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 +

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Singaporean schools are destroying our children.

It doesn't take much observation of Singaporean children, trying to be creative, to realize that they just can't do it. Now, the question is: whose fault is it? I would say the schools themselves.

I have had the privilege of conducting drama classes, at times, with Singaporean children. I say "privilege" because these opportunities have afforded me a chance to learn what is going on inside the minds of young Singaporeans. What I have found there has been disappointing.

Drama is about freedom of the spirit; freedom to express the self and tell the tale of an inner life. Therefore, those who are most free, are most adept at it. Those who know themselves best, are most capable of deep performances. Those most familiar with finding answers within themselves usually have the most to show, dramatically. Yet, in Singaporean schools, I find not freedom, but entrapment. These children are trapped within a prison we cannot see: one made of structures and rules, requirements and regulations. They live in a prison that demands silence and subservience, submissiveness and self-denial. When given the chance to speak, these children have nothing to say.

Teaching drama in Singapore is a painful exercise. The children have no familiarity with their imaginations. They don't know how to summon the imagination to their aid. They don't even, perhaps, know what an imagination is. They give hollow expressions of emotion, that have no feeling. They make pathetic gestures at self-expression. In a class of twenty students, there might be one who is able to focus on their own inner thoughts and do something of modest interest. The others are, almost entirely, incapable of expressing themselves. It is as if they have NO SELF TO EXPRESS. Perhaps there is truth in that, perhaps these children have no selves or are not familiar with themselves. When asked to do something simple, like pretend they have hurt their knee, none of them show any pain; none of them show any discomfort even, they just moan without conviction - it is really quite a pathetic spectacle. When asked to show an emotion, such as sadness, or happiness, they are unable to seem to feel it, they give comic book characterizations, filled with exaggerations. They seem not to be able to reach their feelings. When asked to act out a simple scene, they seem to be unable to become involved in it, unable to consider it real, unable to behave in a way consonant with the situation they have been given. Their actions are half-hearted, and stereotyped, their words are mumbled and unclear and devoid of emotion or conviction and, they don't work together very well - they don't share the imagined space as if each of them occupies it. In short, they do none of the things an actor would normally do to express the inner life of a character, or its outwardly expressed form. Nor do they do any of the things that would normally be required to tell a story.

With work, time and effort, they do improve. Yet, what is clear is that the whole area of using their imagination is foreign to them. The children I have worked with are in their teens - yet it is clear that, despite being relatively mature, they are not acquainted with their own imagination and its powers. They are empty of inspiration. They have no experience in self-expression. It is as if they have lived their whole lives in a cell with no-one to talk to, or share their lives with, so impoverished are their communication skills and sense of how to convey an emotion, a story, an idea. It is, in fact, saddening to witness.

I enjoy, however, trying to open them up, trying to show them how to access their imaginations and make something of it. Some of them respond...others are frozen, unable to go beyond limp, ineffective efforts at stereotyped shells of emotional and ideational portrayal.

What is very, very obvious on seeing the way Singaporean children are, is how impoverished their imaginative skills are compared to children I have seen in other countries. It is just not normal to see so little imagination in teenagers. At least, it is not normal in my experience of life and teaching.

Singaporean schools leave no space for the child to be. There are too many academic demands on them, too many rules, too many regulations, too many fixed behaviour patterns to follow. There is too much emphasis on conformity and there is no permission to be individual or creative. The result is clear: Singapore is producing children whose minds have been amputated. The parts of them labelled "individuality", "creativity" and "imagination" have been cut off, leaving half a child behind.

The political masters, in Singapore, call for more creativity for one reason only: they see money in it. However, what they fail to see is that the educational system they have implemented GUARANTEES that Singaporean children will NOT be creative, will NOT be imaginative and will NOT have much a sense of self.

The only way to make Singapore a more creative place is to throw out the present education system entirely and replace it with a more humane, open, less competitive, more tolerant, welcoming system that is not consumed with rules, regulations and codes of conduct and behaviour. Singapore needs a system that allows children to breathe and be themselves. Then, and only then, will Singapore begin to nurture creative children.

It would be a better world, were this so, for such children would be happier and, ultimately, Singapore would be richer for it - for new things only come from creative children. The rigidified robots presently being produced by Singapore's education system will never, ever do anything in life apart from take orders from someone. Perhaps that is all that the system really wants: components in the economic system, unable to think for themselves or, preferably, think at all.

