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 +

Monday, March 02, 2009

It isn't worth it.

Today, I read a bizarre piece of news...tragic news...that felt more like an American story, than a Singaporean one.

An Indonesian Chinese boy at NTU (Nanyang Technological University) stabbed a lecturer in the back and arm, before slitting his own wrists, and jumping off the five storey building. The lecturer survived, the boy died.

The boy is unnamed in the report I have seen, but the Professor is Chan Kap Luk.

Now, at this time, one cannot know the motivation of the attack and subsequent suicide, but I feel one can observe that, whatever it is, it isn't worth it. Life should not be thrown away over a matter of education. Education is important, in some ways, but never that important. Whatever the issue was, there must, assuredly, have been other ways of dealing with it, than an attempted murder-suicide (the latter part successful).

This sorry tale does show one thing, however: students in Singapore are under tremendous pressure. That pressure sometimes makes them do rash things. The number of suicides here is not inconsequential, though not widely broadcast. Indeed, suicide in higher education is alarmingly common the world over. When I was at Cambridge, the talk was of how high the suicide rate was, there. I am not surprised, having experienced it myself. I wouldn't accuse it of being a warm, human and humane place. Sometimes, that is too much for people and they decide to end it.

We may never know the full details of what went on with this Indonesian Chinese boy - but we do this: stress in schools and universities is a terrible problem. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog, systems in place are really wise or conducive to the health and well-being of the students. This particular case is no doubt unusual, simply because he tried to kill someone else first...but there are many low profile suicides, here, in Singapore every year. I have even heard of young children killing themselves - primary school kids. The pressures they face are horrendous.

Personally, I think a focus on education and not on competition would be healthy. Let them learn, but stop grading them, incessantly, stop making them compete against each other and the world...just let them grow, instead. They will be far happier and there will be far fewer tales like this one to be told.

I hope Professor Luk is lucky enough to recover fully from his wounds. My condolences to the boy's family. No doubt this will come as a great shock to 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 @ 10:14 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you. As a student in NUS, i can say that the pressure to do well is quite bad.

And as you mentioned, the problem is the focus on grades. Here, the grading is done via the Bell Curve system, so every mark literally counts, and can make a very big difference when plotted on the curve.

Of course, ideally speaking, education should be the pursue of knowledge, not the competition of who is better. It should be about learning, not competing. But in the Real world, and even among scientists, competition is fierce to say the least.

To abolish competition in schools is not the solution, for it only prevents them from adapting to the real pressure in the work place, whether business or research.

So it would appear the only way is to reduce the emphasis on grades. How- I do not know. For this is a world that places great value on the paper qualifications.

If you model this as a game of simultaneous choice, the dominant strategy for each student is to study hard, no matter what the other student does. I.e. to say, rationally, each student will try to work hard to be better than his peers.

Could I ask if the UK follows the bell curve or do the universities there grade by marks(i.e. above a certain mark is a certain grade)?

11:02 PM  
Anonymous DB10 said...

Hi Mr Cawley,

It can be confusing at times but the correct way to address the professor will be Prof Chan and not Prof Luk.

He was my former tutor by the way. I wish him a speedy recovery.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I am not sure if the UK follows a bell curve or not...but I think not. You see, each year and in each subject at my University, there seemed to be variations in how many people got particular grades. In some years, the highest grades were not awarded at all. This indicates that a standard had not been met. Therefore, the bell curve is probably not being used.

I would suggest that it is a bad idea to use a bell curve...because it obscures what the absolute standard is. They could be better or worse than elsewhere or than each year. We have no way of understanding what the true situation is. A fixed point per grade system seems much more transparent, fairer, more humane and less likely to lead to destructive levels of competition.

Singapore should change the grading system.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you, DB10. I do find the naming conventions confusing.

Best wishes.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many students would also be happier without the bell curve, but there are definitely benefits of the bell curve- US uses it too, by the way. I have checked, UK does not.

Both an absolute mark and the bell curve system is not perfect.
As you correctly mentioned, bell curve does not take into consideration the "true" ability of the students, merely his/her standard relative to the cohort, which can be misleading if the cohort is either extremely good or bad.
The problem with the absolute system is that the paper may or may not be set at the correct level for that particular cohort. So if an easy paper were set, many would score well, and thus diminish the "value" of the distinction. If i am not mistaken, that is exactly what is happening in the A levels in the UK, where an A is now "too common".

Perhaps an inbetween will be better.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous BellCurveLover said...

I disagree on the NUS system a bit. Firstly, the bell curve standard used is not strict. In any given semester, lecturers do have quite a bit of flexibility to adjust grades awarded in their classes. Even if marks were used, grades in large classes would follow a bell curve anyway for statistical reasons. In classes or universities where bell curve grading is not used, lectures try to predict where the curve will land and set the marks accordingly, then write exams with appropriate difficulty to make sure the right amount of students pass and fail. In any case, the result is the same. Individual departments or faculties have to ultimately decide how many students to pass or fail, given the student quality they have to work with. It's not a simple matter of setting a marking standard either, since tests must be rewritten each sem. I don't think the pressure at Singapore universities is more intense than foreign ones though. It's just that Singapore is such a prudish place that students don't have enough pressure relief. Instead of drinking alcohol (or gasp trying other things) with friends in a cool nearby campustown like they would in Berkeley, NUS students cram onto crowded bus 96 for 40 min after their school day just to get to Clementi station, then go home to parents. And they don't get to have much sex either since they mostly live at home. No wonder they go crazy.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

With regards to the A levels...not really. It depends on subject. The science subjects remain is all the new subjects like "media studies" in which there are too many A grades. So grade inflation is not is a product of new, trendy, easier subjects which are popular. It is still pretty hard to get an A in Physics or Chemistry, for instance.

I think that having a standard mark to be achieved is superior to bell curve imposition - because everyone who deserves a grade will get the grade. With a bell curve, you may be great, but not get the grade if your cohort is particularly strong. Also, with the standard mark system, some grades will NOT be awarded each year. That was evident at Cambridge University where, quite often, the top two grades for degrees were not awarded for some subjects each year: they were just too damned hard to get. (The starred first and double starred first seemed particularly uncommon). In some subjects these grades never seemed to appear. Or at least, I never saw them happen.

Bell curving would hand those grades to some people every year, even if they didn't deserve them. That is not the way to preserve a standard.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, having a more relaxed atmosphere would help a lot in creating a good life for students. However, the local culture is not supportive of this, I think...

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree that the bell curve system can really skew things, for the reasons you already mentioned.

But I could live with it, I suppose, if that was the only problem. My biggest bone of contention with NUS is their lack of transparency. Apparently they shred our exam/CA scripts - we never get our marked work back. Not only does that impede our learning, but the graders get free transparent reign over our scores, which is damn scary.

I watch UCBerkeley webcasts on iTunesU because their lectures were better than the ones I was getting for my science module and they grade with an absolute system even for a big class of 600-700. So NUS! Please listen! and improve!

11:08 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

If NUS shreds scripts it would seem to indicate that they wish to hide something: perhaps so as to make themselves unaccountable for the marks they hand down. I can only guess at the motives...but it does seem to give them power to alter things in whatever way they please.

An absolute scale makes a lot more sense...because one really knows what standard someone achieved. With NUS' system, a top grade is meaningless without knowing the standard of the is something completely uninterpretable.

Thanks for your insight.

12:14 AM  

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