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, April 14, 2009

Academic culture shock.

If you have ever taken the time to discuss academic systems with different people from all over the world, perhaps, you too, have encountered the academic culture shock, I met with recently.

When I was a pupil, at school, in England, I thought that school was long enough. It began at about 9 am and finished around 4 pm. Then we would have homework, which people did with various degrees of some attention: some putting in hours, others ignoring it and coming up with perennial excuses to explain its absence. This was what I came to think of as a normal, acceptable level of school demand.

Recently, however, I had the chance to talk with a group of Chinese mainlanders about their school experiences. Not expecting a very different answer to the one I had experienced in my childhood, I asked them when they started school in the morning. Various answers were given. "7.25 am"; "7.20 am" and "7 am".

"When did school finish?", I then asked.

"9.40 pm", "9.50 pm" and "10.30 pm", they gave, in the same order.

Therefore, the shortest school day, in this group of nine Chinese mainlanders turned out to be fourteen and a quarter hours. The longest school day was fifteen and a half hours long.

I was rather stunned to hear this as it sank in just what their school lives must have been like, to endure such hours, year in and year out, from childhood to adulthood.

"Our school day was shorter - but then we had homework to do after that." I pointed out, trying to bring these disparate school lives together in some way.

"We had homework, too." One said, in an emotionless voice, that spoke more of what it must have been like, than any histrionics could have done. "We would go home and do our homework and get to bed at 1 or 2 am. Then we would have to wake up at 6 am for school."

Silence was my only reply. I found myself slowly shaking my head, quite unable to take in what such a schooling must have been like.

They found my reaction amusing, and laughed a little, perhaps recognizing in my stunned silence the truth of their own experiences.

"That is why we came to Singapore to study.", one confessed.

Yes. Here, in Singapore, a nation of famously hardworking students, they would find comparative ease, for although Singapore's students worked hard compared to those in the West, schools here were much more relaxed than in China. Singaporean schools actually had relatively brief hours.

Upon further enquiry, it turned out that their breaks during the day amounted to one and a half hours. Half an hour was for lunch. One hour was for sleeping. At least, that is how one student apportioned the time.

I think it is true to say that no nation on Earth has harder working students, than China. Were it so that hard work alone could conquer the world, then the future is undoubtedly Chinese. Yet, I think it is not so. These students told me how unhappy many of them were at this regime. They also told me how boring lessons were. I rather felt that many of them didn't get much out of the experience. One of them even said: "It was torture."

Hard work has value. Yet, I feel that when it is pushed to a pathological extreme - as it is in China - it becomes a kind of national illness. China's students lead the most circumscribed, controlled lives imaginable. They do not have what most people would regard as a childhood. They have what could be called a "bookhood". Their entire childhoods are consumed by a mountain of books; boring books, books they don't want to read - but have to.

For them, it is such a relief to be in Singapore. Here the demands, though significant by world standards, are at least not inhumane. Here the workload is manageable and not insane: at least, from their exhausted perspectives.

Tellingly, each of the nine PRCs I spoke to in that group felt that China's education system was wrong. They all felt that it should be changed, that what it was doing to students was terrible. They felt free to speak out, because they were not in China and I was not Chinese. Indeed, each of them had the same tale to tell of leaving their country, to escape the education system. Their motivation, therefore, was a negative one: it was not a positive decision to seek out Singapore, but a need to avoid the negative experience that was Chinese education. All of them were happier here, despite missing their families.

It is a long time since I have been shocked by something someone said. Yet, I found myself genuinely shocked to learn of the academic demands of the Chinese education system. I had known that they worked hard...but I had no idea just how hard. It is quite cruel.

For the rest of the world, there is a lesson here, about China. It is a nation whose students are pushed to the human limit. Every waking hour is consumed by schooling. I doubt there has ever been another nation so driven in this way. That is what the rest of the world is competing with. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Does this excessive hard work in school give the Chinese an edge? Or does it create exhausted resentful children, who will rebel at the first opportunity? Is China building greatness or destroying itself, with this manic educational regime? The next few decades will be revealing.

