes exams. I am not sure it is healthy to have major forks in life decided purely by a few exams. There is such a thing as a bad day...or being too sensitive to stress to cope well with the pressure of the exams. In this way, some very good people underachieve and end up having doors closed on them. It is sad and unnecessary.

I think the Canadian system is probably more fair.

Kind regards

2:08 PM  

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