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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 +

Friday, June 22, 2007

The tyranny of tests

England is not what it was, in many ways. Yet, only recently have I become aware of one way in which it has changed since my childhood.

I now live in Singapore and, having observed Singapore for a few years, I had come to the conclusion that Singaporeans are test mad. There is a test for everything and nothing is trusted unless it has been tested. I had come to view it as somewhat pathological - in the sense that it is far too prevalent to be healthy. Yet, that was before I came to know of the recent situation in the UK. If anything it is worse, there.

A UK student is now expected to take over 70 official tests from the age of 7 to the time they leave school. These are not, as far as I am aware, optional, in-house school testing, but obligatory mandatory, national testing.

I only became aware of this situation, not having lived in the UK since my children were born (apart from one stint), because of a proposal to end all such testing, that some brave political soul has tabled. It would probably be a good thing for British children were it to be enacted - but it is extremely unlikely, for the leaders of the educational establishment were quoted as being fully behind the test-taking tradition.

Let us look at what these tests do to children. With so many of them, there is forever another test coming up. There is ever the need to prepare for the next test. The focus of the students is on passing the test. There is never time or space to look around and see subjects in greater breadth or depth - there is only that which is in the test, in their minds. The consequence of an education that is nothing but a long series of tests is that the child is never truly educated. They are trained to do tests - and that is all. I have seen this phenomenon at work in Singapore which produces very good test takers...but not truly well-educated people: their minds have been too constricted by constant testing. The same unhealthy pressures have been constricting the minds of whole generations of British children while I wasn't looking. I don't imagine that it will lead to the national prosperity (and all the other things that politicians seek) that they imagine. Rather, it will lead to a nation unable to hold its place where once it reigned supreme.

Nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the education of children - and most certainly not an official burden of over 70 tests per school career. How ridiculous.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 8:14 PM  4 comments

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Genius and academic success

Does genius connote academic success? Are geniuses always found at the top of classes?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. It depends upon the genius, and the subject. Contrary to common opinion genius does not necessarily mean academic success. Some geniuses just won't perform in a conventional academic setting.

There are reasons for this. Sometimes people of genius have a very narrow gift - such as Pablo Picasso's - or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's - that would probably preclude much success outside their domain of mastery. Such geniuses cannot be expected to show universal academic success.

Other geniuses, however, are more universal - such as, of course, Leonardo da Vinci - who could, no doubt, have shone at any subject, at any time, given the chance.

I write on this subject, because of an internet searcher from Singapore who searched with the term: "Genius who fails exams". I am assuming that this is either a parent of a gifted child searching for related information to explain their experience with their child's failure - or a gifted child themselves (or one with a high opinion of themselves, anyway).

While academic success shows high intellectual performance, it does not indicate originality. So, performance in exams alone does not indicate genius (though it may indicate prodigiousness if taken at a young age). Correspondingly, failure in exams may indicate nothing more than a lack of interest on the part of the student. A very gifted child, especially a genius child, may find the school requirements too boring to engage with and may, therefore, underperform, to the point of failure. It is quite possible therefore for a genius child to actually be a failure in school. This, however, creates a very real problem of securing for the child the necessary growth opportunities to realize their gifts. It is best, therefore, if a genius child does not actually fail, because it tends to close doors that need to remain open. The child's path will be ever more difficult as a consequence of academic failure unless their gift is such that they can operate totally outside the mainstream of life and produce their wonderful results alone. In such a case, academia may, in fact, be a total irrelevance.

So, if your child is gifted, but not doing well in school, don't be disheartened. It doesn't show that your child is not, in fact, gifted. It shows that your child is not, in fact, engaged, by the school system. That is a different matter and probably needs a personal solution. Work with your child to find a way to engage them. It is more difficult for them later if you don't.

As I noted in another post, there is a penalty against the genius child built into exams. Generally speaking, original answers will be marked WRONG, rather than marked up. A child of great originality will do less well, therefore, than a dull child who gives the expected answers. Exams are full of flaws in their construction and methods...and this is just one more of them.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 4:57 PM  6 comments

People Tonight, Philippine News

On Saturday, 16th May, 2007, People Tonight, a Philippino mass circulation newspaper, carried an article on Ainan. It has just appeared today on their website http://www.journal.com.ph/ in the miscellaneous section, though it may only be there for a day.