(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 @ 7:33 PM 


Blogger Demel said...

As a student studying his last year before serving the nation, I agree very much with the point here.

Personally I was also rather shocked to find out when a classmate commented to me that her life in Taiwan before she moved to Singapore was far worse than I had ever imagined - it was rather similar to the lifestyles of the Chinese students you have mentioned.

Perhaps to shed a bit more light on this, though. The 'school' hours aren't exactly school hours - it's far more likely that about a third of it is actually spent at private tuition (or cram school, if you like). At least, that's how I heard it was from my classmate.

In my opinion, though. Perhaps it is not China that has pushed the idea of hard work so far but the Asians in general - while paling in comparison to China, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan have tough education systems as well. Furthermore, I heard from an Australian friend that the Asians in his school tended to be rather overachieving (he himself was one).

While I'm at it, I might consider the possibility that perhaps it is the UK and US who are doing something wrong - falling standards of Math and Science competence seem commonplace there, after all. Of course, there's a line to draw in all of this, but perhaps good education might lean more towards China's education model rather than America's.

Maybe this generation of youths need a really hard push to keep up with the demands of the future, hmm? Just a thought.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Demel, for your comment.

The Chinese PRCs made it quite clear that they were actually in school for those hours. It was not private tuition, nor was it voluntary in any way.

Re. US/UK wrong, China right.

I don't think so. Both the US and UK have much higher performance where it counts: actual new ideas, product development, innovation. That has long been so. It also remains so. Yes, the US in particular is suffering from falling maths and science averages...but the best students are still pretty good, as shown by the real world performance of the US. The averages there hide the fact that there is a wide range of performance, with a lot of poor students at the bottom and fair few good students at the top.

I don't think it would be an improvement if the West emulated China's fourteen or fifteen/sixteen hour school days. For a start, there would probably be a civil war in response! I don't think Western kids would take such treatment without getting aggressive over it.

Yes. The US and to some extent the UK could raise average standards in some areas...but their best continue to be among the world's best.

China is striving very hard to make it on the world stage. The way they work their children in school is just one symptom of this. However, personally, I think they are rather overdoing it - and from what I learnt from that group of PRCs they are creating a lot of resentment and unhappiness over the approach they are using. I don't think that is good nation-building.

As for Asia overdoing it in general: it is a fair observation. I think Singaporean kids work too hard in school/out of school. I have never seen a nation so obsessed with extra tuition for instance. None of my children have ever had a tutor...and probably will never have one. They need a life too.

Kind regards

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree.

I'm currently a university student here, and studying is by far, most people's "fav hobby".

And re. the issue of western vs. asian education, i think that both are inadequate in that while the west is currently producing the world's brightest, most of their students are below the average asian kid.

Perhaps both systems should learn from each other-> pushing students while maintaining some form of sanity.

I have some HK friends, and from what they tell me, HK is already about 2 years ahead of Singapore in (at least) maths, and China is about another 2-3 years ahead of HK. Singapore on the other hand is about 3 years ahead of students from the US.

Add that up and it doesn't sound very good.

Even my friends studying in the US "rejoice" that they do not need to study much for maths, since they have already learned much of what their college is currently teaching.

Perhaps in the future, one would see a shift in the world's top minds from west to east. It is still too early to tell and given the strong education institutes in the west, this advantage would probably last another 50 years or so.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I think that the reason the brightest are in the West is in differences in the IQ distribution. The bell curve is broader for Caucasians than Asians (bigger standard deviation for whites...more variation). This means that whites have more very dim students and more very bright students...even though the average student in parts of Asia is smarter than the average student in the West.

So, I don't think that there will be a change in where the brightest students are from.

I do agree that places like the US could pull up their averages...but it is the top performers that actually make the difference to a society.

