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, July 05, 2007

NUS High: is education appropriate?

Can standardized education ever meet the needs of a gifted child? (Especially a prodigious one?)

I wonder at this because of Ainan's experience of NUS High. It has taken a long time to go from initial approach to actual attendance at NUS High. The journey has required many different administrative hurdles to be overcome - and, at no stage, could it be regarded as a straightforward matter. Yet, now that Ainan, 7, is attending the National University of Singapore High School for Maths and Science, I note a danger that I had not given enough thought to before. This is the danger that the school might not provide for his needed level of stimulation and education.

This might seem a strange thought for anyone who doesn't know Ainan - surely, you will ask, NUS High School for Maths and Science, should be enough of a stimulus for him, considering that he is only 7. This is not necessarily so. Ainan is studying A level Chemistry at home (and reading sometimes at a higher level still). For comparison's sake, it should be noted that A level is equivalent to a US College Degree, in academic demand.

The classes at NUS High, so far, have not been at the level that Ainan requires to extend his boundaries. He has been recapping material already known. In his first class, for instance, he learnt one new thing. That was a good start: one new thing, in two hours of class work is better than nothing. In his second class, however, he learnt nothing new at all. In the space of two hours, nothing new was covered: he was familiar with it all.

There are more dangers in this than might be immediately evident. With a gifted child, one grave danger is that of boredom. If no new material is presented, or the material presented is new, but trivially simple for the child, then the gifted child will switch off after awhile and become bored. In due course, the gifted child may lose interest in the school and in education itself. All this may result if the student is under-challenged by a course. This is what Ainan is now at risk for. The classes do not cover new material (only one new item has been introduced so far in Ainan's first week), and engage him at a level, at which, he is not charting new territories. I worry about this because I know Ainan. There is one sure way to switch him off - and that is repetition. If you repeat work he has already familiarized himself with - unless you are expanding on the material in some way/adding something new, as well - you will lose him and he will become bored.

Any gifted child may respond in this way to a standardized school experience. Such lessons do not usually adjust for the presence of the gifted child and may not extend the child's knowledge at all. In all such situations, little is learnt and there is the danger that the child may give up on learning, in such an environment. I would say that a gifted child should never be exposed to unchallenging classes and should never be asked to repeat material already known.

It may be that a school is the wrong place for a gifted child - particularly a prodigy - for school will only ever cater for the middle of the road: the mainstream of the pupil body. At NUS High School for Maths and Science, that mainstream consists of mathematically and scientifically gifted children - but there are different levels and needs of such gifted children. Some will need more than others. These children will not be catered for by a system that is aimed - and must necessarily be aimed - at the middle of the pack, if it is to work as a classroom at all.

Perhaps later classes will develop the subject in more depth. Perhaps in time Ainan will be introduced to new material and his interest will be stimulated, awakened and rewarded. This is, however, only a hope of a father who has long sought to find the right educational situation for his prodigious child. What I see, now, however, is a course that is not challenging Ainan, at present. This may change - and I hope it does. I would like to see him extend his boundaries and learn new things. That is, after all, the whole point of an education. At present, however, even in such a seemingly appropriate environment, I don't see it happening just yet. Perhaps it will change. Perhaps they will adjust to fit his needs better. I hope so - but I don't know so. It is just a father's hope. I just hope I don't hope in vain.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and no months, or Tiarnan, seventeen 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 @ 5:08 PM 


Blogger Jason Jones said...

Outside of chemistry, does HUS High challenge your son in other subject areas?

Is there the option of graduate level chemistry?

What is his mathematics level?

As I'm sure you're aware there are many factors to consider.


1:16 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Presently, NUS High is not providing any challenge to Ainan.

Higher level chemistry is not presently accessible - but I am going to do what I can to get appropriate access.

Ainan's maths is developing nicely - it is a secondary interest of his, now.

Yes, there are many factors to consider - and it is difficult to get an ideal fit: but I feel that better can be done than is presently being done.

Thanks Jason.

8:32 PM  
Blogger anon said...

I empathise, truly.
As I have posted before, I suffered (and I don't use this word lightly) for many years under the oppression of the Malaysian education system.

Boredom is not something to be taken lightly when considering its (ill-)effects on the gifted.

As a teacher, I use a fair amount of repetition during lessons as it is necessary for the proper absorption of information by most children.

However, for the gifted (well most anyway), we only need to hear a statement once, and we remember it for a gazillion years. That is why it drives me up the wall when sales assistants assault me with repetitive statements to drive home their message that their product(s) can do wonders for me.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution because the gifted are an anomaly, just too far towards the end of the bell curve.

Many of my friends have asked me what I would do if I had a chance to rewrite the path of my childhood education.

I answer without a hint of hesitation, I would have opted for acceleration in a foreign land if I could as acceleration was not offered in Malaysia then, and I don't believe it is offered even now. Many parents have raised concerns about the social costs of accelerating gifted children. I would like them to consider the social costs of not accelerating gifted children.

I was considered a misfit as I did not pay attention in class (they weren't teaching me anything I didn't already know or couldn't find out on my own), I asked many questions which were perceived as an attempt to question authority, and I began to play truant, etc. etc.

Ah well, cest la vie!
I wouldn't wish the boredom a gifted child experiences due to the ignorance and 'under-estimation' of society, and perceived 'educators', upon anyone.

All the best to Ainan!
Joanne :-)

2:20 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Joanne, for your comments in support. Your own experiences reflect the same concerns I have for Ainan.

I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if gifted children (and adults) were considered worth supporting, properly, everywhere. I suspect it would be a much more fruitful planet than the one we live on.

That notion probably deserves its own post.

Best wishes

8:12 AM  

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