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, August 23, 2007

The gifted and the standardized classroom

In most parts of the world - the modern world, at least - education is all about standardization. The same "education" is given to all, irrespective of their actual need. Paradoxically, this emphasis on the "same for all" leads to a situation where many are ill-served by it.

Those who have some degree of impairment are lost in a standard classroom. Oddly, this situation is recognized and appreciated and those who are "left of the bell curve" usually receive some special attention.

In some classrooms, there will be a child unlike the others. They are usually quieter. Often, they are a little dreamy. Their work may be erratic - capable of perfection, but often showing signs of disinterest. Teachers often don't like them. This is frequently a "gifted child". So, this, then, is another constituency to be given special treatment? In an ideal world, yes - but in the real world, no. Usually, such children are neglected, and ignored, in various ways.

A large part of the problem is that the teachers misunderstand such gifted children. They think that the gifted child should hand in perfect work, all the time, must be top of the class, in all things - and must show rabid enthusiasm for all things "School". Then, just then, might they accept that a gifted child is, in fact, gifted - and needing special attention.

What the teacher sees instead is something more commonly like: "Oh he/she has such an attitude problem...they don't do their work, they look out of the window, all the time...I can never get his/her attention..." To such a teacher, the gifted child, is, in fact, a lazy or uncooperative child: they don't see the giftedness, they just see the failure to conform to their requirements.

This is the core of the problem and the core of the misunderstanding. The teacher ascribes to the gifted student character flaws that do not exist in the student. The teacher then takes an active dislike to the student, which causes a general, further deterioration in the quality of interaction with the gifted student. What is actually happening is that the gifted student has been placed in an unchallenging class. The student is being bathed daily in what, to them, seems like utter idiocy. The triviality and superficiality of the classroom instruction is such that they endure the profoundest boredom while sitting through class after class of totally empty nonsense. That is the perspective of the gifted child - or one gifted enough to feel this disparity so strongly. A gifted child in a normal classroom may feel rather like an adult going back to primary school: it would be really, really difficult to maintain one's attention for long, in such a situation. In the long term, it would be impossible to do anything but what a gifted child, in a standardized classroom, often does: sits quietly staring out of a window, ignoring the teacher, refusing to do the homework and generally trying to tune out of the dreadful experience.

It is easy for a teacher to fail to understand this. Instead, they look at such a student and get angry at them. So, what, then, does the gifted student think: "Not only is my teacher boring...but angry, too...what a nightmare!" This leads, of course, to a further lack of co-operation from the student - and a further escalation in dislike from the teacher...and so on.

The teacher may be a good teacher to normal children. This does not make them a good teacher to gifted children. The teacher may be an interesting teacher for normal children. This does not make them an interesting teacher for gifted children. The teacher should not take this personally. Yes, they are boring the gifted child - but that doesn't mean that they are intrinsically boring to the average child. So, the teacher should not be affronted (as, surprisingly, many of them are affronted by such a gifted child) - but should understand the situation. There is a mismatch between the gifted child and the standardized classroom. The only remedy is to remove the gifted child from the standardized class and place them in a more challenging one. The simplest way of doing this is to allow the gifted child to skip a few grades - or many - as the case may be. Alternatively, the school must provide individuated instruction - but so few will do that for a small, gifted minority.

Education may be standardized - but people are not. Just as education systems recognize the needs of the mentally challenged (with such initiatives as No Child Left Behind), so too, should they recognize the needs of the mentally gifted. Sadly, they don't. Tellingly, some countries which speak loudly of serving the needs of gifted students, in actual fact provide a completely inadequate response to them. They should know who they are, so I won't name them. I just want to see them start to actually do what they speak of. Then, we might have a world in which gifted children are allowed to thrive.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and eight months, and his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and one month, and Tiarnan, eighteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, genetics, left-handedness, College, University, Chemistry, Science, 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 @ 3:43 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i completely agree with this post. i was the student described here,and most of my teachers did NOT like me. once in elementary class, during a math explanation that was taking forever, i stopped listening to the teacher and just looked for patterns in the numbers and came up with a formula. it worked out perfectly but the teacher didn't care. i fell behind in math in late jr.high-h.s. because it moved too slow and then in college when i wanted to know why a certain pattern didn't work perfectly, i was told my question was really about black holes and that i should speak to a calculus professor. however, i was in remedial maths in college and couldn't even finish that because IT was unbearable. i had questions and ideas about math theory that i couldn't examine bc it was too difficult for me to stay focused in the slower classes. and i wasn't motivated to just sit at home and read math books. teachers in grade school used to insult me, and i remember when i finally gave a stack of patriotic poetry to this teacher in 4th grade. he said i had plaigerized and it was agaist the law and that there was no way i could have written them; that no child could have and they were from a book. but they weren't. finally, he admitted maybe they were originals by me, because, he said, "there are a lot of spelling errors". i got this treatment up through college. in first years at community college, one teacher wouldn't give me a grade for months bc she was investigating plaigerism and was convinced she was going to find my paper online somewhere. then, when she couldn't find it, she gave me a "B". the paper was at least "A" if not "A+". all i had to do, if i thought a teacher wasn't giving fair grades or was biased, was to ask other students if i could read their papers bc their topic seemed "so interesting"...that's when i always confirmed prejudice. i asked a LOT of questions in class and challenged answers sometimes, in a polite way, and most teachers didn't like it. not until i was in higher level classes (graduate) when i was a jr. or sr. in college, did i feel i received any respect, and mainly it's because i think these teachers were smarter themselves and didn't feel they had something to prove, and weren't insecure. i know that bc of my experiences, i will definitely try to find teachers who are gifted themselves, for my son. the odds are better.