Child prodigy, 7, passes tough UK chemistry exam

THIS is one seven-year-old boy that would make both Asians and Europeans proud. Ainan Celeste Cawley, of Asian-Irish parentage, recently passed his Chemistry O Level exam from the London Edexcel Board, an exam normally taken by British 16-year-olds.

Considered a child prodigy and the youngest chemist on record worldwide, Ainan has been to school in both London and Singapore.

His father, Valentine, was educated at Cambridge University.

The exam that the younger Cawley passed, his father said, was a “rigorous one and at a level equal to or higher than American high school graduation.”

The father pointed out that “American universities recruit O level students directly onto their degree courses. It is still taken all over the world by former commonwealth countries as a benchmark academic exam.”

He disclosed that Ainan picked up a level textbook only on July 18, 2006, and took his exam six months later at the British Council in Singapore as a private examinee.

“Taking an exam alongside him were four rather surprised adult candidates. Ainan was just seven years and one month old when he took the examination,” the proud father said.

Walking at six months, as a toddler, Ainan would seek out science books in the library, showing a preference for dense texts with complicated illustrations of scientific matters. “These he would absorb quietly and comment on later,” the elder Cawley said.

By the time he was three or four, Ainan was interested in “hyper-dimensional shapes” and would draw their shadows in two dimensions as a form of “intellectual play,” he said. “Some of these shapes had hundreds of sides.

This was not a surprise to his mother, Syahidah Osman Cawley, an ambidextrous artist,” he added.

This interest in structure in the abstract developed into an interest in the structure of molecules as he discovered chemistry on the Internet. Through self-guided surfing, Ainan educated himself in science.

When he was six years old, he was given a chemistry book to look at on a whim. Ainan sat and read the text and indicated that he understood it.

His family gave him a chemistry test paper to do from the book and to everyone’s astonishment, he answered the questions correctly.

His father, Valentine, a former physicist, promptly presented him with a chemistry O level textbook.

For daily updates on Ainan, please read Valentine’s blog at www.scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:04 PM  0 comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Are geniuses ever satisfied?

What is it that drives a genius ever on, to deeper understandings, greater works, more complete statements? I would say that one key attribute is dissatisfaction.

Yet, dissatisfaction at the work already achieved, has a dark side to it, too. Perhaps the genius is unable to fully appreciate their own work, so high are their aims and, perhaps, so low are their achievements, in comparison.

I am led to the words of two great geniuses to support this view that they appear dissatisfied with their works.

Albert Einstein once said: "If I had my life to live over again, I would be a plumber."

Surely, only great dissatisfaction with what he had achieved - or the life that he had had to lead to achieve it - could ever have motivated such words. Looking back over his life, his personal assessment was that a life of manual labour would have been preferable.

Another, too, who expressed dissatisfaction with his creative life, was Leonardo da Vinci - whose last words I have elsewhere recorded: "I have offended God and Man by doing so little with my life."

These words, too, point to an essential dissatisfaction with his achievements: somehow, great though they appear to others, he felt that they didn't make the grade.

Are we to assess a genius on their own unachievably high standards - or on the external standards of others looking on, at their works. I think the latter is healthier. Einstein and da Vinci may not have thought much of their work - but to the rest of us, their lives seem little short of miraculous.

A genius may need that sense of dissatisfaction to drive them on to greater things. It may, in fact, be a key attribute of great minds - but we must not let their self-assessment provide us with our view of their works. The judgement should be by the standards of the rest of society - otherwise we may not be able to see geniuses for what they are at all. It doesn't seem that they see themselves as we see them. That, in itself, is interesting.