Thanks for your perspective and information.

Yes, Asia leads on maths...but not in other areas.

Kind regards

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OH! I didn't know about the westerners have a different distribution curve from asians. Where did u get the data from? I'm interested in reading it.

I believe that IQ is not the only factor in determining one's intelligence as IQ without proper nurturing is useless.
Therefore, i believe that the strength of the western education in producing (currently) the world's brightest minds come more from their strong education institutes. It is there that high IQ students get to interact and share ideas with each other, while simultaneously pushing themselves through the better programs and lesson structures.

But given that asia has the 2 largest populations in the world, it is very much conceivable that one day, they will overtake the western world (just like during ancient times) in scientific development. This is mathematically true, even if the distribution curve is as you have mentioned, simply because of probability. Furthermore, in today's globalized world, students from all countries are able to cross boundaries to take advantage of better education institutes abroad.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...


Yes, I saw a study once that said that while Caucasian IQs have a standard deviation of 15, Asian ones are better described by a standard deviation of 12. I can't recall what journal it was though.

Anyway, it did point out that this means that Caucasians have many times the number of very high IQ people in the population - and many times the number of very low IQ people in the population...even if the average IQ of an Asian population is higher.

I am not sure if the numerical advantage of the Asian populations makes up for this difference. At present, it certainly doesn't seem to.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few decades.

Thanks for your comment.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting website forum that you may want to look at

Some agree while others disagree.

I think in the end, IQ is but a flawed measurement of intelligence. It is not perfect, but neither is it totally inaccurate. We just need to take it with a pinch of salt.
Furthermore, nurturing, i believe plays a large part in developing a person to her/his full capacity, regardless of a person's inherent IQ.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I had a look at the forum. It is a typical argument with two groups taking opposite sides and neither coming to an agreement. It does bring Blacks as well as Asians into the argument though.

Thanks for the link.

I note that none of the respondents has seen or referenced the study I once read re. Asian standard deviation in IQ being less. Had they done so, it would have settled their argument.

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heres a graph i found out when i looked in wikipedia. You may say that wikipedia is full of false information, but this clearly is diferent to what you are about teh bell curves.

6:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And also isnt your son very similiar? he studies chemistry online and in books for ages everyday? so in your own terms he has a very similiar cookhood to those of the chinese students you talk about

6:10 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for the wikipedia link.

If you read carefully you will see that the Black and White curves are plotted with detailed standard deviation information. The Asian curve is a guess...they point out that they have less information/precision for that group. Also, note that these curves do NOT cover the genius range. Note also that as the curves get into the higher IQ ranges the white curve moves closer and closer to the Asian curve. This shows that the white SD is greater than the Asian SD. At some point above the range plotted, the white curve will be expected to cross the Asian curve and show an advantage in the number of geniuses (very high IQs) over the Asian curve. That is evident even in the inaccurate Asian curve given.


8:56 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

On the contrary, my son does very little study at all. He plays computer games, watches TV, plays with his brothers and friends and does everything but study, except for, on average perhaps half an hour a day. He is the least hardworking student I know. I find it frustrating sometimes. However, when he does study he absorbs it all very quickly. (Many days he doesn't study at all).

Ainan would never study a fifteen hour day like those kids. He would play for fourteen and a half of those hours.

It is interesting that you make the assumption that a child like Ainan has to work hard. Not at all. That being said, I wonder what he could achieve if actually did work harder.

Set aside your assumptions - and actually find out what the true situation is. It is sometimes quite an eye-opener.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Miao said...

Even if Ainan does study as much as those Chinese students, at least he is doing it out of his own free will. He is studying because he enjoys the learning process, because he gains intellectual fulfilment from it. No one is coercing him. (I don't think Mr Cawley will coerce his own children, anyway.) That alone would already be a very important difference between Ainan and these Chinese students. Ainan is a happy explorer, unlike these poor Chinese pupils who have to suffer under a draconian system.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, Miao. Whatever Ainan does is voluntary. However, I have to point out again that most of what he does wouldn't be recognizable as study. Recognizable study time is a very small part of his week. Recognizable play time is a very big part of his week.

