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 +

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The right answer is no answer.

Different cultures vary in how much they stress uniformity of thought. Some cultures, like those in Asia, are rather keen on it.

It begins in the education system. Education, around the world, too often stresses the "right answer". Students are encouraged to yield to the authority of the teacher and the system, in the matter of what is "right" and, in so doing, give up any native drive to be creative. You see, if there is a "right answer", then the answer must already be known. If it is known, it is not new. If it is not new, it is not creative. So, a "right answer" culture, means a no creativity culture.

Singapore is very much a "right answer" culture. I have taught in its schools, and I was very surprised by the instruction I was given by the Head of the English Department that I then worked in (some years ago, now). I was told that I had to write model answers for all the essays that I set the students. I was then to mark their output against my model answer and grade them accordingly. I found this profoundly disturbing - for it meant, very clearly, that there was only one right answer, in that school, in that system. The education system had reduced a quintessentially creative and expressive subject, like English (and the General Paper, which I also taught and for which I was given the same instruction), to a subject in which only one "right answer" was possible. In so doing, the school was enforcing conformity of thought - for anyone who deviated from the "one right answer" - would be marked down. Anyone whose thought conformed to the model answer would be marked up - and rewarded for their conformity of thought. Such a practice can only lead to a student body lacking in creativity and intellectual initiative - and this is precisely what I observed in them. They were unable to think for themselves or to originate ideas. So often when I, against usual practice, set them tasks that actually required them to think I would hear: "But you haven't told us what to write." Sad, isn't it?

I have written a little on this topic before but I felt that it needed to be revisited, in more detail.

An education system may either be open to its students' thoughts and contributions - or it may close down those thoughts and contributions - by insisting that, for all questions, and for all situations, there is only one right answer. Singapore follows such a system in its public education. Many other Asian countries do - and to a lesser extent many countries around the world. Yet, having lived in Asia, I would say that the tendency is vastly stronger here than elsewhere. Wherever this tendency occurs, students are being ill-served by their education. Many years of such a classroom situation can only erase any native creativity there is in the students.

The only right answer is that there is no right answer - except in matters of maths and science - but even then, there is room for a new answer in science and a new method in maths. Education will only ever be educative, when the teachers and the system realize this.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and no months, and 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 @ 12:16 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't you have a blog entry a bit ago about the Singaporean government wondering how to increase creativity in the populace? Oh the irony. Simply allowing you to evaluate essays differently would have been a start. The notion that that there is only one "right" essay murders creativity. Creativity and conformity are incompatible. But you knew that.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. Creativity is not possible in this environment. I am not sure that those in a position to influence the situation actually understand what is needed to allow creative people to flourish. The problem could be that they are not creative themselves!

It is an awkward situation to observe and I don't think it is beneficial for the country.

What is the situation like in your country?

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Hector Ramos said...

The issue of the "right answer" does not only relate to the development of creative behaviour. It has also to do with the concept of learning that we spouse. As Persian proverb goes "He who learns and learns and yet does not what he knows, is one who plows and plows yet never sows."

I believe that "the right answer" attitude or approach undermines learning (the transfer of skill to understand and use the knowledge acquired).


Hector Ramos

11:32 AM  

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