I would like to see a different system. I would like to see children who live and whose minds come alive when given the chance to express themselves. Perhaps an early sign of success would be drama classes that have some drama in them.

(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 @ 7:22 PM 


Blogger Miao said...

Your entry provides a plausible explanation on why MediaCorp artistes generally have such dismally bad acting skills...

8:50 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Indeed. No further comment would be wise...

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a recent article on the views of UK teachers on the Singapore education system.


10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think most of asia kids like that.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

Destroy is a strong word, but then, what is not possible in the context of our Singaporean environment. I would say that our schools are used for human conditioning for certain political aims.

That said, it also means that future leaders (like some of them now) are like our Mediacorp actors.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Asian kids: maybe so. However, it should not be so...and I do think it is the educational systems producing this effect.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

If human conditioning is the aim, the results will never be good for the child, nor ultimately good for the society, in truth, even if "good" for a particular political purpose.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I don't think that "destroy" is too strong a word. Compared to the full human beings these children should be, they have been destroyed, already. They are shadows of fully developed children. I fail to see how this is truly beneficial to the nation, even if it serves short-term political aims, of having a subservient population.

4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The rigidified robots presently being produced by Singapore's education system will never, ever do anything in life apart from take orders from someone. Perhaps that is all that the system really wants: components in the economic system, unable to think for themselves or, preferably, think at all."

While it is highly plausible that the focus on academic achievement in schools stifles creative development, one cannot deny that a more than significant proportion of specialist professions do require specific skill sets. What is needed is not wholesale change, but perhaps more avenues and options for students to pursue their non-academic interest, i.e. something along the lines of the Sports School.

However, it strikes me as premature to demand an entire revision of the system, as well as to label pre-professional students with such contempt. The fact remains that certain fields, especially the sciences, do require extensive academic study and commitment before one can possibly hope to make any contribution of note to humanity. Or shall we groom an entire nation of playwrights and artists? (And by the way I'm not appealing from an economic/industry point of view)

11:48 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your comment is off the mark anonmymous of 11.48 pm.

Firstly, I have not labelled these "pre-professional students" with contempt - though you seemingly have, by saying that I have. All I have done is point out their very clear lack of expressive skill, creativity, and ability to access anything resembling an emotion. If these skills are not present at 14 to 16, they most certainly will NOT be present when they become "professionals".

Yes, long training is required for the sciences etc. However, that training should necessitate the creation of robotic individuals with little evidence of a developed self. Scientists, of some note, do not appear to display the characteristics notable in these students - indeed some past scientists were very colourful characters indeed (try Richard Feynman, for instance).

If an education is inhibiting creative and personal development then I would say that, yes, that education should be overhauled. Small, cosmetic changes as you seem to suggest (extra curricular activities perhaps?) will NOT change the nature of students being produced.

I have the benefit of having seen students in Europe, America and Asia. Nowhere else does the inhibition of creativity and the creation of robotic children quite so well as Singapore. If you choose to be proud of that and wish to maintain it, please do so...but I don't think that it is doing the best by the country, nor is it a sustainable policy in the long term, with a world future that will require ever more creativity from its nations, to thrive.

Singapore will never be a nation of creative artists of any kind - no matter how hard it tries. It takes a certain passion to create such people...and passion is another thing that this system inhibits.

I point out what I have observed in the hope that improvements will be made, not in the spirit of purposeless criticism. It would be an improvement to have more avenues to express their own interests. That would be a welcome step forward. However, I fear that greater changes will be necessary if a creative nation is to be engendered (if a creative nation is what is truly required).

As for the idea that Singapore creates scientists...the last time I checked, universities here had a strong preference for PhDs from anywhere else but Singapore, given half a chance. Now, there is a vote of confidence in the system, for you.

Their reason for doing so was that Singaporean trained scientists were, very rarely, able to think creatively in the lab. They had the paper qualifications, but not the ability to do something the search went out to look further afield.

Thanks for your thoughts.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I meant "should NOT necessitate the creation of robotic individuals..." in the reply above.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Anon at 11.48 pm.

