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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, February 03, 2007

First steps to homeschooling

The laws regarding homeschooling vary from country to country all over the world. In some nations it is a matter of personal choice - such as in the UK and USA - but in others it is strictly prohibited, such as in Germany. It is interesting to note that in countries with a democratic present and past, homeschooling is permitted freely - but in countries with a fascist or totalitarian history, it is restricted. That might say something about the possible future of such countries, too. Anyway, let that be an aside which I won't follow further except to say that to restrict parents on how they bring up their children - and education is part of this - is one restriction of personal freedom, too far.

In Singapore, there are two sets of laws regarding homeschooling: one for expats and one for Singaporeans. Expats are allowed to do as they please with the schooling of their children. Singaporeans, on the other hand, are not. To be allowed to homeschool your child, if you are Singaporean, as my son Ainan is, (half-Malay, half-Irish), one must ask permission of the curiously named Compulsory Education Unit. It is up to this unit to decide whether you are permitted to home school your child. They state that you must satisfy the Ministry of Education that you will fulfil the "two main objectives of a Singaporean education" before you are allowed to homeschool the child. Interestingly, I could find no mention on that page, of what those objectives were.

Anyway, concerned, as we are that Ainan is not being suitably stimulated in school - for the physical sciences, for instance, which are Ainan's main focus, are not even taught in Singapore until Secondary School - we have contacted the Compulsory Education Unit. This seemed the best step forward since we can't really wait until he is 13 to get him a scientific education. That would be ridiculously stifling for him. Within about three hours of my email, I got a reply seeking further information. That was pretty prompt. Let us see how long it takes them to make a decision and what kind of decision it will be.

We are not quite ready to homeschool him, at this precise moment - but I thought it best to get the process underway since I have no idea how long it takes to secure permission - or what hoops we will be asked to jump through to win permission.

Incidentally, compulsory education is a serious business in Singapore, it being a criminal offence not to send a Singaporean child to school - unless special permission for exemption has been granted and alternative arrangements made, and approved.

I sent the email three days ago, let us see how quickly matters unfold.

(If you would like to read of the gifted Cawley sons: Ainan, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html. I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:16 PM  2 comments

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Elitism" is a dangerous word

"Elitist" is a word used by people who want to destroy those better than themselves. Just think in what circumstances the word is used: it is used to describe actions that take note of someone of special attributes, that somehow acknowledge them, give them opportunities or "preference".

It is odd that people think it expresses "preference" to give opportunity to one with the capability to do something unusual.

Every developed society in the world has specialized educational programmes for those who are of limited intelligence. It is regarded as humane and necessary to design a special education for those of restricted understanding. However, many of these same societies do NOT have a special programme for those of greater than normal intelligence - many of them do nothing for the "gifted", among them. Why is this so? The reason often given is that it would be "elitist" to do so.

In that both groups - those of greater and lesser than normal intelligence are exceptions, they are logically equivalent: they both lie outside the norm. Yet, although it is regarded as self-evident that one group - the lesser - should receive special attention or "preference" - the other, the greater or gifted group, is often consciously neglected in the name of not being "elitist". Any society that discriminates in this way is a society that is slowly dying: for it is suffocating the growth of those who may grow furthest, given the opportunity to do so.

It is not "elitist" to give all members of a society an appropriate education - it is called being fair. Each child has different needs, but it is not impossible to categorize them broadly into types of need - and differentiate between those who need a typical, average education, those who need special, "remedial" education and those who need a "gifted" education. This seems obvious in its necessity - but surprisingly few societies make this educational provision for the three different groups: they stick generally with two educational types - "remedial" and "one size fits all". If you have a body size that is anyway unusual and you try "one size fits all" clothes you will see how inadequate the concept is. The same goes for human minds.

A truly forward-looking society might even differentiate between degrees and types of giftedness and provide educational experiences that address those very different needs - but perhaps that is being too idealistic and expecting too much of educational systems.

As a first step it would be a great advance if it were so that all developed societies had special education for the gifted as well as remedial classes. (It would be good if undeveloped societies had this as well - but they need to get a basic education system going first). Let us hope that we don't have to wait too long - and that those who cry "elitist" might just take a good look at the prejudices, narrow-mindedness and sheer envy that leads them to make that cry in the first place.

It is not and can never be "elitist" to educate all children according to their needs. That is what being civilized is all about - or should be.

(If you would like to read more about education, or my gifted sons: Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifed education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:56 AM  7 comments

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The importance of a good teacher

About a week ago, I took Fintan, three, to school on foot, rather than going by bus. Although this was an accident, at first - he had missed the bus, by a minute or two - it turned out to be a pleasant ten or fifteen minute walk with him.