Perhaps a genius needs society to tell them just how significant their works are. That society may, of course, be one of a different time, since some geniuses are not recognized in their own times. Whenever it is, however, society should not be shy in rewarding a genius with recognition - because, more than others, perhaps, they need this positive feedback - since so many of them seem to be unable to see it in themselves.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and six months, and his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, sixteen months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.html 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 @ 7:55 PM  0 comments

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Tale of a cowboy hat

A couple of days ago, my wife, Syahidah, placed a cowboy hat on Fintan's head and left him to his own devices.

Some time later, she saw him running around the house from one room to another.

"Fintan, why are you running around?"

"I am trying to catch my horse...it has run away." he explained.

He continued to run.

Some time later, he was standing still in his room, looking at something that wasn't there.

"What happened?" Syahidah asked him.

"Oh, I shot my horse.", he confided. "First I tied him up, then I shot him."

He was quite satisfied to have solved the problem of the horse that just wouldn't sit still.

It is the imagination of a child that I think is most precious - for in the mind of an imaginative child, anything can be considered and all is possible. Yet, is such imagination common to all children? From observation, I would say not. Some children don't seem to have much of an imagination. Is that the reason most adults lack imagination? Is it because they start out with none...or is it because they lose it as they grow up?

I rather hope Fintan doesn't lose his imagination, but finds a creative application for it, that satisfies him and brings him fulfilment. Right now, it is both fun and fascinating to watch his imagination at work. Long may it be part of him.

(If you would like to learn more of Fintan, three, or his gifted brothers, Ainan Celeste Cawley, seven years and six months, and Tiarnan, sixteen months, please go to: http://scientific-child-prodigy.blogspot.com/2006/10/scientific-child-prodigy-guide.hmtl 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 @ 6:57 PM  0 comments

Monday, June 18, 2007

The importance of attribution

I can't help but notice that many people are in the habit of quoting another's thoughts, without attribution. Though most of these people seem to be unaware of it, such a practice is a form of theft, for it deprives the originator of the thought, idea, proposal etc. of the credit for having conceived it.

Part of the education of us all, is coming to understand what others have thought before us, and perhaps understanding why they thought in such a way. It is always enlightening to consider the wisdom of those who were known for their genius.

A few days ago, I was listening to the radio in Singapore, when I heard something that made me most uncomfortable. It appeared to be a slogan for the radio channel that I was listening to. It went like this:

"Imagination is more important than knowledge, so use your imagination..." Listeners were then urged to listen to Lush Radio.

The cheek of what they had done stilled me. Many of you will probably know where their slogan came from: it was a thought of Albert Einstein's that they had corrupted to sell their radio channel to the public. There is a deep irony in claiming that listening to their channel was an act of the imagination - when they had, in fact, shown no imagination themselves, in plagiarizing the famous words of a great man, to promote themselves.

What is so wrong with this? Well, many listeners will not know whence those words came. They will not make the connection to Einstein. This deprives them of a full understanding of what the words mean - for they cannot know the perspective of the first mind to have conceived them. Only through knowing that Einstein coined them, can we have a chance to understand both their import and their meaning. Not that alone, but knowledge of what great minds have thought, is part of human culture - to have the words of such minds, turned into commercial slogans for commercial end, cheapens that culture and makes of it something vacuous. Truly, what they did was morally - and legally wrong. For it is a breach of the moral rights of an author not to attribute a quote - and a breach of copyright to do so. Yet, this was done by an institution in a position of influence and respect: a radio station.

Einstein's remark was made originally in Berlin, in 1929 to the journalist and poet, George Sylvester Viereck who had somehow coaxed an interview from the most reluctant world-famous physicist.

"How," George began, "do you account for your discoveries? Through intuition or inspiration?"

"Both," replied Albert Einstein. "I sometimes feel I am right, but do not know it. When two expeditions of scientists went to test my theory, I was convinced they would confirm my theory. I wasn't surprised when the results confirmed my intuition, but I would have been surprised had I been wrong. I'm enough of an artist to draw freely on imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Few Singaporean listeners know whence that quote comes - and that is what allows the radio station to imitate, as it did. That is a pity, for Einstein's words were spoken on a matter of some importance: what leads a genius like him to think and create as he had?

