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 +

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The tyranny of examination grades

Singapore is one of many Asian nations that lives under a tyranny - a tyranny of grades: everyone is obsessed with them. An examination is not considered passed until you have the highest grade in the Universe - and then some.

What effect does this have on Singaporeans? Does it make them more intelligent? Does it make them more successful? Does it make them better people? Does it make them more creative?

The answer to the last four questions is a great big NO. It makes them much, much duller. Why do I say this? Well, to secure the highest grades on a consistent basis one must give up much of life. The children don't play. They don't have outside interests. They focus exclusively on schoolwork - and have no other life. They don't know how to interact with each other. They have poor social skills. They don't understand the world. They have no perspective on what they are doing or on the meaning of life. In short, they know nothing but the contents of the examination.

Perhaps knowing the contents of the examination so well is a good thing? Well...not really. Why do I say this? An examination is all about testing you on SOMEONE ELSE'S THOUGHTS. Many children become expert on other people's thoughts - but have none of their own. In some way, focussing too much on what other people have thought and written in books seems to inhibit the development of the ability to have your own. This is not supposition - but observation. I have taught in classrooms in Singapore - and I note an absence, even in the "best" students - of the ability to think for themselves. Many of them have ceded their own ability to think and subjugated it to the yoke of a textbook written by another. Nothing worthwhile ever comes of this mindset.

If given the freedom to write as they please, teenagers brought up to see the textbook as King and the examination as all, tend to say: "But you haven't told us what to write...". I have heard that thought many times. It saddens me everytime to hear it - for it means one thing and one thing alone: their obsession with grades and their acquisition has not taught them how to think - it has taught them how not to think. It has taught them that their thoughts are worth nothing and that the textbook is everything. These youngsters never write from their own minds - but from regurgitated memories of the minds of others.

It is common in Asia to use a child's examination grades and, largely speaking, their grades alone for selection purposes for further education - and then for employment. Are these societies being served well by this practice?

I don't think so. You see, many of the children who get the highest grades, consistently, show little ability to think for themselves. They have become rigid thinkers. Their thoughts are very defined and contained by the prior work of others. These people do not originate, do not create or innovate - they only repeat the ideas of others. Such a way of life can only take a society so far. The people that should really be identified, promoted and nurtured are not the kids obsessed with grades and competitiveness - but the kids who love to learn, understand, grow and think for themselves - and for knowledge itself. By this I mean that they have a true passion for their subject. It is these children who are likely to be creative: their knowledge springs from a love of learning - and not a need for a perfect grade. In my experience, such children are more open to considering many ideas, are more able to produce their own and are more flexible in their approach to things. They may, however, be overlooked in a society that places too much emphasis on academic competition - and the consequent grading.

If grades were the answer, places like Singapore and Korea would be the greatest centres of thinking in the world - for they have the highest grades in maths and science, worldwide - yet, they are not. Other places with lesser grades have a greater reputation for innovation. This shows that there is a disconnection between grade and real world performance. What is that disconnection? It is the ability to think for oneself. Grades measure your ability to think someone else's thoughts. They say nothing about your ability to think your own - and there lies the problem. True thinkers are not necessarily being selected for and given opportunity - those who think like others, are, however.

Is there a remedy? Yes. Education systems - and societies - need to be broader in their assessment of children and the adults they become. They need to look at the whole person - and ask: is this someone with a mind of their own? Is this someone who can think independently? Is this someone with a creative spark? If the answer to any of these questions is a yes - then, as long as they have shown a basic awareness of the material of their discipline, by passing the relevant exams, the actual grades should not be regarded as particularly important. The capacity to create and innovate - and think their OWN thoughts is of vastly greater significance. A society which shows more flexibility and open-ness in how it selects its "movers and shakers" - and members of the "thinking classes", is a society more likely to give opportunity to people who actually have the capacity to do something new; the capacity to change things for the better by actually being able to be creative.

