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 +

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The 2006 Pisa survey on OECD education.

The results of the 2006 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey have just been released. They make interesting reading.

The Pisa report is a comprehensive survey of the skills in science, reading and mathematics of 400,000 15 year olds tested in 57 countries around the world. Singapore is not one of them.

The survey is conducted once every three years and serves as a snapshot of international students' comparative abilities.

The OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. An average performance for the OECD across the three areas was calculated. Before I discuss who was below average, however, I will state the results for the top three positions in each category. There are some surprises, here, at least for me.

In Science:

Finland was no.1. (average score 563)
Hong Kong was no.2 (average score 542)
Canada was no.3 (average score 534)

In Reading:

South Korea was no.1 (average score 556)
Finland was no.2 (average score 547)
Hong Kong was no.3 (average score 536)

In Mathematics:

Taipei was no.1 (average score 549)
Finland was no.2 (average score 548)
Hong Kong and South Korea were equal at No.3 (average score 547).

Now, firstly, it is remarkable that both Finland and Hong Kong appear in the top 3 for all categories. This shows that there is a distinct correlation between performance in each of these areas. Perhaps it reveals that bright students, on average, do well in all subjects. Alternatively, that well-educated students do well on all subjects (depending on whether you ascribe the results to nature or nurture).

32 countries were statistically below the average of all OECD countries in science. These included the United States, Spain and Italy.

Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and, oddly, given Finland's astonishing all-round performance, Norway, were below the OECD average in reading.

For mathematics, the United States, Italy, Spain, and Portugal were all below the OECD average.

Interestingly, South Korea beat Finland in reading. This is notable because Finland topped the reading results in both Pisa 2000 and Pisa 2003. Even more interesting, for what it says about the education system in South Korea is the source of the improvement. South Korea improved its average, not by bringing up the performance of the lower end students - whose quality of work remained essentially unchanged - but by enhancing the performance of its more able students. The stellar students shine more brightly in South Korea.

It seems to me that the South Korean approach is more likely to result in truly capable adults, who are able to do something worthwhile. As a nation, they seem to be aiming for peak performance of their best students. Most countries (like the United States and its famous - or infamous - No Child Left Behind Act) appear to aim at strengthening their weakest students. I think this has limited utility from the point of view of getting the best out of a student population. The results of Pisa 2006 seem to show this, with the United States lagging behind most other nations in Science and Mathematics.

The students were generally asked to carry out paper and pencil tasks, in the three areas of Science, Reading and Mathematics.

One of the most interesting results of this study is that Canada came third in Science, but the United States was below average for an OECD country. I am not familiar with the differences between the Canadian systems and the US systems. Perhaps a reader of this blog post can enlighten both myself and my readers by suggesting why Canada came third but the United States was below average. Do Canadians spend more time on Science than US students? Are they just more gifted at it? Is the education system simply better in general? I would welcome any insights on the conundrum.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and no months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and five months, and Tiarnan, twenty-two months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 7:00 PM 


Blogger EbTech said...

Awesome, go Canada! Actually I am surprised too, being under the impression that our system is not much different from the US.

Here in the province of British Columbia, students are only required to take one science course at the 11th grade level. This standard is comparable to an O level, perhaps even lower, and we only need it for one of the three major sciences! Furthermore, I have never seen a mathematical proof taught in a "regular" class, outside of special courses like AP or IB. Naturally, students intending to enter university will usually go further, and I hear the education standards are more rigorous in Ontario and Quebec.

It is worth noting that each Canadian province or US state is free to set up its own education system. Thus many US states are similar to Canada, but others (I suspect those in the southern regions) could be bringing the average down.

Another factor could be Canada's smaller population, resulting in a much higher percentage of immigrants. The immigration process is rather tough, so those who make it to Canada or the US are often very intelligent and well-educated families.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said... contrast, those who make it to Singapore seem to need only two qualifications - to be a Chinese mainlander...and to be alive. This, of course, leads to immigrants of questionable ability, but, in Singapore, there is the unstated belief that the Chinese are a kind of master race to be preferred over all others. However, they do seem to be less intelligent and capable than the first "master race" in history. (IQ studies bear this out, too...)

