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, January 20, 2008

Bad students - or a bad school?

In the news recently was the shameful case of a Principal of a mission school, who went out of her way to discourage her students. Singaporeans will know of the case, but for my international readers, I shall explain.

The 27 girls in Secondary 5, were beginning their O level year. They had set their minds upon the task ahead of them. Their Principal called them together for a talk. You will never guess what she said: she basically told them to leave the school and go to ITE (a technical college, aimed at lower ability students). She flashed their N level grades on the screen (N level is the examination below O level, in difficulty) and said that they wouldn't do well in their O levels, and wouldn't go on to Polytechnic, so they might as well just go straight to ITE. Her justification for this advice was just classic: because she wanted 100 % passes in her school!

Singapore is a country in which the schools don't think of their students, they think of their reputations (and their year end bonuses). The Principals concern themselves not with how they can help students to achieve their potential, but how they can bolster their passing rates to make the schools look good, on the league tables. They have completely forgotten - or more likely never knew - what education should be about: the child.

Let us look at her advice to the students more closely. She is advising that they should leave and go to ITE. Students who graduate from ITE, rather than the Polytechnic, have a much less respected qualification. They have more restricted options. They will end up in lower status jobs. They will earn less money. Their whole lives, in a Singaporean, educational qualification obsessed society, are likely to be diminished in comparison to going on, instead to Polytechnic (or University, for that matter). So, the Principal is basically advising these students to sacrifice their futures and the quality of their education and working lives - just so the school can look good. This Principal had not given one thought to the well-being of her students.

Even more remarkably, this attitude is not rare in Singapore. It is the norm. Principals would rather get rid of "weaker" students, than actually teach them.

This brings me to my most important point: is it the students who are bad, or the school? You see, if a student does not do well, there can be one of two reasons: either the student is unable to learn, or their teachers are unable to teach (or in this case, unwilling). It is very easy for a school not to look at itself and instead blame the students for their poor grades - but could it not be that it is the school that has failed the students?

The role of a school should be to teach whomever comes their way – not to redirect those who are not stars, elsewhere. It is an unconscious criticism of the school, itself, by the Principal, to declare that these students won’t do well in their exams. Whether she knows it or not, what the Principal is effectively saying is: “We are not competent enough to teach you to do well…we prefer brighter students who don’t need to be taught to do well, because frankly we are not up to the job. The ITE have better teachers than we do.”

As Mr. Wang has pointed out on his blog, if past performance is anything to go by, 60% of these students can be expected to go to Polytechnic, after all, having done well enough in their O levels, to do so. 40% will have to look elsewhere.

Consider those numbers. They mean that 60% of the students the Principal is addressing would actually do well enough to attain their goals in life. Perhaps not well enough to make her school's mean grades glisten - but well enough for them to attain their goals. This "Principal" has decided to sacrifice the careers and ambitions of 60% times 27 girls = 16 girls. Sixteen girls, who would otherwise have succeeded in their aims, would, if the Principal had her way, be slung out of the school and off their career paths, to ensure the glowing exam record of the school.

What is the proper reaction to this? The Principal should be fired and replaced with a real teacher (if there are any to be found).

However, the Education Minister Lui Tuck Yew, a man of no teaching experience at all, endorsed her approach and supported her actions. He basically said that it was the right thing to do.

I must declare that I have worked as a teacher in various roles in my life. Therefore I do know something whereof I speak. What a real teacher would do is work with these children so that they can be the best that they can be. A real teacher would reach out to them and help them grow. A real teacher would help them overcome their weaknesses and misunderstandings. However, our state approved Principal is not a real teacher. She is a seeker of awards. She is a lover of end of year bonuses. She is a career woman, whose sole concern is herself and her reputation.

Singapore seeks to be an Education Hub. It seeks to entice students from all over the world (primarily the Asian world) to be educated here - and pay for it, of course. Yet, the priorities seem to be all wrong. If you want to have a really good education system, you should focus on the students - not on the league tables. The Principals of Singapore have yet to learn that. Perhaps it is time for them to go back to school - for, from my perspective, they look like very weak students indeed. I would fail them. I just have.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and one month, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and six months, and Tiarnan, twenty-three months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, 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 @ 11:49 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope those girls disregard her "advice." I remember when I was a first year graduate student I had a professor who gave me a poor grade and told me (and several others in the class) that we did "not have what it takes to go on in Mathematics." Although I was very hurt, I decided to simply retake the course. I got an A the second time and ultimately achieved my goal of a PhD in mathematics. Persistence pays off :)

4:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

This reminds me of a tale about Einstein. One of his teachers once declared that he would never amount to anything. I wonder if that teacher amounted to anything?

Thank you for your example. It is a very dangerous game when an "educator" writes off a student. In reality, there is no telling what they might achieve.

Best wishes.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having been through nine years of schooling as a foreigner in Singapore some 25 years ago, I must say that I had some really good, dedicated and caring teachers, at all levels - even principals, who were willing to teach and provide mentoring for a student with little English knowledge. They do exist.

Why don't they speak out?

7:26 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

The trouble is, times have changed. Now, schools here are obsessed with performance measures - with how they "rank" and score. The result is that the performance measure becomes all that they aim for - even if it means cheating on it by getting rid of weak students rather than actually teaching them, as well as they can.

There may be some good teachers out there - but I think that they are constrained by the system. They have to teach to a rigid curriculum and do things in fixed ways. The ways in which they are good are probably not allowed to be deployed. Anyway, I don't they feel able to speak out because such behaviour is not only discouraged but punished by the way things are done here. Those who speak out too much are likely to find themselves out of a job and unemployable I would guess.

Sadly, the emphasis in education is now on the wrong things. They have forgotten the students.

I think you will find Singapore a different place to the one you knew 25 years ago.

Best wishes to you.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Miao said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was from a premier secondary school, and I remember that once my math teacher asked to see me in private because I'd done a question wrongly. She asked rather sarcastically, "Do you not understand math or do you not understand English?" I was hurt and in the end I failed my math final exam.

I've always loved math, and I regained my passion in math in junior college. Eventually I got an A for the subject in A Level. This is probably not as impressive as the anonymous reader who posted the first comment, but from then on I know better than to let a few discouraging remarks dampen my interest. It can be difficult though, because it is tough to convince yourself to have self-confidence, when your teachers do not seem to have faith in you.

9:50 PM  

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