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, February 06, 2007

Practical and Gifted

There is the stereotype, propagated by most educational systems, that there is a strict division between being practical and being gifted. I will speak of Singapore's division of these two types of people.

In Singapore, there is an academic stream and a "normal technical" stream. In common parlance, the academic stream is understood to be more "intelligent" than the "normal technical" stream. Indeed, there is a national stigma attached to the "normal technical" stream. These children are viewed as being somehow impaired, of not being competent in dealing with mentally challenging tasks. The distinction is almost a class distinction: the "normal technical" being somehow a lower class of being than the academic streams. I am uncomfortable with this idea and this perception.

The academic stream is further subdivided into two: the classes almost everyone attends and then the "gifted education" programmes for the top 1 % or so. There is a further division of perception to go along with this, with those in the gifted programme (which doesn't begin until the age of 10 or so, and is not anywhere near as comprehensive as it needs to be to address the issue, despite its name), being seen as an elite.

Children in the normal technical stream are required to learn practical skills. Their subject matter suit them to being technicians, in the main, given the technological bias of this culture, but the same concept applied in other cultures would apply to all those whose education is more "hands-on" with the intention to enter some practical trade.

The division continues into the tertiary sphere, with a split between practical Polytechnics and theoretical Universities. In general, the highest positions in the working world, are taken by University graduates - and so this division permeates the whole of society.

Yet, is there wisdom in this division? Does it correspond to a true split in human nature? Are the practically inclined, and the theoretically inclined (some of whom would be "gifted") forever to be apart? Can one person be both?

In short, yes. You see it is clear to me that Ainan, my scientific child prodigy son, is as practically gifted as he is theoretically gifted. He is not only able to understand the most difficult of scientific concepts, able to learn the most detailed and difficult of scientific material, able to invent, predict, intuit and infer but he is also able to make very complex objects, to design experiments, to engage with the world in practical terms. If you just saw Ainan doing things, hands-on, as he does everyday, you would conclude that he was one of the practical, hands-on types of children. You would be unsurprised to hear that he wished to do something practical with his life - something which involved making things. Yet, another person, who had seen him in a more theoretical mode, posing scientific questions, solving problems, predicting outcomes and the like, would conclude that he would only be suited for the most abstract of scientific pursuits and a University education. Both observers would be right - and both observers would be wrong. Ainan is a synthesis of the practical and the theoretical and it is this union of disparate modes of thinking and doing which could hold the greatest promise for him, in terms of a scientific career. For what does this natural division correspond to between the practical and the theoretical? It is between the scientific experimenter and the scientific theorist. Ainan straddles these two worlds, uniting both in one mind.

I would be unsurprised to see him active in both experimentation and theorizing, in times to come - for that would just be an adult development of the child I see today.

It is artificial, therefore, to divide children into the practical and the theoretical (or "gifted") for some children, at least, if Ainan is any guide, will be both. It would be wrong, therefore, to force them to choose between these dispositions by dividing the education system into the practical and theoretical streams. There must be a way for some children to inhabit both. Such children promise to contribute, in an interesting, perhap unique, fashion to the society that enables them to flourish.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, or Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children, in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:12 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there. I read your comments on Ainan with interest. I also live in Singapore (a Singaporean by birth) and have 2 sons; one 7 years(in Pri one now) and another 2-1/2 years. It is very heart warming to hear that you have successfully "fought" the Singapore educational system and got Ainan accelerated into Secondary School. From your postings, it is very apparent that Ainan is profoundly gifted and he really deserves to advance in grades. My husband and I are having a predicament too. Ryan, our elder 7-year-old though is not profoundly gifted like Ainan, we know that he is at least moderately gifted. He too has already known the facts learnt in Pri One. I did call MOE to find out whether they could accelerate him to Pri 2 for Maths and Pri 3 for English and stick to Pri 1 for Chinese. You know the answer is a vehement "out of the question"! Ryan is not really struggling in school as he enjoys his friends. I could tell he is not learning anything in school. We did not really dare to approach his principal or teacher to ask about this because we know that Ryan would be singled out and us as troublesome parents.

Nothing would be change to facilitate his learning but he would have a harder time in school. We know that the principal would say that we hot-housed him and taught him everything he needs to know prior to school......

So we thought of another altenative, leaving the country to Canada where the educational system is more flexible. We are getting our immigration papers soon. Maybe Canadians would allow him to learn at his level for once.

However, as a Singaporean, parents have to pay a grant of 2 times the annual family income if our boy leaves overseas after the age of 10 years old. It is a bond to the government should the child fail to come back on time for National Service. I don't know whether Ainan would encounter this problem since you are not local but he is a PR right? Then you may face this when you want to send him for an overseas education after the age of 10.

Back to Ryan, he is very interested in Science and is sad that he could officially learn it only in Pri Three. Well meaning friends are appalled that Ryan is reading the Pri 3-6 Science Textbooks now. I finally bought them for him because he likes reading Science books. He told us that he would either be a Research Scientist or Painter when he grows up.

I wonder whether you struggle with comments that you "overteach" your child. These days, I try to keep a low profile and don't talk about my children's achievements cos' I either have remarks I don't like to hear or they will feel insecure that their children are far from your child's know what I mean?

I thought the problem lies only in the Academic Educational System.No it permeates this environment. Believe it or not, when I send Ryan for Piano classes, despite his ability to learn very fast, teachers still adopt the same pace as other kids.

He is made to do theory drills that to him is a waste of time cos' he has stored the facts in his brain already. They feel that Mummy is trying to force them to speed up his learning which in turn give them stress. I was so tempted to withdraw him from the classes and teach him piano myself but then I can't cos' I stop at Grade 6 and haven't been playing much for years. Anyway......

Ryan's younger brother (the toddler) appears to be Mathematically gifted. His memory is excellent and could speak three languages interchangaebly (namely Bahasa, Chinese and English). Many well meaning people keep asking us to send him to play group since he already knows all his alphabets, numbers, shares, colors and some words by sight. Their rationale: since he loves to learn, why not let him learn? We found this rationale flawed cos' he already knows the things taught there...why bother to send him then?

I hope you don't mind me sharing about this. It's nice to finally air it.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

School is not the best learning environment for all children. Your youngest has already surpassed what he would learn and you are right to doubt that anything useful would occur at a kindergarten, for him, therefore.

It is not easy to find the right place for one's gifted child. Few societies make enough accommodation...I don't know what Canada's approach is, but certainly in that part of the world, in general, there is more a tradition of acceleration of children. I hope your kids find a good welcome there.

Best of luck

10:21 PM  

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