I rather like what I hear of Canada and, were it not for the cool weather, we would consider it as a destination.

Kind regards

11:03 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Aha really?? I like Vancouver's climate; it is quite temperate near the ocean. The only aspect that many people dislike is the high precipitation. So if rainy days make you feel depressed, this is not the right place for you. Otherwise, there is a reason why Vancouver has been rated the world's most livable city! ;)

As a passing remark, I should point out that some of your findings about race, however well reasoned, may sound racially insensitive in our very mixed culture (and also in the US, which has suffered from severe racial tensions in the past).

Yes, there are a lot of Chinese here as well. Many people seem to think "Asians" are a super-intelligent race, although I think it is largely a combination of their strict work ethic and the selective immigration process. I have met some who succeed simply by working hard, and others who are genuinely very intelligent (and often lazier than their less intelligent counterparts); just as one would expect with any other race.

We should be cautious in using IQ tests to compare populations, as underprivileged groups tend to underperform. A phenomenon known as "stereotype threat" can also affect a person's performance. For instance, studies show that women perform worse than men at math tasks when they are made to feel inferior or stereotyped against.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

I don't think I am racially insensitive, I am just relating what I have observed, particularly of the attitudes found in Singapore.

Re. IQ. I don't think that the Chinese people in the major cities who would have participated in IQ studies can be called "underprivileged"...these cities are doing very well, economically. So, the IQ scores they exhibit are most probably fairly typical. China according to Murray and Hernstein, has a mean IQ of just super elevation there. Germany, the other former "master race", has a higher IQ estimate - a mean of 102 (on Wikipedia...though I have seen much higher estimates in the past...up to 109), with I expect from other studies greater standard deviation and more "geniuses", per head of population. They are also notably more creative than the Chinese, though, fortunately, not so creative as to get to the atom bomb first in WWII! Again, I am just pointing to obvious facts.

Yes. Obviously selective immigration is at work re. the US, rather distorting the truth of the different races, from an American perspective. Perhaps those very same Americans would be surprised at the contrast if they visited some Asian homelands...

Thanks for the link. I hope I have not offended any sensibilities, since I don't mean to do so.

3:43 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

You have not offended me as I can understand what you are saying, and I certainly do not mean to discourage you from presenting factual findings or rational arguments. It seems western culture is more sensitive about the concept of equality than most of the world. I was a bit surprised at first when you suggested that the media were discriminating against Ainan's race, since I have seldom encountered racism. People are gradually becoming "racially colourblind". I think Canada is the world's most multicultural nation, and we are proud of it! :D

However, a side-effect is that any findings about race are highly controversial. If you speak to people about these findings, you might wish to emphasize that statistical generalities do not hold much significance for a particular person of any given race. To say that a race has a slightly higher average IQ is not the same as saying it is an inherently smarter race, for the top 40% of the "inferior" race would most likely outdo the bottom 40% of the "superior" one. Furthermore, slight genetic or cultural shifts can cause a high-IQ race to decline or vice-versa. I am sure you realize this, but those who think less deeply may misinterpret your words.

Hmm... I wonder if the "everyone is born equal" ideal can be harmful. For example, it may contribute to disbelief about your sons' abilities. People may be annoyed to find that their honest effort is no match for someone else's natural gift... we must try to understand all perspectives!

True, Chinese are not really underprivileged like African-Americans or Native Americans, but let's not forget what you wrote about declining IQ in the UK; obviously the cause cannot be genetic. Thus, I question whether a 2-point difference is sufficient to determine which population is genetically smarter. It might simply reflect the effectiveness of a culture or education system. The ancient Muslim and Chinese worlds were quite scientifically advanced, so they must have been creative as well. However, many past dictatorships prosecuted intellectuals, thus losing some of their brightest people.

I would guess that the average IQ of Chinese immigrants is higher than 100. This, combined with their strict culture, feeds the perception of their elevated intelligence. Emigration is also a negative factor in the IQ of China and many other countries: the phenomenon known as "brain drain".

One more thing: Canada and the US are very large countries. Between different provinces and states, there could be significant IQ and cultural differences. It might be worth doing some research into.