It is saddening to see a radio station trivialize such a man's words. I hope they change their slogan - and perhaps announce who they were quoting.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 6:56 PM  2 comments

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Speed of processing and exams

Exams try to measure the ability of students but, they fail, in many respects. Today I will look at one way in which they fail.

Imagine you have two candidates both of whom have scored equally well in an exam. Are both candidates therefore equal in ability? A traditional view of exams would say so, but there is something which the exam conditions are not able to determine. That is: how fast do the candidates think?

Now, it is obvious that the speed with which someone thinks is very closely related to any true measure of their intelligence. An intelligent person thinks faster than a less intelligent person. In the real world, this will mean that they will solve problems faster than others, which in many roles in life, may have critical implications - as I have addressed before, in another post. So the speed of processing is of real world importance. Yet, it is not really captured by exams.

Exams make an attempt to capture the speed of processing of a candidate by setting a time limit. There is, traditionally, a fixed time allowed to complete the examination. Now, you might think this addresses the issue of speed of processing - but it does not. You see, all it does is set a lower limit of speed that must be met to complete the exam. In other words, it cuts off the lowest portion of ability level, but it does nothing to measure the upper strata of ability. You see a very bright student might finish the exam long before the time limit is up - yet the exam system will neither measure nor reward this speed of processing. The exam conditions will not be able to discriminate between the fast student and the average student.

Is this important? I think it is for, in the real world, the faster thinker, will often be more effective in many roles. Their speed of thinking may prove critical to many of life's endeavours - yet an examination, with a fixed time limit, will never allow you to decide who is the faster of two candidates. Faster implies more intelligent - so exams are not really the best measure of distinguishing between levels of intelligence of candidates.

Obviously, exams distinguish on the basis of the final mark - and that is used as a proxy for intelligence, implicitly, by the academic systems of the world - but it overlooks the vital fact that two candidates who get the same mark, may be very different, in truth. One may think fast, the other may think at an average speed. One may, in fact, be much more intelligent than the other - but the mark will never determine that.

I will give you an example from the real world. Ainan, my son, recently took two exam papers. One of them was one and a quarter hours long. Yet, Ainan completed this in forty-three minutes. After that time, he did not write anything more on the paper, having addressed all the questions. The other paper was one hour long. After thirty-five minutes, Ainan had completed this paper, too.

Now, imagine that another candidate gets the exact same resultant mark as Ainan - but that candidate took exactly one and a quarter hours for the one and a quarter hour paper and one hour for the one hour paper. In the eyes of the academic system, both candidates performed identically - but in actual fact, Ainan was about twice as fast as the other candidate. Implicitly, therefore, Ainan is more intelligent than the other candidate of the same mark, since he is able to solve twice as many problems in the same time, as the other candidate. Yet, no account is made of this in the examining system - and it will be overlooked.

So, don't imagine that all people of the same grade in an exam are the same in ability. They are not - for each would have taken a different time to reach that grade - and would, therefore, have differing levels of inherent processing speed and consequent intelligence.

Exams, with a fixed time limit, establish a lower threshold of performance - and indicate that performance could not have been lower than that threshold - but they do NOT indicate the true heights of which a candidate is capable.

There is one caveat to all of this. In many roles in life, the speed of processing does make a real world difference and is of great importance. I would like to see a policeman who thinks quickly, not slowly - and similarly for an air traffic controller, for instance. Sluggishness, in such roles, could lead to real world danger. There are many such examples that I could provide. However, there are also roles in life in which the speed of processing does not matter. These are roles in which time is not of particular importance and all that matters is that the right answer is eventually reached. The writing of a book might come into this category (though the writing of journalism rewards speed of processing) - or the performance of scientific research (though if you are slow you won't be first and may not succeed in building a reputation and career).

Thus, exams measure performance over a fixed time. They do not measure absolute performance, however, for people will differ in the time taken to achieve a particular level of performance - and therefore differ in true ability. This means that exams, as presently formulated, do not distinguish well between different levels of intelligence: they miss the upper ranges.

This observation is, of course, my thinking alone.

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

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:07 AM  2 comments

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