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 +

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Child Prodigy Schools In Asia: Hope or Hype?

Schooling all over the world is not the same. Despite the every effort at homogeneity made by the export of Western educational culture to the world, through European examinations, such as the O Level and A Level and the IB (International Baccalaureate), and American University degrees, there remains an element of cultural uniqueness to most educational cultures.

One element of uniqueness in the Asian educational landscape is the emergence of the prodigy school. Now, anyone who knows anything of prodigies might be a little taken aback by that statement: I was, too. The idea that a school would purport to create a prodigy, on demand, is quite astonishing. Yet, in several Asian countries such schools have been established. They are to be found in Korea and China, as well as, surprisingly, Indonesia (more of that later).

The question is: can a school create a prodigy? Firstly, we must understand what a prodigy is. As you may know, a prodigy is a child, under 11, with adult performance in an adult discipline: that is a high bar to expect a school to meet.

What type of children do these schools take? In Korea, they take the top 1% of children - so all their entrants are gifted. That gives us hope, except to note that this is not nearly selective enough to isolate prodigies. So their pool consists of gifted children, but not naturally prodigious children. I think, in some ways, these schools have been mischievously marketed, for what they offer is not to make a child a prodigy, but to educate a gifted child to a high level.

The Chinese case, however, is a little worrying. Promotional material for one school promises to take a child of "average intelligence" and to give them, at age 10, "the intelligence level of a University student", by which they seem to mean the actual intellectual performance of a University student. Well, there is one word for that: impossible (for the child of "average intelligence", anyway.) The school will give each student an exhaustive education in a regimented fashion (if photos of the students at work are any guide). The result will be an educated child, who has been taught by rote, largely speaking. The child will know a lot - but I think it is very unlikely that the process will enhance their intelligence, as we properly think of intelligence. The child will still be a child of "average intelligence" - who happens to have been educated. That is not a prodigy.

In most countries, a school making such a claim would be shut down pretty quickly, especially when its fees are looked at: up to 138,000 yuan per year (which, in terms of affordability, is like the same in US dollars to an American, when salaries are taken into account). The school also begins by teaching students as young as 1 year old. Apparently, they have 400 students - which, in terms of income, is a very successful proposition for the owner of the school. It remains to be seen whether they will produce any prodigies, however.

The Indonesian case is odder still. They have a photograph of Ainan, my scientific child prodigy son, on their website. The implication seems to be that Ainan is a product of the school. This is not so. Ainan has not attended a "prodigy school". I know of no prodigy who has actually attended a prodigy school. So, if you see material promoting Ainan as the product of such a school - know it for what it is: opportunistic marketing. Ainan will never attend such a school, for he is prodigious already, a gift that arose naturally from within him.

What can we expect from such prodigy schools? A group of intensively educated children, with a high level of knowledge, but without, I think, the dimension of gifts characteristic of prodigies. To ask an average child to be a prodigy is a bit like asking the average person to be an Olympic sprint champion: no amount of training is going to get you there - but training will make you faster than you would have been without it. The same thing applies to prodigy schools. No amount of training is going to make you a prodigy if it is unsupported by the appropriate native gifts - but it will make you better at the trained task or subject than you would have been: nothing more and nothing less. I am not sure that is worth the fortune that is asked for by some of these schools.

What are your thoughts on prodigy schools? Will they give Asia an advantage over the Western world - or are they a misguided attempt to thwart nature and create prodigies on demand?

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:33 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thats definitely shady. This is the first Ive heard of those schools... I would be skeptical, especially since they have no qualms about posting your childs face on their site, who does not go to their school. That is blatantly misleading and, I hope, illegal.

A lot of parents with gifted children think that they are at fault for the gift - I wonder if that is how this misconception came about, or if the school is an outright scam. Or maybe they have a cruel strategy, like forcing them to practice for twice as long... schooling 16 hour days.

I do beleive that advanced learning techniques could teach kids quite a bit faster than the average ones. But without serious research, studies, experiments, trials, or something... which I assume would be posted on their website somewhere... I wouldnt believe it.

And I also wonder if a lot of the advanced learning techniques only work on the gifted... Like photoreading. I think I can do it. Reading the book (I havent finished) has already caused me to discover that I can do cool stuff like read a half a sentance at a time, as opposed to a word at a time. But Im not so sure that ANYONE can do it...

Now I have an interesting question for you, along the same lines. As you probably remember, I began running at 9 months. I was climbing out of my crib, too, like your kids. I was taking this as an indicator that I might be profoundly gifted. Today, my mom told me that I had an extreme case of colic. She said I was screaming constantly and squirmed a lot. She told me that most kids outgrow colic in 3 months, but that I had it until I was 4. She thinks that maybe all that kicking and squirming developed my muscles and coordination... Is it possible that the parts of my brain needed to run and climb actually developed 200% sooner (or more... the average running milestone is anywhere between 18 mo and 3 years according to random web pages) than average due to practice?

