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, July 01, 2007

Educational testing and intellectual performance

Why do education systems test their students? Usually they want to find out "how good" their students are. Does this work? Does constant testing improve the students, or does it prevent them from learning?

I have written about the problem of over-testing in the UK (and Singapore, indirectly), recently. My contention was that obsessive testing of students would get in the way of their real education, by focussing the students upon an ever smaller set of knowledge, driving them away from a true pursuit of education and learning. I offered this as an opinion yet, I have found evidence, now, that it is true. The more you test, the less you get, in terms of student development. England tests their state school students over 70 times between the age of 7 and school leaving age. What effect does this have on the students?

Well, a recent study of over 10,000 British students tested at the age of 11 and 12 for cognitive performance has produced alarming results. The research was performed by Michael Shayer of King's College London and published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. The study showed that in their cognitive and conceptual development, today's 11 or 12 year olds from Britain were TWO or THREE years BEHIND their counterparts from 1990. This means that, in real terms, young British children have regressed intellectually compared to children of 15 years before: their actual ability to think and reason is impaired by comparison. Think about what a three year difference at age 12 means: it is a 25% difference - which, if it were IQ, would indicate a 25 IQ point difference. This is a HUGE drop in intellectual function, for a whole nation.

In the same period, in which the drop occurred, Britain became a test-mad nation. The students were subject to endless tests beginning at seven on their performance on every little matter of schooling. The idea behind the tests was to guarantee that students were adhering to "standards" - but what, actually has happened? In real terms, Britain's kids have got stupid, by comparison to their former intellectual performance. Is there a connection? Does excessive testing drive children away from true education? Does it prevent children from actually growing intellectually? This situation in Britain would seem to support my understanding that excessive testing will get in the way of true education.

When I was in school, there was very little testing other than formal examinations such as O level and A level. So, too, the children from my generation were demonstrably smarter than the children of today's generation: is there a direct connection? Were we freer to think and grow and learn owing to less testing? In my heart, I feel so. I was one of many students who studied because we loved to think and to learn. I was not studying because there was a test coming up - because there just WASN'T a test coming up. It was a better way to learn, I think.

The research threw up many alarming results. One was that the gender gap had vanished. Girl students were traditionally better than boys, being more studious and less disruptive by nature - but that advantage has gone, too, with girls showing great deterioration in intellectual performance.

In the new Britain, one in six British people do not have the literacy skills expected of an average 11 year old. You would think that was bad enough - but it gets worse: half of British people do not have basic functional numeracy. That's right: 50% of all British people today are not sufficiently numerate.

What is the real world effect of such educational and cognitive declines? Well a review by Leitch, found that a 1 % increase in literacy in a population, resulted in a 1.5% increase in GDP, for the nation - and a 2.5% increase in labour force productivity. Thus even slight changes in the educational standards of a nation have noticeable real world effects on the standard of living and quality of life, in that nation.

Education should be about learning and growing, in all the ways that are suited to the child. As soon as it becomes about bureaucratic measurement - as it long has become in Britain and some other nations - then, I contend, that is a nation that will fall into decline - because in such a test obsessed environment there is no time for, or attention given to, real learning, real growth, real insight.

The Shayer study is strong evidence that education conducted in the way it is conducted in Britain - as an incessant round of tests that bedevils pupils throughout their education - simply does not work to bring about real intellectual growth. Britain's pupils are now demonstrably stupid compared to their forebears of only fifteen years ago. A drop of 25% in cognitive performance is a massive decline. It is almost the difference between a moderately gifted student and an average one. It is a huge disparity.

It is time, for all countries that are obsessed with testing and measurement of their students, to throw that aside in favour of a classroom that favours true learning by the student: deep, exploratory, insightful learning that will bring forth the intellectual leaders of the future. The alternative is national decline and failure.

Will Britain choose to do anything about this situation? I think not, for one can read in the reaction of their media the true attitude towards the situation: indifference. Not one single main British media outlet covered this story about the Shayer study. Only one magazine, the Spectator, wrote of it. All the British newspapers ignored it. So, where does this leave the British people? They are left ignorant of the true state of decline in the mental quality of their children and in the education they have been receiving. Yet, these children are the future of Britain. Based on their decline in ability, at age 11 or 12, one can safely say that in twenty to thirty years, when this generation of children are in their thirties and forties, that Britain will have declined significantly as a nation. It cannot be otherwise, when the quality of minds on which the nation is built has declined so precipitously. It is all very well to be indifferent to the situation now, but in two or three decades the price of that indifference will be paid - by the whole nation.

So, nations everywhere, should focus on an education system that truly allows their children to learn - and not binds them up in an incessant bureaucratic requirement for testing. Britain made that latter choice - and the results are very clear: a generation of dumb kids - and a generation of dumb adults to come.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, 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 @ 10:18 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you cite the study to which you refer? I would like to see more details, such as what tests were used to assess the children's cognitive development. Thanks!

10:58 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I have cited it in the only way I had to hand: by naming the author Michael Shayer and the Journal - the British Journal of Educational Psychology. With these two pieces of information, it should be possible to find it.

The other reference to it is in the Spectator - I don't know the issue.

You could always contact Michael Shayer at King's College, London if you are having difficulties.

It should be noted that the connection I drew to overtesting as a cause of this decline in performance is my own idea - and is not referenced by the paper in question. The only actual thing in the paper that I referenced was the decline itself, in performance: the possible explanation is my own idea.

Happy hunting.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an American I must weigh in. The United States has recently joined the ranks of over-testing since the passage of our No Child Left Behind act. In the name of standards, children are given standardized tests constantly (I only ever took 2 my whole schooling) and the curriculum has narrowed frighteningly to match exactly the questions on the tests. Nobody has yet added an IQ test to the mix, but I suppose that's next. The well-rounded education that I got has been gutted in favor of test prep. I feel bad for these cheated kids.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am sorry to hear that America has, foolishly, joined the overtesting club. From what I have seen, no worthwhile education results from such a policy for, as you have noted, it constricts the curriculum to match the test - the result is that all students end up with a diminished experience.

Thanks for your comment.

9:45 PM  

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