The type of education system that is chosen depends on what the desired ends are. If the desired ends are to create people who will conform without question; who will do what they are told; who will have relatively little personal initiative; who will be muted emotionally; who will have adopted external ideals for how to live (ie. societal norms with little regard for their own true needs); who will be uncreative etc. then the present system does not need to be changed, if the only consideration is what the state wants from its people. However, if the purpose is actually to EDUCATE the INDIVIDUAL to the best of their abilities and make them WHOLE and COMPLETE and ALIVE...then the present system should be abandoned and replaced with something much more humane.

Really, I am not in a position to determine policy but I know that an education system created by me, would be rather different. I would also prefer the type of people it would create. Yet, again, it is not my choice...I can only comment on what I see and propose that it be otherwise.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. the UK teachers.

I am unsurprised that teachers from the UK, in a short visit, to selected classrooms, no doubt chosen because they look good, would be impressed. In a short visit, they will see showcased: "good behaviour", "orderliness", "attentiveness" "engagement", etc...they will see a classroom under control and this will impress teachers used to dealing with a fair measure of chaos in the UK.

However, without real teaching experience with these children they will not see what is missing: creativity, individuality, spontaneity...humanity. All these things become apparent only after time spent teaching the kids. That is something they will not get.

If the UK copies Singapore, the UK will DECLINE, for they will lose their creative edge which has made the UK what it is today.

I hope they don't follow this city state's example.

1:05 AM  
Blogger Fargoal said...

Are our young Singaporeans really so uncreative and unimaginative? Your prediction that Singapore will "never be a nation of creative artists of any kind - no matter how hard it tries" sounds unnecessarily harsh.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Sometimes reality is harsh. From what I have observed, there is a deficit in creativity among Singaporean children. I would say that they are, as a cohort, the least creative people I have observed personally, compared to other nations I have visited (about 20 nations).

Singaporeans are generally not so aware of this because a) they are told they are "no.1" b) they haven't lived, worked among, and taught kids in developed nations for comparison.

It would take a great change in the educational process here, to improve the situation.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Onlooker said...

I agree to some extent.
Some of our more promising creative professionals(copywriter, artiste, pianist) found more tolerance and opportunities for their Crafts Outside of Singapore.
This is due to our System of education that focus too much on Academic Success that can be achieved by rote learning.
But the thing about studying by rote is that there is no AHA (discovery/ insight /eureka) moment in it.
EG: A student might recite the name of all the dinosaur but he would not know the environment and life sustaining activities of these Dinosaur.Thus a lot of school project that were done by parent/uncle/aunt.
Even discovery of new ideas on the subject which they studied will be fiercely contested because it is outside of the norm that they learned.
Any new or alternative concept/ discovery will not be so easily accepted.
Which in fact resemble the Church of yore refusal of the concept of a heliocentric Solar System based on oft quoted texts.
This is due to the rote nature of Religious Scholars who can only present their facts according to quoted text because they cannot and will not accept new information that is contrary to the text that they studied over and over again to the point where they can quote entire scriptures by rote.

But my point is :- Emotion cannot be memorized by rote, it can be expressed by behavior that children observed (of their parents) when they are young.

Creativity may not be expressed fully if there is no opportunity for such expression or it is suppressed/ denied.

BTW have you tried the ad libitum approach.
IE take away the rules.
IMHO:- Present the children with a situation and assign them simple roles to play out but do not ask them to do anything specifically or simply tell them to just take your lesson time as recess or play time.
Allow them to play on the whiteboard/ blackboard with markers/ chalks with no consequences.
You will be pleasantly surprised.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Onlooker for your comment.

What you speak of, basically, is the tendency to go by the Book. If it is not in the book it is labelled WRONG...even if it is very interesting. This is damaging.

Often, when given free rein, most students don't know what to do. They lack spontaneity. With such kids, ad libitum, though great for some, doesn't do a lot. They need to learn, over time, to look within.


4:14 PM  
Anonymous Anon at 11.48pm said...

One possible avenue is project work; not the A Level subject specifically, but as an annual initiative. I'm not sure whether it's widespread amongst secondary schools, but definitely more than a few do have such a program in place. Students are given complete free-rein in choosing the topic and manner of their research study (although most end up employing surveys in one form or another).

This is good in that it provides students with a significant amount of autonomy. Unlike typical academic subjects, there is no information to be committed to memory, nor are there specific 'targets' to be achieved. Rather, the projects are evaluated based on the depth of thought, originality, extensiveness of research, as in some cases quality of the oral presentation.

