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 +

Friday, March 09, 2007

NUS High School: the academic staff

I have learnt something unusual about the National University of Singapore (NUS) High School. All of its staff are University Professors.

Now, clearly the intention in arranging for all of the staff at the school to be University academics, is that they would bring to bear a deeper knowledge of their subject to the benefit of their students. Gifted students would be less likely to bump into the knowledge ceilings of the staff - or at least, they would not be so readily reachable, as in the case with a typical teacher.

However, there is a problem, that I foresee. Would a staff of academics be well-equipped to teach to school age children? The needs of the children differ from those of student age, in that a different approach may be required to teach them. Academic staff may find it more difficult to relate to school age children than they would to the usual student they are accustomed to.

Yet, I don't yet know the situation in NUS High from experience. It might work very well. The Professors here, in Singapore, may actually be good teachers able to reach children of all ages. I don't know - but I hope so.

It wasn't the case when I went to Cambridge University, in the 1980s. There the academics were very good at their subject, but had neither training nor flair for teaching in general. It was a very rare Cambridge academic who had any interest or ability in teaching. It was almost universal to have lectures presented by academics whose real interest lay elsewhere: their research. The students appeared to be an inconvenience to them.

I was very disappointed in my experience of Cambridge University - and it all came down to the undeniable fact that the staff were specialized academics, not teachers, at heart. At the core of it, they simply didn't want to teach. At least, that is the impression that was left with me, after three years there.

There were exceptions. There were rare wonderful teachers with a passion for communicating their subject to others. Above all of these, in my memory, was Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a Classicist, working in the History of Science, in particular the Ancient Greeks. He was almost alone, in my experience, in making any effort to communicate directly with his students. He was warm, welcoming, engaging, interesting, and more importantly, interested. If the Professors at NUS High are like Professor Lloyd, it will be a great experience for Ainan and a great asset to Singapore. I hope, however, that they are not like so many other Professors were at Cambridge: uninterested, self-absorbed, poor communicators and, in some cases, frankly lazy.

My feeling is that the Professors at NUS High will take their teaching roles more seriously than those at Cambridge did. That is my hope. Should that not be the case, I will let you know. But, given the importance of education in Singapore, and the relatively high status of teaching, here, compared to its status in the UK, I rather think they will be more motivated to teach well, and more proud of doing so.

Here is a final thought. All of the staff at NUS High are Professors. Students at NUS High may take any number of University modules that they wish. Is that not, in effect, then, a University for kids?

(If you would like to read more about Ainan, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and three months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:27 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It all depends on how the professors were selected for NUS.

If they were allowed to volunteer or if they had to be evaluated for their suitability to teach a younger audience, then you may be getting the best of both worlds.

It will also depend on the temperament of the instructor. If that person had to struggle to attain their level of mastery, they may see Ainan as a threat.

My daughter's guitar teacher has a PhD in guitar performance. He teaches at university level. Almost all of his students are college-level. He is now well-enough established that he "doesn't have to [take beginners or pre-college students] anymore" - (his words). He did not start his guitar studies until he was much older than my daughter is now and one might think that he would not be a suitable teacher for a youngster; yet he really enjoys his lessons with my daughter and does not feel threatened by her. He is a genuinely enthusiastic supporter of her progress and that makes all the difference in the world. My daughter enjoys working hard and has never had a 'bad' lesson with him.

Let us hope that you find at least one suitable mentor who will consider Ainan a joy to work with.

All you need is one!


1:36 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I hope the ideal situation you depict is close to the real one at NUS. I would not like to see an echo of Cambridge at work, there.

You are fortunate in your choice of music teacher. Given his level of expertise, she will be able to go much farther with him, than many others...and it seems he has the right personality to boot.

I have heard the results: she plays well!

Yes, finding a mentor is important. I never did...I hope Ainan does (apart from me...because I can only take him so far: unless I teach myself Chemistry faster than he learns it. A doubtful proposition.

Best wishes

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was fortunate enough to attend a similar high school run by a major university. The teachers all had advanced degrees in their subjects. The classes were taught in the style of university classes. The school was a teaching laboratory, so all the teachers were actually interested in teaching! It was far and away the best school I attended before college. I hope your son enjoys his time at NUS High School.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the encouragement.

