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, December 30, 2007

The Nature of American Education on TV

A few days ago, I chanced upon a TV programme that made me wonder about the nature of American education.

Now, I should point out that I have never studied in America. I have not been to school, there, nor University (although I worked in one, once). I have not personally, therefore, gone through the process of an American education. I am left, therefore, with the evidence that comes my way through other sources. One of them was a TV programme shown in Singapore this week, entitled: "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?".

This TV programme was a quiz show. It challenged participants, who were adults, to pit their wits against the knowledge base of an American elementary school fifth grader. I should rephrase that: it is not their wits that were being pitted, but their memories, for no wits were actually required. I should explain. I noted, with some puzzlement, that all of the questions consisted of a simple exercise in recall. They were all factually based questions that required a quantum of knowledge as an answer. There were no questions in which actual thinking, or any kind of rational process, was required to produce an answer. This puzzled me. Does this accurately reflect the true nature of American elementary school education, or does it simply reflect the choices of the quiz show producers?

I would like comment, therefore, from Americans, if possible. Is American education based too much on simple rote learning of facts, or is there actually thinking involved? Is elementary education largely an exercise in factual recall?

I would be interested to find out.

(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 @ 3:04 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rote learning is currently not emphasized in the American educational system. However, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way as we go "back to basics" and teach to the tests required by NCLB.

NCLB is destroying our educational system with statistically impossible requirements--in a few years ALL children must test at "proficient" or above. The penalty is for teachers and administrators to lose their jobs. When I say ALL children, that includes 100% of subgroups such as English language learners and special education students with severe learning problems. It is an unattainable goal designed by conservatives to gut our public education system and replace it with a private "voucher" system.

What you see on that game show bears little resemblance to reality.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your comment.

Firstly, I am rather relieved to learn that the game show does not accurately reflect American educational practices and expectations. It would have been worrying were it to be so.

As for NCLB: that is really disturbing on many levels. Firstly, it ignores what is self-evident to anyone who is actually using real life observation to answer the question: people differ in their innate ability - some are bright, some are brighter - and some are far from either. Good teaching cannot be expected to make up for bad genes. If the system truly expects all children, no matter what their learning deficits to be brought up to some fixed "proficient" level, then failure is assured. It cannot be done.

I have taught, I know this. It is not idle chatter. Some children respond well to efforts to educate them...and some have barely any ability to learn anything at all.

It is rather unjust to punish the teachers and administrators for the innate difficulties of some of their students. The result, of course, is that people who had dedicated their lives to helping such kids will either leave the profession voluntarily - or be forced out of their jobs. Where is America going to get its teachers then?

I hope the pendulum doesn't swing too far towards rote learning. It creates really dull children. (I know, I have taught such children from one particular Asian country (not Singapore) which I will not name: very, very dull.)

What is this private voucher system? I would be interested to learn more.

Best wishes.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if someone's genes are perfectly good, if that person doesn't speak English, he is not going to be proficient in English.

If you take define a subgroup of kids by their lack of profiencty in English and then require that subgroup to be 100% proficient in English you are doomed to failure!

The NCLB law is totally absurd. I can only assume that it was intentionally designed to ruin public education in the US.

Conservatives here are touting the voucher system where the government would give people vouchers to pay to send their kids to the private school of their choice.

Sounds great? Not really. It's not like we will all get to send out kids to these fantastic private schools. No, the private schools will still get to pick and choose their students and charge whatever fees they can. The poor and disabled kids will be left in the dumping ground of the failing public schools.

Conservatives see this as more efficient. Rich people will not have to pay as much in taxes since there will be fewer public schools to fund. Rich people will still be able to afford to send their kids to the best schools. So when they say "No Child Left Behind" they mean "Only Poor Children Left Behind." Their hypocrisy is disgusting.

In terms of gifted education, NCLB is a complete disaster. Schools are scrambling to make Adequate Yearly Progress and are forced to spend all their meager resources on those kids who are *almost* proficient. If they can be brought over the line, the school's stats will improve. It makes no difference if a gifted student performs at proficient or advanced. No one cares if he lives up to his potential.

The other thing that is happening is that in order to make "progress" states are dumbing down their tests (yes, each state has its own different test). So the teachers are teaching to easier and easier tests and just repeating material ad nauseum.