Thanks for your comment.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ainan has the option to return\migrate to Ireland\Europe where individuals are valued for their contributions.

The Asians, who chose to remain in the Far East (Singapore, China, Korea) where academic results are valued due to Confucius Values (aka Imperial Exams) have no choice.

Pretty elementary.
Are you sure your IQ is 150 or did your kid take it for you :-p

PS: Just kidding.


2:06 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes, No Name, Ainan has options that may not be present for other children, here. Whether he chooses to exercise them depends on whether his long term needs can be met here.

As for my is a lot higher than 150...but your point is understood. I am aware of the Confucian education system. However, that does not mean to say that I think it is the best approach: I think it is highly mistaken, but my opinion is not going to change anything, unfortunately.

Thanks for your comment.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Melissa Chan said...

I seem to feel a need to respond to nearly every single blog post that has something to do with myself.

I'm from a Chinese SAP school and more than a sixth of my class is made up of Chinese nationals who are on MOE scholarship. I personally am NOT exactly very fluent in Chinese but since they said it was one of the top four schools in Singapore...

The Chinese students in my class come from various parts of China, for example, Shanghai, Beijing, Pudong etc. Most of them have come to Singapore based on the fact that 1. They assume education in Singapore will be more productive than that in China (which I do agree with) and 2. They expect shorter hours. However, what most of them realise when they are here (at least in my school) is the influx of homework. Despite the shorter hours (which includes CCA), a typical day in school ends at around 6-7pm, CCA being compulsary. In China, even though they are given homework, "lessons" from 7-10pm are often "revision" periods, where they are free to seek lessons from their teachers. Actual school lessons end at 1-2pm with the afternoon being used for "remedial". Most of them complete their homework (in China) very quickly and sleep at around 11pm.

In Singapore, I may be generalising since I'm just talking about my school, the large amounts of homework, project work and the frequency of examinations and tests being held is simply overwhelming. So much so that the Chinese nationals in my class complain too. Right now, nearly all my classmates sleep at 1-2am, some of them sleeping at 4-5am and waking up at 6am to go to school. That, of course, is not typical of all Singaporean schools, but schools with Chinese scholars should be similar though.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your comment Melissa.

It sounds like some Singaporean schools are trying to imitate the worst of the world's educational practices. That school sounds, to me, to be hellish. I hope that there are not too many schools like that.

I wish you well on coping with it all.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Dean said...

omg i can so relate to Melissa, I am from such a school but english based. In secondary school... our other projects and cca occupy so much of our time that we often lament that we have "no-life".

But that is certainly not the case. i think after graduating i would be proud from that school since its a premier school anyway.

And i would like to remark that singapore is definitely not copying a bad education system. We have our own education system. But we certainly have a lot of flaws, my general paper teacher would have fun telling you them. Singaporean students spend most of these extra time in school doing their other projects/cca and these develop them. our time table often end at around 4pm? (i hate that we start at 7am though... but studies show that we are most alert in the morning so its optimal for studying)

P.S. i read a letter(published overseas) in The Straits Times a few months ago... the letter was from Australia(if i am not wrong) complementing our education system!(and how they should learn from us)

However, it is very true that singapore is stressing its students too much about grades. not just the government but our parents too. our environment is very competitive. so much that it feels as if we would not be able to be successful if we do not achieve good grades.

You are so lucky you and your children are prodigies.I doubt you would be stressed/caught up in this paper chase. Make good use of your talents! =)


12:47 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi Dean,

I think the education here is too one-sided...there is more to educating a child than securing top grades. Many of these children are ONLY able to do exams. Outside of that they are pretty useless.

Thanks for your comment.

10:14 AM  

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