As I said earlier, I do know whether this is an island-wide initiative, but if not, perhaps it's worth implementing.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Anon at 11.48 pm, project work can give children a sense of ownership and allow them to express themselves. I think it is a good idea. There should be more of it...and it should be to the credit of the students who do it well, as well (perhaps to the extent of overlooking failings in other areas if they do well in this).

Thanks for your comment.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, we will simply view this so-called "project work" as nothing more than another burden to us. Seriously. We don't have time for another "initiative".

Trust me. And i'm speaking for all my peers.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Any project work should be a replacement for other work - not an it wouldn't be an extra burden, but a different type of work. At least, I would hope so.

I would agree that Singaporean children are overworked, however.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anon at 11.48pm said...

Having experienced it myself, I agree wholeheartedly that Project Work as a subject at A Level, for all its well-intentioned objectives, is a burden and hassle for students. This is not because of the concept of project work, but rather the contrived manner in which the 'curriculum' (for lack of a better word) is designed, with rubbish like Evaluation of Materials and whatnot. To top it off, this comes at a period where students are trying to focus on preparing for Promos, as well as their CCAs. Thus it comes as no surprise that it ends up at the bottom of most peoples' priority lists, and breeds no small amount of resentment.

Hence I think that schools should institute some kind of project work at the secondary level instead of JC. This should emphasise individual research, instead of a group project (which only leads to having to justify who contributed which part of the work). It doesn't have to be something fantastically formal or complex, just a simple project on any (reasonable) topic they are interested in. There is much to be gained from such a system, not least of all that unlike PW, it would be fun and self-driven.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you have hit on a cultural issue also, not just a political one.

Asians are probably more circumspect in expressing their emotions. A whole 'face saving' thing. eg personally I am more comfortable keeping quiet -say in a drama class and let the other 'drama queens' act up :)

It is also true that in a class of 42, the teacher is probably more supportive of a 'quiet' class that allows her time to complete her syllabus, so you are also right.

9:43 AM  
Blogger jellyfarm said...

actually I beg to differ on the asian kids stereotype.

asian kids of mongolian descent (sorry to be racist) have massive trouble expressing but in singapore, you see the extreme consequences of such rigidity.

south asian kids (sri lankans, indons, indians) and middle eastern kids and people in general find it easier to converse, be warm and open to situations and less insecurities about themselves or their imaginations.

it really boils down to culture. chinese culture in general frowns at free expression. they do not see value in it as compared to 'text and academic wisdom'.

such forays into creativity are seen as a waste of time and for those who are not academically inclined. Just look at the ancient scholar systems that were set up in pre-communist China.

And unfortunately, Singapore has adopted that method of education for it's kids. To add to that, Singapore is run as a business and this includes creativity as well.

Creativity = money. Period.

I work in the media industry. I've seen the horrible stuff churned out by MediaCorp. I was part of that and then i refused to continue any further because it was a media culture that doesn't encourage higher standards of creativity and expression.

Many of us are left disillusioned or try or will try our luck elsewhere.

They fail to see that creativity is not something you force out of people. It takes time. It takes imagination but most of all, it comes from the heart.

So if you are already lacking imagination and heart/emotions, whatever you create reeks of pretentiousness which is what the local media has been churning out. Not only the acting but the writing and the execution of shows, theatre plays, even books.

Anything creative comes from the soul. It has to be the truth and nothing but the truth. And when you suppress soul and truth, you suppress human expression.

People like me have learnt that if you can't take the heat, it's time to get out of the kitchen. :)

2:01 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Jellyfarm for your view of the situation re. creativity. Your view rather CONFIRMS what I have been suggesting about the local situation in Singapore.

By the way, Indians are actually a type of Caucasian...they are not real Asians (they are just dark skinned caucasoids). So it is no surprise that they should be free of the Chinese problem. Middle Eastern people, too, are not Asian.

I see problems ahead for Singapore, unless it moves AWAY from the Chinese educational culture. I have taught PRCs and they are almost all uniformly unable to be original. However, one does see the very occasional exception (maybe that is why they escaped China for an overseas education...they couldn't fit in.)

I hope that you have found a congenial place to live and work.

3:44 PM  

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