And if so... I read somewhere (forgot where) that most of the early neural connections are due to motor development. So if I was not born intelligent, might I have given myself a head start?

And I wonder how intelligent I seem to you? I dont have an inexpensive way of telling... I might have dyslexia, which may make it impossible for them to determine how intelligent I actually am. And I estimate myself to be at a rather high level, but am worried that that is a biased perspective or some kind of delusion or narcissism... So your comments might be very helpful, if you wouldnt mind...

- Kathy

3:39 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your post, Kathy.

They offer no evidence and no proof...just promises and a request for large sums of money.

Seeing my son grow up has convinced me that his gift is NOT transferrable. That is I do not believe that any regime, of any kind could produce the same result.

I believe that your early co-ordination is a gift and not the product of "practice". Every child tries to move in their first months. They all have the same amount of time in which to practice. The difference between them is native gift.

You seem gifted to me...and more than moderately so. It would not surprise me if you were highly gifted or above. It seems a good estimate. Whether that is corroborated elsewhere is irrelevant because I can see from what you have said that many of your gifts would not test well. You are still gifted however.

I don't think colic would have helped your development. It probably hindered it in some way...stress reduces growth of the brain, after all.

You were what you were and are what you are despite the colic, not because of it.

I am sure the kids will have long hours in those schools. Yet, long hours don't create supergeniuses...they create kids who don't know how to play...which means kids who don't know how to create. That is not a is a highly trained kid. Their intelligence won't be raised by such a procedure, though their knowledge will. I have met many products of long school hours in Asia. They are invariably very boring people. I could mention races, but I won't...but you would be shocked at how dull these people who have been overschooled are. They are not bright either...a bit stupid in fact. So, I don't have great faith in the whole idea myself.

Good teaching can bring better results. Yet, good teaching has its limits. Good teaching cannot make a prodigy out of nothing.

Best wishes to you

3:53 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your answers to my questions. :)

I think its terrible to teach children not to play. I think all learning should be the result of play. After all they figure out how to walk and talk on their own from taking clues from the environment and their own bodies.

I cant stand the idea of going back to college because the way I structure information on my own is far superior and gives me far more ability than the way college just crams it in at any old angle...

7:14 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would agree that a gifted child could easily be a self-taught child. Most of what I learnt, supposedly while at school, I actually taught myself. Perhaps the school was unnecessary therefore.

I, too, learn my own way best. The same goes for my son. He has basically taught himself almost all the science he knows: it is not even taught in Singapore schools at his age.

Kind regards

9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm. Maybe a new un-schooling term should be invented as an option for autodidactic children... I keep getting questions from parents who want to know what to do for their precocious kids...

The last one was conflicted becasue all the options had some pretty serious flaws. Going through puberty as a junior in college was an unacceptable experience for her and she didnt want to put her son through that. Ive read that some feel that theyve been forced to grow up too fast, and that it may be better for the kids to just take time off, get to know themselves, do self-directed projects and learning. So I though to myself... well, if the child will have an adult mental age in a few years, maybe she could ask him what he wants to do and just make sure hes filled in on details he doesnt have the life experience to know about.

I wonder if you feel that it would be ideal if Ainan made his own decisions regarding his schooling, or if you think you should make them for him? I wonder if you have any ideas for these parents that I can post for them?

Oh I wish I had been supported in teaching myself as a child instead of pushed and prodded along and mashed into the school "box". I wonder what I would have done.

- Kathy

11:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Autodidacticism has its merits. Some children will flourish with that...others will need a guide. As for Ainan, we are still trying to work out what is best. He needs resources that we don't have at home - like a lab - so some contact with school is necessary in his case. That being said, we are still open on the homeschooling issue if the latest developments don't work out in the way we would like.

Ainan wants to go fast with his education: faster than any system is likely to allow. That is a problem. We will see what we can do about it.

As for your contacts. I would point out that ALL options have flaws...even homeschooling has its problems - but what they should seek is something with which their children are happy. If they are unhappy - take them out of school etc.

Best wishes

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As for your contacts. I would point out that ALL options have flaws..."

Yeah, thats what I was thinking about doing... Making them a nice list of pros and cons. I think maybe I should make them some articles. There are a lot of things that I keep retyping every time...

Would you explain to me why the happiness of the child is important? I agree with you, but my dad wouldnt have (and a lot of other parents dont seem to put much thought into the happiness of their children) so I dont think I have a solid logical grasp on why that is true, although I would like to. All I have is just a feeling that its a good idea.

- Kathy

11:54 PM  

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