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was also another title on your blog somewhere about the teacher making the gifted a ‘teacher assistant’ without teaching him anything new.

I’ll try to recount couple incidents in my school years many, many, many years back:

The first one when I was 14-16, I was the top student in my school (got my name inscribed in gold on the top student board – the school building has since been torn down) and was preparing for the GCSE ‘O’ level. For those three years, I remembered helping the teacher ‘teach’ my classmates most of the time. I had to do that since I understood what was taught the minute he delivered it. I have this power of concentration and clear, logical mind. So, for the next 5 lessons over two weeks repeating the same thing, I ended up as the ‘teacher assistant’. I remembered the teacher will answer questions to 3 or 4 students that came up to him. I have nothing to do, so use the blackboard and start teaching the math problems to the rest of the class. Once in a while, the teacher would tell me, “I’m not free today, can you please take the class for me?” I didn’t mind it, really, it was kinda fun!

Then I got to help many teachers mark all the exams papers for my own class and for other class. I know my grades before they got back to me in the school report ‘cos I knew what I could do and when I’ve made careless mistakes. When I was 14, I asked the teacher to redo my school report entirely, because those couldn’t have been my scores (the report was wrong for all subjects), and there was no way I could have failed MY history! It was my worst subject, with English a new language to me, so I had put in extra efforts. Plus, I marked other exams papers so I must know how I did! True to life, the teacher redid the whole report for me.

The second instance was a few years later during my first year at the University. I have this habit of acting nonchalant and throwing paper planes, but kept my eyes and ears on what the teacher was teaching. I was always alert. One time, the computer professor taught us a problem and he showed us how to solve the logic using Fortran. Despite my tomfoolery, I was the only one with my arm shot up and remarked, “Professor, I don’t think that logic is right. I should have read….” He looked at the logic again for sometime then finally corrected it and told the whole class that I was right. There was no hard feeling on his part.

The second professor was an economic professor. He drew the curve, but it was the wrong way around. After going back and forth in my mind, I was sure he couldn’t be right. Again, that persistent arm shot up and again the remarked, “Dr. so and so, I’ve been looking at your graph, don’t you think the graph should go the other way?”

This time, the professor went away for a week. The first thing he said at the beginning of the next lecture was, “Class, the graph in question last week, I was wrong. Your friend was right. Please make the correction.” It was hilarious, as he was one teacher my friends and I could fool around with. He was so nice to acknowledge his mistake. The way I saw it, that was bound to happen. He had to stand and teach, with his back to the students while I sat comfortably in my seat and have the luxury of testing the theory and working it out and rechecking my answer!

What perplexed me was why none of my classmates thought about what was taught. If they do, surely, they would have spotted the same mistakes.

Anyway, it was good I was on good terms with all the professors, except the times when they reprimanded me for skipping all tutorial lessons and failing to turn in my work. Life at university was cool! I got involved in a thousand activities, turned down an express chemistry honors course so that I can enjoy ‘normal’ student/teenager life. Plus, I felt I had nothing to prove. I know my capability, so it’s time I fill up my other interests which happen to include attending all the jam sessions and writing an open letter to the Russian President reasoning with him why he should be the ‘first’ to stop producing nuclear weapon, and not wait around for the US to do so!

Anon mum this time

8:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you "Anon mum" for sharing your memories of your education.

The issue of being a teacher's assistant is a problematic one. In one sense it is a kind of abuse, for it takes advantage of the more gifted students to take weight off the teacher. On the other hand, it does give you experience of teaching and public speaking, which is a useful skill. That, however, is irrelevant when set aside the fact that you are not actually learning anything new. It is simply a way of covering up for this fact and giving the gifted artificial work to do.

You sound, however, to have made a good adjustment and found a way to find reward in it all.

Best wishes

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't agree more with your comments. I have a son - while not a prodigy, has been tested to be gifted and is capable of reading and doing mathematics beyond his age.

We are overseas Singaporeans and our son is currently attending an international school, which had difficulty accepting the fact that he is intellectually ahead of his peers.

Despite having assessed his academic abilities, they do not seem to understand that he needs to be given the appropriate challenge in order to continue to be motivated in school.

As with all gifted child, school is progressing too slow for him and he spends his day re-learning what he already knows. While waiting for the rest of his classmates to catch up with his mental abilities, he talks to his peers out of boredom, devise games to keep himself occupied in class; which obviously gets him into trouble.

Over time, school is starting to become a stressful place for him and he started avoiding school - begging to stay home, complaining of headaches and tummy aches. It was devastating to see how school has transformed our happy, inquisitive and confident child into someone full of frustration, anger and self-doubt.

We have pretty much accepted the fact that he will not learn much in school and have decided that he will stay home anytime he feels like and learn at home. Like Ainan, his comments were that he has never learnt anything in school and he learns more at home.

I guess we are more fortunate in a sense that he is attending a private school and we are not too bothered with his attendance rate. However, when we do return to Singapore, I will definitely take the homeschooling approach as we have seen how the school have failed our son.

We have been through a lot of grief over the last year and I can relate to your pain. No person can fully appreciate the diverse capabilities and needs of a gifted child unless they have one of their own, thus it is hard to expect the teachers to understand our children.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am sorry to hear of your child's troubles at school. They are, however, classic of the reaction of a gifted child to an ordinary classroom situation. The only solution to it is to change the environment - you can't change the child. You have to find a way to ensure that he is not exposed to such an environment.

In our own case, we would love to homeschool - but permission is difficult to acquire, here. So we are still working on it.

In your case, I would either homeschool or find a means to allow him to be "accelerated" to an appropriate degree. Only then may he find contentment in school.

I wish you well.

10:03 AM  

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