Why do I post on this? Well, it is something I have long observed and long thought on - but the immediate catalyst was my meeting with Associate Professor Tim White and a remark he made. He revealed to me his own experience of this matter. He had encountered students with perfect grades who were "rigid thinkers" - who were not very good as researchers - while he also knew of other researchers whose grades, "included the odd B or C", who were actually "among our most gifted researchers". This is a very telling observation indeed. It shows that the common thinking around educational grading is mistaken. His better researchers - that is, those who showed more CREATIVITY in the lab - actually had poorer grades than some others, who had better grades, but less creativity. This is a phenomenon that must be more widely appreciated. Otherwise societies and institutions will continue to deny opportunity and access to the very people who have the most to offer: the creative few.

What are we to learn from this? Well, a student with perfect grades may indeed be the best thinker and the best creator - but the grades themselves do not establish that: other factors not measured by the grading system, do. Creativity is not measured by examinations (especially in the sciences). So, examinations don't tell us who is creative and capable of original contribution. Therefore, we cannot say that the student with perfect grades is the best candidate for a role that involves creative production - nor can we say that they are not. We can actually say nothing about whether they are suited to such a role or not, from the result of the examination alone. However, the same applies to the student who does NOT have perfect grades. They might actually be the best researcher and the most creative individual available - but their less than perfect grades might cause them to be overlooked. It is also true that they might not be the best researcher. We can say nothing about their creative capacity from the grades alone. Yet, we MUST not close our minds to the possibility that, of two candidates, the one with the lesser grades might actually be the better creative thinker.

How are we to decide the matter then, between candidates? Look at them more broadly and see what evidence there is in their lives and work to show creativity and use that information to decide between them. Don't just look at grading - because it is often a poor guide to the best thinkers. The greatest thinkers don't really like thinking other people's thoughts the whole time - yet examinations require just that from them. So, you won't find the best thinkers by harvesting those of perfect grade.

There is an ultimate logical conclusion to this which must be stated. In the final analysis, if a person shows that they can be creative, they should be given the opportunity to create, in a supportive context, even if they have NO examination passes at all.

Now that would really be an educational revolution.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:58 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was really well-worded, and I wanted to tell you so:

"An examination is all about testing you on SOMEONE ELSE'S THOUGHTS. Many children become expert on other people's thoughts - but have none of their own."

Hm. I think I will stick that in my quotes file.

- Kathy

4:04 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Kathy.

It is critical to understand what an exam pass actually means - and what it doesn't. Too many wrong judgements are made on the failure to understand the meaning of exams. Our best may be overlooked if the matter is not more widely appreciated.

Best wishes

6:56 AM  
Blogger xiaohei said...

I've only read the first 3 paragraphs and I was already shouting "YES! PRECISELY!" inside me. It's so competitive here it's crazy!

I remember watching this short clip on channel 8 (the chinese mandarin channel in Singapore) about what kids in Singapore are most afraid of, and the top of the list is "Exam failures".

This is not related to this particular post, but I'll just post it here instead of posting another comment. I totally agree that a good teacher is VERY IMPORTANT. I find that a lot of teachers can't teach well. We can see that they know their subject very well, but they just can't teach.

This is one of the reasons why I refuse to tutor kids, though it's one of the easiest way to earn some money as a University student. When I was in primary 6, a cousin came to tutor my elder brother math, and I was put into it as well though my math wasn't bad. During this period, I failed a math paper for the first time. My tuition stopped after that, and I got an A for the next math paper.

It might have been just a coincidence, but it affected me somehow. =X I think I've just left a really long comment.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your comment, Xiaohei.

To this day, none of my children have had a tutor. So, I am unsure of their value...all I know is this: kids don't really need one to get along. My son had an O level at seven...with no tutor. So, I am not sure they are essential.

Your own experience proves the point, too: your own way of understanding Maths was superior to what the tutor was trying to instill in you.

Then, again, maybe it is an advantage that all those children have with their tutors, that my children don't have (if the tutors are good teachers). Ah well...

Yes. Singapore would be a lot better off if there was less interest in examination grades. They aren't really of that much value, I think.

Happy reading, Xiaohei...and good luck at University.

8:56 AM  

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