By the way, I just discovered a remarkable correlation between math contest results and future success in the mathematical sciences. Remember Richard Feynman's "modest" IQ score? Well it turns out he was a Putnam Fellow, meaning he won the largest undergraduate mathematics competition in North America. Somehow the Putnam contest was able to measure an ability that the IQ test's math portion did not... could it have been divergent thought? I am currently awaiting results from my own first attempt at the Putnam... even among the highly self-selected group of individuals choosing to compete, the median score is usually 1 out of 120!

4:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I agree. Race norms say little about individuals (except to inform us how rare their abilities are if they have them). One of the brightest people I know is, for instance of African origin - and yet, there are African states were average IQs around 60 or this situation didn't stop him having an IQ that I estimate to be at least 145 - 160...maybe quite a bit more. However, given his conversational astuteness, it could not really be any less.

Re. the decline in the UK. I think it IS genetic. You see, the less intelligent are outbreeding the smart ones...and the mean IQ is in decline, as a result.

Re. Chinese immigrants to the US. Yes. You are likely to get brighter than average ones, because of your entrance policies. However, that is not universal. I don't think Singapore's PRC immigrants are selected to any they do not seem bright at all.

I think Richard Feynman was a unique thinker with his own way of doing things. The Putnam contest picked that up...but standardized testing overlooked it. He was an ORIGINAL thinker. Thus, his "IQ" was moderate...but his ability to create and see what others did not, was immense. Hence he is regarded as one of the last century's greatest thinkers. Long may he be remembered.

Yes. I am sure that different states in the US/Canada have different fact, I think this work has been done somewhere: more later.

Re uttering the truth. I think this is important, even if unacceptable in some quarters. There is no use hiding from the facts.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Best wishes

9:55 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Africa's average IQ must have declined slightly due to "brain drain", but I think the main factor is lack of education. The situation should improve with time. For example, they most likely did not experience the full extent of the Flynn effect. How high would a modern African's IQ normed in 1920 be? For all we know, they could turn out to be the "superior" race.

At this point, statistics based on IQ tests cannot be considered valid cross-racial comparisons, unless scientists find a way to control for confounding environmental factors. The racial disparity in IQ appears to be small, and in fact we may be surprised by who ends up on top.

The word "race" makes it sound as if there is a major divide between groups of people, as if they were separate subspecies. In fact, there has been very little time for genetic divergence since our most recent common ancestor. "Race" is little more than a small set of unique attributes. Hence, the genetic variety within a population is far greater than the difference between races. Within a population, intelligence is largely inherited. Between different races, environmental factors take over. Once environmental factors equalize, more accurate genetic studies should be possible.

Re. UK: do you think so? Oh my. Your logic makes sense, but it would take an awfully fast genetic shift for it to be the main cause. If you are correct, the problem is really far worse and the damage may soon become irreversible...

Yes, truth is absolutely important, as is one's right to utter what one believes and of others to rebut it. There are even more controversial topics than race... such as religion...

1:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. It is difficult to sort out the cause of the observed racial differences. However, there are big clues. You see, in the West, Africans growing up there still show a one standard deviation deficit compared to Whites, in the same culture - with Black males showing an even greater difference than females. Is this due to disadvantage within the culture? Maybe...but most Western societies have fairly flat access to educational opportunities etc. This seems to point to other than purely environmental factors.

Then again, Jewish populations in the West show superiorities in some areas compared to Whites (and deficits in visuospatial). That would seem to be genetic considering that they are no longer disadvantaged, as they once were.

Asians show certain advantages over Whites, in the West - but then they are selected population not representative necessarily of their homelands. They also show deficits generally in linguistic/verbal areas.

So the story is mixed. However, the fact that Western societies have greatly reduced racist practices in their own countries in recent decades and the fact that differences still exist between racial cohorts, would seem to indicate actual differences in genetic endowment.