I can't think of anything good to say about NCLB.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This is unfortunate re. NCLB. If it is the poor who will be left behind then that rather undermines one of the defining principles on which America SAYS it is built: that is "opportunity for all". America is supposed to be very socially mobile - but is it? I would like to know.

As for disregarding the poor - this means that the circumstances of birth could constrain many millions of lives. This is a pity. History has many examples of incredibly gifted people born into poor circumstances (Carl Friedrich Gauss, for instance): poor doesn't mean stupid. Even if not gifted, however, every child - even if very poor, deserves a chance at life. It is too pitiful otherwise.

Yes, there is something amiss with American education, presently. The PISA results showed that. On average, across all the tests, America is way down in the bottom half of the tables. It is beneath countries like Slovenia. It is really shocking considering that America is the world's leading nation politically and economically. Perhaps NCLB has something to do with all of this.

I wish you luck in finding adequate educational resources for your gifted child: it is far from easy, in many places of the world - not just in the USA.

Best wishes

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...


Thank you for doing this blog. I've been trying to find evidence as to what the people of today are doing in order to progress, and thus far this is it.

As a senior in high school in the United States, I hope I may provide some insight--though, I am stuck in a poorly-funded area. When I speak with people from areas such as California or Oregon, I don't get the impression that I have a different story.

First, anonymous is correct about the education restriction. I believe the majority of public schools have agreed to inflict standardized tests on the students. The method the federal? government uses to impose the test is a threatened withdrawl of finances. A typical ultimatum. The standardized test can be threatening because it decides if you can graduate from high school. The test focuses on mathematics, science, reading and English.

I hear teachers complain every day about meeting the deadline for covering subjects. Most of the time they are warning the students that they'd better get to work and stop asking questions. Only my government and science teachers have broken this habit.

I feel the only areas I've been able to "learn" is in the science, trade, and math fields. The others (not hands on, based on research, speech, history, English) tend to reflect my attention to personal agenda--I get bored because we never seem to move on. It seems like I can tell the teacher what they're going to say tomorrow. For classes like English and history, I could say the teacher is always announcing more work and learning later--practicing what we've learned since picking up a pencil or book.

Physics is my favorite class, because of what you're arguing for. We are allowed to think, and given time to do so. No required classes have given me this freedom so liberally on a day-to-day basis.

I just wish I could recall elementary. . . oh well. Must've not been important to me.

GO ASIA! I take it rote learning means that pen, paper, books, fingers and flailing rulers are all that is involved?

Was Cambridge University more conversationalist or book-oriented?

I'm excited for college, and especially tired of standardized teaching. I'm hoping that college isn't plagued as well.

Oh, one last, or first thing. The school district/I don't know who associates "level" of a class with "introduction to," "[blank]," "honors," and "advanced placement(AP)" so that a class may ascend from introduction to [class] to AP [class]. I have found that there is no real difference between [blank] and honors, beside the amount of homework. If a student wishes to be taught more, they must sign up for the AP version of a class, which not only moves faster than its counterpart, but assigns more work. For instance, I'm taking honors calculus next semester, but I won't learn how to calculate the area of a curve until I enter college because it is not an AP class. The real upside to an AP class is if you pass the AP test at the end of the semester, credits are passed on to the corresponding college. AP classes tend to be a year long if their counterpart is only one semester.


1:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Paul for your insight into High School. I believe you are the first American High Schooler to post here. I value that - for your perspective is not that of a parent (which is an experience at one remove) but of someone undergoing it themselves. So, before I go on, I would urge you to comment whenever you feel like it: your perspective is welcome.

The education you describe, constrained as it by ever-present testing (which I have written against) will create uncreative students, unable to think much for themselves. It is a damaging education. It is good, however, that some of your teachers have broken free of it.

Yes, Physics can engage the processes of thought unlike most other subjects. Physicists, by the way, tend to be the brightest of the professions (along with Philosophers, I understand). It is good mental training for anything which requires rigour of thought.

From what you describe of the way your teachers teach, it is clear that they are teaching to the less able in the class. This is going to bore anyone who is bright - potentially switching them off education. It is a shame.

Rote learning means learning something through repetition, without necessarily having any real understanding of what is going on. A rote learner is a "parrot". In fact, a parrot is probably brighter.

Yes, they have little real experience beyond that of books, pen and paper. It is frightening just to talk to them and realize how constricted is their understanding of the world: mind-numbing.