As I walked, I realized that in the midst of a typical busy day, there isn't so much time for talking as one might wish.

I looked down at Fintan beside me, with his curly hair, so unusual in Singapore, a land of straight, jet black heads of hair and asked him:

"Fintan, what do you like most about school?"

I wasn't sure that he liked school at all, but by asking the question in a positive way, I thought I would direct his attention to the positive aspects of it.

"Chinese", he said, without delay.

Now that surprised me. My wife is Malay, not Chinese and no-one in his acquaintance actually speaks Chinese around him. It seemed to me the least likely of choices given such an unpromising linguistic background - though I have noticed him dropping the occasional Chinese word into conversation as far back as two years ago, even to me, when I don't actually speak it.

"Why do you like Chinese?" I prompted, curious at this odd choice of a difficult language as his favourite subject.

"Because my teacher likes Chinese.", he replied with a smile, as if remembering her enthusiasm.

How interesting: the enthusiasm of his teacher, had become his enthusiasm, too, even when the subject matter was difficult, given his background. I understood, in that moment, just how important the attitude of a teacher is, for a student.

I was happy for him.

"Do you want to speak Chinese when you grow up?" I pursued.

"Yes.", he nodded his curly head, his smile bigger than before.

"Good."

I had had no idea that he liked Chinese so much. Walking him to school was so much better than putting him on a bus: it is called bonding, I suppose.

(If you would like to read more of Fintan, three, Ainan, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, or Tiarnan, twelve months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:09 PM  0 comments

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The quietest child is often the brightest

We all know of the quiet one, in a classroom - the one who watches and says little, who smiles to themselves at some inner thought, who looks upon the world with wise eyes but refrains from comment. What kind of child is this? Often, this child is the most gifted in the room.

There is a positive correlation between intelligence and introversion that is quite marked. Indeed, beyond an IQ of 160 fully 75% of all gifted children are introverted. This is quite a preponderance and speaks of a matter that is little discussed: the very personality of gifted children can make it difficult for them to fit in a school environment that seems only to think of the extraverted child.

A school is a place of crowds and communal demands, group activities and team sports. A school is for those who like social interaction en masse, popularity stakes and trendy cliques. School is not for the thoughtful child who looks on a deep, inner world rich in thought and feeling. School is not for the gifted, therefore.

It is widely known, amongst gifted people, that schools rarely cater for gifted children educationally. Such children are often under-challenged and feel bored by the school experience, working way below their abilities. Yet, there is another issue that is just as important: school doesn't, generally, make way for the introvert, who is often gifted, as well. School expects extraversion, "joining in", a love of the crowd. Why is this so? Well, we should be aware of a statistic: extraverts outnumber introverts three to one, worldwide. This means that three quarters of teachers will be extravert and so expect their students to be similar. Many teachers will even try to impose extraversion on introverted kids, seeing their introversion not as a personality difference, but as some kind of anomaly or psychological problem needing a "cure". They will try to enforce social togetherness on such a child, try to "draw them out of themselves", make them participate. The typical introvert will find this a kind of social torture, adding to their issues with the school environment.

Is this purely theoretical speculation on my part? Not at all. I see these forces at work with my own child, Ainan. He shows the introversion typical of a child as gifted as he is: he prefers quiet reflection, to raucous social interaction and has been described, by his new teacher as: "a quiet boy who doesn't say much...but I have seen him talk to his friends". It became clear in conversation with her that, after Ainan's new Principal had become aware of Ainan's precocious scientific gifts, that an unexpected reaction had occurred. Instead of concerning themselves primarily with his intellectual development, a directive had gone out to check up on him socially - to see how he interacted with other children. His form teacher had been explicitly instructed to monitor his social behaviour against what appeared to be an extravert ideal of gregariousness. How odd. It seems that unless one is a natural "joiner" then one is somehow unacceptable. This is a perilous attitude to take when the majority of gifted individuals are natural introverts. There is, it seems, a lack of understanding that introversion is an acceptable way of being and not an aberration to be corrected.

Ainan is quiet because Ainan is thinking. Is this to be hammered out of him by an educational system which values extraversion but fails to recognize introversion as just as valid?

The introvert values their inner world; the extravert the outer world. Which is more important? Well, it depends on what your value system is. If you value the creative productivity of your society's most gifted...this will arise from introverted minds. If you value the social cohesiveness that comes from highly gregarious people relating to each other, en masse, then that is a property of the extraverted. The world is dominated, numerically, by extraverts. Yet, no society can afford to be without its introverts, for from them comes most innovations and creative works. Without introverts, the world simply would not be as rich and complex as it is today.