I hope it works out as well here.

Best wishes

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Aisyah said...


I was just wondering.. have u enrolled Ainan in NUS high school? or were u juz intending to do so..?

12:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Aisyah

Good question. We are presently considering the options available, one of which is NUS High: a decision will be made in the next few weeks. When I know, I will post about it.


3:35 PM  
Blogger ladymadeline said...

Hi,it's interesting how the Web can be a source of feedback for a parent like yourself.

With all good intentions, I would say the teachers in this school that you are interested in are not called "professors" (with the assumptions of many things we associate with that title), but simply termed "teachers", with a mixture of hons graduates, master grads and some PhD grads teaching in this school.

The Principal calls them a "faculty' but their name cards will state either "teacher" or "senior teacher". Seeing how they are called, their primary purpose in this school is to teach and mentor.

If you can call up the school, you will realise that these teachers come from 3 sources: mainstream schools, the universities and the private sector.

Some teachers here have some kind of academic "orientation", some don't. It's a very unique school. You may want to find out more by contacting them yourself first. But I can say most of the teachers in this school are passionate about teaching as well as research.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Lady Madeline for your information.

My impressions of NUS High School come from meeting the Principal himself. He spoke of his expectations when he was assigned the role that it would be "like teaching in a University" - he also gave me the impression that all staff came from a University background - though perhaps that was an over-simplification.

I am happy indeed to hear that their focus is on TEACHING and not solely on research: schools where the focus is research do not make good places for the student - unless they are a research student. In such places (and there are many) the student gets lost in the system.

Best wishes to you.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm from NUS High School. In my opinions, the staffs here are very good in teaching. They care for the person whom you will become eventually. The amostphere is intellectual, and every one is engaged. Students cross-examine difficult concepts, be it in mathematics, physics, history or music. We hope to use analytical ability to help people.

2:36 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi person from NUS High.

You write as if you may be a teacher at that school. Well, our experience of NUS High was different from yours. We found the administration unhelpful, rigid, inflexible, and unwilling to accommodate Ainan - so we took him out of the place. It was wasting Ainan's and our time.

Perhaps some of the staff care for the students. However, the higher management didn't seem to. The VP even told us something which the students told us is just not true. So, either all the students are lying, or the VP was.

We were not happy with them. They could have reacted so much better to the opportunity of teaching a young scientist, than they did. We are much happier with Singapore Polytechnic: it is a much better institution, in our opinion.

Best wishes.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your bad experience, but I have a very strong impression that you only wrote this post because Ainan wasnt accepted into the school.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Well, Anonymous, you are TOTALLY wrong. Ainan WAS ACCEPTED INTO THE SCHOOL. It is we who found the school UNACCEPTABLE and rejected them. Ainan attended for a few weeks but we found the school inflexible, unhelpful, at least one senior staff member was dishonest with us - Ainan was in a class beneath his ability at the time and the whole experience was a waste of time. If you had read all of the posts on NUS High you would have realized that he had attended the school. He was in fact the youngest student ever to attend.

So, your "strong impression" arises out of nothing but your own preconceptions. We, as Ainan's parents, rejected NUS High as a completely unhelpful place for him to be. It was useless really.

I hope you take the time to read all the relevant posts before coming to a judgement in future.


2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I apologise for my error...perhaps the school environment doesn't suit Ainan well? My younger siblings study there and I think that it's a rather fine school. But yes, judging from their comments, I do agree that the senior management is quite detached from the student population and teachers. Nevertheless, I hope that this won't mar your general impression of the school, as most of the teachers there are caring and well-equipped to teach teenagers.

Anyway, I wish you all the best in finding a school that can bring out the best in your highly talented son!

6:56 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your apology.

NUS High were unwilling to provide lab sessions for Ainan - which is all that we wanted for him, there. They offered instead classes on material he had already covered: it was a pointless waste of time. They refused to offer what he we took him out. Funny enough, Singapore Polytechnic were more than happy to offer Ainan what he needed. We have found them much more flexible and willing to make adjustments for him. It seems that NUS High could learn a lot from them.

Thank you for your best wishes.

Kind regards

7:06 PM  

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