Re. not enough time. It really doesn't take much time to make a difference between races. In my family for instance, I have the most children, of my brothers. Thus, whatever characteristics I have that are different from theirs are more commonly represented in the next generation than theirs are. Thus, in one generation, there can be a shift in preponderance of various genetic factors. A deletrious change has occurred in Britain since I was a child. The place is becoming plain stupid (and thuggish) due to overbreeding of the least desirable elements of society. It is, of course, difficult to reverse. Indeed, it would take undemocratic interventions to reverse such damage...

Britain is unlikely to take such steps. So, practically speaking the damage is irreversible. Sadly.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Good luck, EbTech, with your Putnam competition: enjoy the challenge, for itself whatever the result.

That sounds tough, by the way...1 out of 120: ouch. I suppose many people would find it discouraging. I hope you do well.

Best wishes.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You are right, re. Religion. There are too many sensitivities around this issue to talk about it, much. The likelihood of offending people, to their core, is too great, even for quite mild comments. So, it is best not discussed.

2:20 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

There are reasons why I feel religion is a topic that must be discussed (especially among young people; not so much for the older generation who have made up their minds long ago), but I will avoid bringing it up here unless and until you deem it appropriate. It is after all your blog.

Given the surprisingly dramatic nature of the Flynn effect, I am not prepared to attribute African performance to genetics unless we get stronger evidence. Environmental factors in modern America may appear insignificant on the surface, but the Africans' socioeconomic disadvantage goes back to times of racism and slavery, as does the severely anti-intellectual culture in which they grow up. It will take time for this damage to heal.

A lot of civilizations have achieved great things; unfortunately, Africa did not do quite as well. This is because Europe used its first mover advantage to suppress all development there. How much of this is due to chance and environmental factors (such as better climate) versus genetic evolution? It is hard to say, since Africa never got a second chance.

Let us not forget how quickly African-Americans, Latin Americans, women, and other historically disadvantaged groups are continually rising in the ranks of scientists and other professions. Yet members of these groups often feel inferior to their peers (sometimes to the point of Imposter Syndrome). Self-prejudice is known to have a considerable detrimental effect.

In the "culture" of women, they are not expected to be good at nor to enjoy mathematics. Fortunately, statistics show them gradually rising in this field as well. So even the finding that male brains are better at mathematics may have been largely exaggerated. In this case, I suspect there is some real difference because female brains appear to be more specialized toward other things such as linguistics. I mention women because you seem to consider them equal, yet their situation is not so different. Their environment is at least as good as the African-Americans', and they do place rather low (but rising) in measures of mathematical ability.

Re. Asians in linguistics: remember that their home language is very different from the new languages which they are often expected to learn. It is much easier to go from English to French than from Chinese to English. In addition, Europeans live in close proximity to other countries and are therefore exposed to many languages from a young age. This increases their overall linguistic ability; a 3rd language is easier to learn than a 2nd language, and a 4th language is easier still, especially if some of those languages were learned in early childhood.

When we speak of group IQ differences in the range 5-15 (much smaller than the cumulative Flynn effect), even unknown environmental factors can confound the result. Measuring this form of "heritability" is a tricky business, because there is no reliable racial equivalent to the twin studies. A Black child will always stand out. Even if there are slight genetic differences, the expectations that arise from those differences could magnify the true effect in a viscous cycle or chain reaction. In any case, more research is needed.

Re. Putnam: it is tough, but I really enjoy creative problem solving challenges and the thrill of competing with the best! Thanks for your well wishes.

By the way, I will be visiting Seattle for the next few days, so please do not be surprised if I take some time to respond.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I only have time, at this moment to address one of your points. I am aware of the difference between oriental and European languages and the difficulties that people face moving from one to the other here. That is not the issue. I can quite readily see, on the ground, in Singapore, where English is a national tongue, that Asians have difficulty with ALL languages. Singaporeans, for instance, show deficit in all they an oriental tongue, or English. They are just no good with words. That is clear. Even the education system knows this: they focus on maths because the kids are no good at languages (though they teach them with greater emphasis later on).

Studies show a deficit in verbal intelligence in asiatics, compared to their mathematical intelligences AND compared to European norms. It is a difference in verbal intelligence, not just a difference between languages. (I would have to dig up references, but they are out there.)

Have a good holiday in Seattle.

Best wishes

5:35 PM  

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