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, April 03, 2007

The incommensurability of education systems

I have discussed this before, but it deserves to be addressed again, in another way and through the lens of another experience.

Education systems are not the same, the world over. The clearest divide is between the American education system and the old, traditional British one, still common throughout the Commonwealth and former colonies.

The American system prides itself on breadth. At every stage from first grade to "College" - there is breadth. The British system goes for depth: at every stage from the first year of school to the last year of University, there is greater depth, than in the American system. This leads to much incomprehension when Americans seek to understand the achievements of British style educated kids - and vice-versa. Quite simply: is it possible to compare breadth with depth? Are they commensurable?

My belief is that they are not readily comparable - for where the American loses in depth, they gain in breadth - and where the British/Commonwealth/European loses in breadth they gain in depth.

There is however one way we can compare them: cognitive complexity. The cognitive demands of an old-style British education of O Levels and A Levels followed by a single subject University degree are greater than at any given age in the American system. This is not a controversial statement. It is readily seen by looking at any online US based course designed for a given age and comparing what would be demanded under the traditional British style education at the same age.

What do I mean by cognitive demand? Well, the difficulty of a subject comes in the depth: the level of concepts and techniques, skills and knowledge that must be mastered. It is in the depth that this is to be found. In breadth, one is held largely to an introductory level of knowledge, simply because so many things are being looked at. In this way, the challenge doesn't deepen - and grow, thereby.

The American system probably catches up in Graduate School (I am not sure but that seems more specialized) - but a taught Graduate degree in the US is probably little more than a taught Undergraduate degree in the old-British style single subject system. This seems obvious because it CANNOT BE OTHERWISE when the Undergraduate US degrees have such breadth in them. Because of that breadth, they are limited in depth.

I will give you a practical example of the incommensurability of these systems at work. A few months back, Ainan and I sat through a University of Berkeley, California, Physics lecture. I presume it was a first year lecture because it was so very simplistic that Ainan, six at the time, who had no formal physics background, thought it very simple indeed. In fact, I would say it was pre-O level. That is the level it was pitched at was below a course of study normally started by 14 year olds and finished by 16 year olds in the old traditional British style education. It wasn't even hard enough to be called O level. It was late primary/early secondary level - and yet that was Berkeley. This set me thinking about the nature of education systems. Raymond Ravaglia's remark that the American system "teaches to the left of the distribution" also opened my eyes as to what was happening here.

This phenomenon of great breadth and little depth in the American system - and great depth but little breadth in the traditional British system - leads to the impossibility of either side understanding the academic achievements of the other, fully. There will always be some failure to understand what it is that the other has done and can do.

American Universities recruit students directly after O level, in Singapore. That shows that O level is equal to or above High School graduation standard. The Berkeley lecture makes me wonder how much above that standard it might be.

Yet, all is not lost for the American system. The great breadth means that an American educated child should be able to handle a great variety of tasks - and there is merit in that, too. It just depends on what the culture needs.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and four months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three and Tiarnan, fourteen 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 @ 6:44 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you for the most part.

Have you heard of 'magnet schools?' I've never attended one, but there are a lot of them where we live now.

A magnet school is a public school with a specialization. They can be for all grades Kindergarten (age 5) through 12th, or they can be split into Elementary, Middle, and High School. There are Magnet Schools for Arts, Science, Math, or any combination of these or other disciplines.

At a Magnet School, you often have to audition or compete for entry in a specific course of study. While enrolled, you spend the majority of your day in the pursuit of your chosen course.

When I was at college, it seemed that those educated in the British system and those who had gone to math/science magnet schools were equally well-prepared in the depth of their studies. And those groups far outstripped the rest of us from more typical American school backgrounds.

Further, even the most selective schools have to offer a basic level course for the majority of the incoming class. Yet from my own experience, there was always a more intense option for those whose pre-college education had prepared them for a more rigorous course of study. The numbers in those classes were always much smaller, but the option WAS there.


9:05 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, I had heard of magnet schools, but had no information about their relative strength. Thank you for filling in on that.

The disparity in depth between one system and another is inevitable as long as there is a disparity in breadth - because the time can only be allotted so many ways: either you dig deep, or you range broadly - you can't really do both in one educational lifetime - unless that education is longer (or faster for the brighter students).

I am guided in my understandings by what I have encountered in my lifetime and what is available on the internet, to investigate.

It is good that there ARE magnet wide is their catchment area? Are they too far apart for the less wealthy to attend? Are there many of them?

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly on the breadth vs depth assessment.

That's why I often wonder about homeschooling parents who fear they will 'miss something' if they don't follow a prescribed curriculum. I prefer self-directed learning and depth over breadth - luckily, we have the freedom to pursue both in our homeschooling environment.

Your questions made me realize how little I know about magnet schools. Here's a thorough article I found which should make some points clearer:


9:22 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for the reference to magnet schools. I will look at it when I have time, later today.

I don't think homeschoolers are missing anything in most school systems...though they might be conditioned by the system to believe so. Most school systems move too slowly for gifted kids - or even for average kids.

Best wishes to you

10:24 AM  

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