Cambridge University is a great research university - however I am not sure that it is the greatest place to be an Undergraduate - at least not in sciences. This is because the staff are focussed not on the students, but on their research.

There were interesting people to talk to - though with some you had to get past their egos (awesome) first.

It was a mixture of large classes, small tutorials and a lot of work on your own with books.

I gathered that people studying humanities may have had a better experience...

I wish you all the best in College and would welcome your views of that experience, as well, when the time comes.

Thank you for giving me some idea of what AP involves.

Best wishes to you, on your Senior Year.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, Paul, what do you find most interesting or valuable about the blog?

It is good to hear that you find it of interest - I would just like to know more detail as to that interest...thanks.

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...


Sure thing. I'll try to remain attentive, anyhow.

Hurray, rote learning sounds like eating burnt salt.

Hrm, but as described, a rote learner could be vaguely associated with the side-effects of religion-overdose here. Dangerous grounds, I know, but. . . moving on.

Bright people? I hope that's the way it'll be when I'm truly an adult. I may have to corrupt the innocent otherwise--saying that I'm not going to isolate myself if the world "normalizes."

Physics and business administration are my biggest interests right now, and mostly only because they offer the best probability for my goals. Beyond ego, I only hope the competition/peer population can be mature. Too mature = inert. yuck. I have the somewhat rare ability to welcome failure by any means and overcome it--I just can't help but wonder how meeting today's pioneers would affect me. An afternoon with someone my age that could act as a father, heh, that'd be something.

I still don't understand what philosophy is. Heh. Perhaps you can explain?

Ehm, the teaching irritates me overall. I have one friend in particular that is only working enough to pass his classes. To his disadvantage, if people are as ignorant as they can be, he's going to have trouble on the ladder. I know he can blow me away when it comes to academic performance, but he has no real motivation. He reads and thinks nearly four times as fast as I do, when I can look at some of my classmates and do a similar comparison. He just does what he wants to, for now. -.-' Mostly that involves playing games, watching movies, and reading books. In class as well. Minding my own business becomes difficult.

The most valuable aspect of your blog has to be that it's genuine in everything that I've read from it. It is refreshing to feel that you are not writing for the print. What's interesting? Err, maybe that it's awesome? Even if I have seen the information before, you manage to add onto it. Besides, I get some insight from "the other side," I hate saying that, but looking at how the whole of my preceding generation performed--it may be true.

Do you think it'd be healthy to compete with myself? Optionally, I could become a man without competition, someone destined to labor. . . Being an only child sucks in this respect.


P.S. You reply quickly, even for being online. O_o

4:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Paul,

I wouldn't be too worried about what other people are or do. Just be yourself and focus on finding something to do that will fulfil you. That is more important.

As for meeting today's pioneers: it may not always be clear who will turn out to be a pioneer - and it may take them longer than you might think. Some will flourish in their 20s but others you will see prosper in their 40s and 50s: it really depends on the difficulty of what they seek to attempt and the preparation time it will require. Oddly, the one's who take longer may in fact be doing something more worthwhile. So, I wouldn't go writing people off by the time they are 30 (as many people do). History holds many examples of people who changed the world, in their own good time. Samuel Beckett, the playwright was, I believe, 56 years old, when "Waiting for Godot" made him world famous. He had, however, been writing since University. It took him a long time to find the form that would hit home and communicate his work most effectively.

Your gifted friend, who lacks motivation, is showing the behaviour of many gifted people when faced with a lack of challenge: they tune out and give up. It is a shame he is not being given something interesting to do, by the system. It looks like he is following he is own interests. He may not do well in education, but he may turn out to do well in life, later (on his own projects/working for himself).

Philosophy is basically rational, logical thinking about everything: ethics, aesthetics, knowledge, science, life, anything - that is not scientific, but which is RATIONAL. It came before science, as an activity, and from it, science emerged - but it still continues to this day. Philosophers tend to look at the "BIG QUESTIONS", and answer them in a way in which science does not and cannot. As an activity, it is good training for the mind - but may not have much practical everyday application. A philosopher will tend to be a clear thinker in all that they do - but may also be a bit of a nit-picker, for detail. Some of them say interesting things, many of them speak utter nonsense (proven by computer based analysis of what they have written!). It can be fun, but Physics has much more direct application to the world and is more useful in real terms.

Thanks for your kind words about my blog. Yes, I just write what I think: it is the most valuable contribution anyone can make.

Best wishes to you.

5:54 PM  

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