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 +

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Of cheers and jeers in the classroom.

I have been in Singapore for many years. I have seen things here, that I have not seen elsewhere. Many of these things are to do with a difference of culture and mentality, a distinctness of outlook and beliefs. One of these differences is in how school children treat each other.

In two schools, now, I have seen an unusual reaction that I never once saw in the quite a few schools I attended, when I was growing up in England. In one classroom, of foreign Asian students, studying in Singapore, there was a talented student. He was the brightest boy, in one way, in the class (though not the most creative). As a teacher should, I would ask several people to speak in front of the class, either to read or think before the others. Whenever I asked anyone else, there was generally silence. Yet, when I asked this particular boy to speak, they would CHEER him. This was most unexpected when they first did it. The reason they CHEERED is that they delighted in his skill. They cherished his intelligence. They admired his gift. Whenever it came his turn to do anything academic, they would herald his words, with a universal cheering in the classroom.

Now, this boy's work was indeed consistently very good. He was the most skilful, in a conventional sense, of all of the students. Noting their reaction to him, I decided to ask another student to read - one who was less obvious, less a known factor, to the other students. It was the Indonesian boy of whom I have written before - the one I have termed the best student writer in Singapore. Now, his writing was brilliant for an unconventional reason: it was imaginative in writing, content, choice of words and originality of expressions - but it was not perfect in grammar and spelling (unlike the class hero's work).

Knowing that he would not, perhaps, be the best of readers of his own work, I took the Indonesian's writing from him and stood still in front of the class and began to read. No-one said anything before I began. There was no heralding of the work to come. I read, with care, depth and feeling. All the room was silent. As I said the last word and looked out over the classroom, a murmur of appreciation went around the room. They had realized something: this boy, this very quiet boy from Indonesia, whom they had overlooked, had something very special. They did not react with jealousy to this discovery - but with a kind of awed admiration. I had just created another class hero. He didn't receive cheers in the way the other one did - but he did, thereafter, receive a murmur of appreciation, a strange, almost inaudible communication that passed swiftly around the classroom each time I chose him. It seemed as if his quieter personality (for he never spoke in class) warranted a quieter response.

So, that class of Asian foreign students admired people of gift, and welcomed them with cheers and other cries of appreciation. I have seen the same thing in another class, in Singapore - this time of Singaporeans.

It was a Secondary One class and what struck me about it was that every time a WEAKER student had difficulty with a task, the class would urge them on. Once the task had been completed, the class would cheer the student for their efforts. This is a complementary attitude, therefore, to the response I observed in the other class - but it has, essentially, the same meaning. In both classes, the striving for greatness is appreciated and rewarded by the rest of the class. I recall one student in particular. She was the sole foreigner in the class, from China. She was older and taller than the others and it was difficult to judge her brightness or otherwise, since her English was a little too weak for a decision to be made. When it came her turn to speak before the class, the whole class cheered her on. She was quite a shy girl and I could see she was very touched by the support of the class - she didn't know whether to smile or shed a grateful tear. It was sweet to watch. Then she began to speak, unsteadily, stumbling over words and structures. Throughout, the class was silent, but intent, their eyes and their encouraging nods urging her on. I could see that she felt their support, that their united attitude of care was allowing her to do this most difficult of all tasks: public speaking. At last, she was done - and the classroom was filled with "whoops" and cheers. The tall, awkward Chinese girl walked fluidly, bouyantly back to her seat, with a smile that could not have been broader - a smile of relief to have achieved her aim and gratitude for their support.

Now, I have spent this much time on description of these two classrooms: one of Singaporeans and one of foreigners, for a good reason. I would like to constrast that with what I experienced in many different schools in England, when I was growing up. At the time, there was a common response to anyone who excelled: the jeer. The scenes I have written of above could not have happened in any school I observed in England (and I observed many, having moved around quite a bit). There, excellence of the academic kind always attracted a venomous reaction. There was no surer way to unpopularity, in all schools that I experienced, than to be brighter than the rest. If you were smart, you were an exile. That is the way it was and no doubt, given the dumbing down of the UK, since then, that is the way it remains. There is an anti-intellectualism that undermines the health of the nation, there. The best people have to learn to mask their greatness and blend in, in some way. However, should they blend too vigorously or too long, there is the risk that they will lose the essential difference that made them great in the first place. I saw many people excel, in my schools, in England. Yet, never once were such students cheered, and not a few times they would be jeered. The jeers would not come in the classroom, before the teacher, but in the playground, later, where jealousies and spite would be taken out on the gifted student who had dared to show them up, simply by existing.

Never once did I see a class in which the other students supported the most gifted members of the class. Never once did I see approval of achievement or excellence, as a general response. The teachers, too, were often poor at rewarding greatness. They would usually not comment on the relative achievements of students - and so it was that the achieving student would receive no positive feedback from the students and none from the staff, either. They would be left to generate their own positive feelings, to understand their own position in the world.

I do not know how common this phenomenon of cheering on the greater and the weaker is, in Singapore. I only know this: I have only ever seen this in a Singaporean classroom. In UK classrooms it was the jeer, not the cheer that came readily to every throat. I wonder what this means for the long term future of the UK and of Asia. I note that the classroom that cheered on its best student (academically) was a pan-Asian classroom, with children from all over Asia. The gifted boy in question was Malaysian. So, if this cheering of the great is a pan-Asian phenomenon it could very well be, that in decades to come, Asia could emerge as a greater power than one might suppose. For nothing more is likely to help the flowering of the gifted, than that they should find support from the wider community. I have witnessed that force at work in Asia - I have never seen it at work in the UK.

The UK would do better, I feel, if its students could learn to cheer the greater on (and urge the weaker to achieve). Singapore would benefit if what I have seen in two classrooms could become a property of all.

How much more likely is a gifted child to succeed if they hear cheers in their ears, rather than jeers? Correspondingly, how much more likely is the child who hears jeers, in their ears, to fail?

The answer to this question will be found in the corresponding fates of Asia and the UK in the decades to come.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, five years exactly, and Tiarnan, twenty-eight 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, wunderkind, wonderkind, genio, гений ребенок prodigy, genie, μεγαλοφυία θαύμα παιδιών, bambino, kind.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:23 AM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do these two contrasting systems lead to an over-representation of UK nationals in management in Singapore? It seems the jeer system overcomes the cheer?

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your observations are all spot on. I'm not sure about the conclusions though. If everyone in Singapore is always telling each other how good they are, cheering each other, then it sounds to me like a lot of children are going to get inflated egos.

British teachers do not reward greatness so quickly. It takes a lot to impress a British teacher though, and I think a lot of students do really try to impress their teachers. I wonder if they work harder, knowing that praise is more difficult to achieve.

Ultimately an educational system has to be judged based on its results. I'm mainly interested in which system produces smart citizens.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Being a manager does not mean that you were the brightest in your school. It only means that you have a certain personality type, enough qualifications to convince people you can do the job - and a wish to control others.

On the other hand, those who have endured jeers probably learnt to be independent and resilient and able to cope with anything. That is, those who survived the system - many don't, I should think.

As to why UK nationals are managers in Singapore, it might have something to do with the local education system not breeding independent thinkers: they need to be imported.

Best wishes

6:52 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Regarding the big egos of those cheered. My concern is that gifted children survive their education. This is more likely in a cheering environment than a jeering one.

Students in Singapore seem to support each other better than in the UK. However, the UK system is more individualistic, creating people who are better equipped for independent thinking. It depends what you want really. I think a gifted child might be happier in Singapore than in the UK.

Best wishes

6:55 PM  

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