So, if you see a shy child who prefers to work alone on matters that interest them...let them be. Don't think you have to turn them into the "life and soul of the party": for nothing more abhorrent could be imagined by them.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:10 PM  12 comments

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tiarnan and the time

I have recently posted about Tiarnan's sense of loss on the departure of one who had spent much time with him.

On the first morning after she had left (the 25th January), Tiarnan, who was in my arms, as I walked about the house, pointed at the clock, as I passed the front door and said: "Time", then pointed out the door.

I looked at the clock: it was eight in the morning and understood.

Looking into his distressed face, I knew what he was saying: at this time, every morning, the one no longer here would take him for a walk to a nearby park and playground for two hours. Tiarnan, twelve months exactly, was able to read the clock in the basic way of knowing when it was the right time for a certain activity to occur, even if he couldn't label it. The clock was in the right position for his daily park routine to begin. It distressed him that it had not.

We took him out later, but it was evident who missed her most: the little bundle in my arms.

(If you would like to read more of Tiarnan, twelve months, Fintan, three, or Ainan, seven years and two months, a scientific child prodigy, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, baby genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 5:17 PM  0 comments

Monday, January 29, 2007

Fintan advises mummy

Over a week ago, Fintan, three, went shopping with his mummy. As usual, my wife, Syahidah, started to think in terms of what she could buy for other people, rather than herself. She would rather buy something for anyone else in the world, than herself.

Fintan watched his mother as she made shopping decisions; watched what she looked at; watched what she deliberated over.

At some point, he asked her to buy something for herself, which he knew she needed, but which he had observed she had made no effort to find.

She pointed out the other things she needed to get.

He turned on her, "Listen mummy, you buy it for yourself! Are you listening to me? You buy it for yourself!"

Touched by his concern, she mumbled something about doing so, and even made a superficial effort to look for the item in question. In the end, however, her self-sacrificial nature triumphed - and she did as she always did - and bought everything, everyone else required instead.

Fintan had done his best.

(If you would like to read more of Fintan, three, Ainan Celeste Cawley (a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months) or Tiarnan, 12 months exactly, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:44 PM  0 comments

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Prodigy and Savant: the difference?

Last week, someone arrived on my site, after a search for "the difference between prodigy and savant". Such a question is, no doubt, neurologically complex and from what I gather, there is much research to do, but I will point out a basic difference which is evident from any observation of them.

My son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, is a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and two months. It is very clear in listening to him speak that he has an innate advantage in higher level cognitive skills: reasoning, creativity, logic, association, insight, memory for that which interests him, speed of learning, and the like. He also has a profound knowledge and understanding of the sciences that interest him. It doesn't take much conversation with him to realize these things. He is also able to think for very long periods on the matters of his interest. His concentration on a problem is such that it cannot be disturbed even by determined interruption. These characteristics are not only obvious but unusual. How does this differ from a savant?

A savant has an overdevelopment of LOWER level thinking skills: rote memory and habit formation. They do not display heightened thinking capabilities in higher level skills - in fact, they are usually notably impaired in these areas. Many scientists theorize that Savant Syndrome is a form of right brain over-compensation for left brain damage, and there is some evidence to suggest this is so. The gifts of a savant may be in areas such as calculation or music, and they often show uncanny degree of memory for their particular area. The fact that prodigies may also be found in maths and music and may also show very good memory may cause confusion between them, but I don't think anyone who had become acquainted with both categories of people, would be confused in the least. The savant shows an island of ability emerging from a general disability (usually); the prodigy shows a great gift set against a general intellectual function that usually reflects this high level capacity - they are not impaired, but gifted.

A study of maths prodigies using brain imaging techniques revealed something very interesting. The prodigies, while thinking, had levels of right brain activity six or seven times higher than the normal controls set the same task. This is a massive difference and shows that prodigies have unusual brains that operate differently from the non-prodigious: it is not just a matter of knowing more about something than others - there is a very real neurological difference at work.

It is curious that savants, too, are noted for right brain skills - but theirs are of the lower level variety and do not reflect higher level thinking at work. Furthermore, the prodigy does not show impaired left brain function, unlike the savant.

In summary: prodigies show a higher level thinking gift; savants show a lower level thinking gift. Both kinds have unusual brains that differ from the norm, visibly, in functional brain images.

(If you would like to read more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, or his gifted brothers, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:32 AM  0 comments

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