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, July 02, 2009

Some flattery is a crime.

Is it flattery, or a crime, to have one's work imitated? I am led to wonder this, recently, because I have learnt something that should give any creative teacher pause.

I once had the responsibility to teach a class of mainly Koreans (with a single Chinese student, too), oral English. There was no book to teach from, the school being of a mind not to source one. I was left, therefore, to my own devices and my own ideas. I had to devise a way to teach them oral English that would be stimulating and keep these very demanding young adults occupied. Therefore, I came up with my own approach to teaching that I had never seen used before, but which the students found most engaging. They became eager to attend classes and made great contributions to them. I had hit upon a success.

Anyway, without giving any details which might lead to more of what I was later to suffer, I continued teaching in this new way, with content of my own creation, for the entire duration of the course. Every lesson was in my own style, supported on my own thoughts. I reasoned that I was doing what was right, in the circumstances, given that I had not been provided with a course book, to bring out the best in the students. Indeed, they advanced very well in their spoken English and in other ways, too. They were growing more confident, more eloquent, more poised in their communication. I was pleased.

Yet, as I taught, someone in my class had other ideas than what I might have supposed. One Korean student saw my new teaching style as an opportunity. However, I did not find this out until too late.

I had given fully of myself, my thoughts, my ideas, my way of thinking. I had given the best that I could to the students. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I learnt that one of my former students had decided to write a book, based on my teachings. She intended to capture my thought on paper, make a book out of it - and sell it under her own name, as her own work, back in Korea.

Perhaps, I should have suspected something when I asked them what their ambitions were. This particular student said that she wanted to be a journalist and to write books. She further said that she wished to be "globally famous" and that she wanted, at this time, to write a book that would "help people". Little did I know that the book that would "help people" was my book, as it were, being based on my thoughts.

Since finding this out, I have pointed out to her that the classes were my thoughts and I jokingly said she intended to "steal my ideas for a book". Her reaction was unrevealing. She just smiled and said nothing, apart from "Thank you".

I do not know whether she will actually finish writing the book. I do not know whether she will publish it. However, I know this: at this time, she intends to write a book firmly based on my way of teaching, for the purpose of capturing this way, on paper, so that it might "help people"...and to lay claim to it, for herself.

This situation should give all teachers pause. Is it fair to be open and creative, as a teacher, if the students are going to steal the lectures and claim the content as their own? Should any teacher, therefore, teach creatively, or should all teachers teach solely from the book? Should all creative teaching come to a halt?

I would like you to think about Richard P. Feynman. He wrote a series of books based on his own lectures in Physics, and published them. They are great books. They teach physics in what was, then, a new way. They are eminently readable. Rightly, Feynman got the credit for creating this teaching material and this approach. However, imagine if one of his students had published a book based on Feynman's lectures that captured the essence of them...what if such a student had sought credit for the origination of this material? We might now think of Feynman's lectures as student X's lectures.

Now my example is a little different from my own, because Feynman was very famous and could have successfully objected to his material being imitated and would have been able to effect a retraction of it. I am not really in Feynman's position, however. I am not sufficiently well known to have any power or influence, at this time, over people. My objections may not be listened to. This student of mine, may become famous and successful in Korea before I even hear what she has done. By then, it would be rather too late.

(Then again, if Richard P. Feynman had not published his lectures during his lifetime, a student could have done so after his death, and he would not have been around to influence the situation or object to it.)

The other issue is copyright. Copyright is a really weak protection of authors. So many authors get stolen from and cannot fight successfully for their work. Dan Brown, of the Da Vinci code, for instance, apparently copied at least two other books in writing his book. The imitations are very clear and obvious once pointed out. (They include blow by blow identities of plot, situation and character). One would have thought that they were unarguable. However, Dan Brown's superior lawyers and financial might, has enabled him to fend off copyright infringement suits from both wronged parties. I have no doubt, having seen the evidence, that Dan Brown is in the wrong...yet he won. The same applies to my situation. Her imitation will be clear, and obvious...but will I be able to establish it, in a court of law? She might be able to wriggle out of it and get away with a book based on my own work, as her "own".

So, I think teachers need to be cautious before their students. Teachers need, in fact, to hamper their own teaching, if they are to be protected from this kind of thing. There is a strong argument, therefore, that a teacher should never teach without a course book. The teacher should never be in a position of having to invent their own material every lesson. You see, as soon as a teacher begins to invent their own material, that material might be stolen by students who find it useful and turn it into books that could have been and should have been the teacher's.

I still don't know how this situation will turn out. However, I think this student will be in for a surprise regarding how much of a fuss I kick up, over this. I am not one to let another steal my work, without seeking redress, in a comprehensive way.

Every teacher should be free to be creative. In fact, everyone should be free to be creative, without fear of being plagiarized. There is a need for better copyright laws to make sure that this is so. The protection for creators needs to be strengthened and the penalties for infringement need to be heightened. Indeed, I would urge custodial sentences on copyright infringers. The penalties need to be strong enough to deter.

We will know the balance has been achieved, when Dan Brown is no longer one of the richest authors in the world and the people he "learnt from" are duly compensated.

That is the kind of world that would also protect any creative teacher from the kind of infringement I now face.

(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 @ 5:34 PM 


Anonymous KC said...

Yeah, that would extremely bother me too. I sometimes worry about my content of my blog being stolen for profit, but then again, I don't have anything terribly exciting on it. My whole point of blogging is to help others, so having my content ripped off is the risk I'm willing to take to reach out.

I hope Karma comes along and gives that person her just reward for trying to profit off your original ideas.

10:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I would like to see her get her come-uppance too. It was totally unexpected, for me, that this situation would ever develop. Perhaps I should not have been so naive.

Thanks for your comment.

10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, also:

Why not consider recording all of your classes from now on? Then you can feel totally freedom from worry, as your evidence will be right there.

- Kathy

6:25 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

A great idea, Kathy! Thanks for the suggestion.

I wonder what the students would think though?

Kind regards

12:05 PM  

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