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 +

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Highly educated vs. gifted.

An Australian friend of mine, related an experience to me, recently, concerning her first teaching stint in Singapore. What she learnt is very instructive of the situation in Singapore's schools.

She had been hired, as a teacher, to come to Singapore to teach "gifted children" in a special school. She was looking forward to it, and was filled with expectations of the challenges she would face, the opportunities she would have to work with talented children, and the rewards she would feel to see them grow under her tutelage. Well, all was not as she had supposed. As she began to work with these children, she noted something strange about them: they KNEW a lot, but could not seem to THINK very well. This puzzled her: it was not what she had expected of "gifted" children. Nevertheless, she did her best to challenge these kids, for she had been led to suppose that they needed challenge. Yet, this did not seem to be what they craved. If she challenged them too much, they seemed to back away from the challenge and reach for familiar territory in which they were "learned". Finally, after three months of this, the Principal of the school came to talk with her.

"Actually," he began, "These children are not gifted."

Why, she wondered, had she ever been told that they were, then?

"They are not gifted," he repeated, "They are highly EDUCATED."

He went on to explain how their parents thought of them as gifted or wanted them to be gifted, and so had DRILLED them from very young, in the basics of the academic world. Lessons had been drummed into them, as young as possible, and they had known little but long hours of study, in their short lives. Yet, all this education, produced nothing more than knowledgeable youngsters - within certain circumscribed limits (that is, if it is not useful in school exams or a school context, then they wouldn't know it). Not one of the kids could actually be described as highly intelligent - that is, being able to think fluidly, as opposed to being able to recall information.

Once she understood this, she grew to pity her students. There was a demand upon them, by their parents, and perhaps their society, that they be something they are not. Yet, not one of them seemed able to meet this demand. They had become model students and did well in standardized testing, but when challenged, in the ways she had come to expect to be able to do with gifted children, they couldn't cope. They couldn't rise to tasks that required true intelligence, because they didn't really have it. What they had was something else: an education.

I think my friend had stumbled on something fundamental about the ways in which Singaporeans misunderstand education. As far as I am aware, and believe, education cannot create a gifted child. The gift originates in something innate which is either there or is not. It cannot be readily imparted by the hitting of the books. Education imparts something else...particularly the type of education found in Singapore: knowledge. Yet, knowledge is not intelligence and, as Einstein famously observed, knowledge is less important than imagination. What these kids lacked was an imagination and a high degree of fluid intelligence - in other words, they lacked what they had been labelled to have. Someone along the way, had come to view these kids as "gifted" because of their knowledge of standard school information - but they were by no means gifted. They were a much lesser breed than that.

Perhaps, though, this misunderstanding is not entirely the fault of the parents: it is an idea that seems to imbue the entire education system of Singapore - the idea that study somehow creates this "gift" - and that one who studies well, is necessarily "gifted". This is not so. Giftedness is something apart from mere education - and may exist, I believe, in its complete absence. Giftedness is an innate quality of mind - it is not to be created at the whim of an education system. In fact, the kind of education that Singapore engages in is, in my view, of no value to a gifted person - or should I say, at best, is less than ideal for a gifted person. It is too rote, too unchallenging, too knowledge based and too short on real thinking. It is, in short, an education not worth having. Those kids my friend had to teach, had had plenty of this type of education - but none of them were any closer to being gifted than they had been before. They still lacked the essence of gift.

It will be interesting to see how long Singapore's love affair with its standardized education lasts. I don't see in it, the solution to Singapore's long term prosperity. A nation of kids like the ones my friend taught is not going to become a leading innovator in the world. Far from it. At best, they are suited only to imitating what others have done. Perhaps, indeed, that is the planned future of Singapore: No.1 in being just like the next man, a nation of "me toos".

(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.

We are the founders of Genghis Can, a copywriting, editing and proofreading agency, that handles all kinds of work, including technical and scientific material. If you need such services, or know someone who does, please go to: Thanks.

IMDB is the Internet Movie Database for film and tv professionals.If you would like to look at my IMDb listing for which another fifteen credits are to be uploaded, (which will probably take several months before they are accepted) please go to: As I write, the listing is new and brief - however, by the time you read this it might have a dozen or a score of please do take a look. My son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, also has an IMDb listing. His is found at: My wife, Syahidah Osman Cawley, has a listing as well. Hers is found at:

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:11 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe this story is relevant:

"The new focus on grit is part of a larger scientific attempt to study the personality traits that best predict achievement in the real world. While researchers have long focused on measurements of intelligence, such as the IQ test, as the crucial marker of future success, these scientists point out that most of the variation in individual achievement - what makes one person successful, while another might struggle - has nothing to do with being smart. Instead, it largely depends on personality traits such as grit and conscientiousness."

2:38 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

I haven't yet read the article but, it is obvious that conscientiousness helps one succeed. However, conscientiousness cannot turn you into a genius. It cannot make up for a relative lack of intelligence, IF THE FIELD REQUIRES VERY HIGH INTELLIGENCE. I don't, for instance, think that being hard working is going to make you into a brilliant physicist or any other type of scientist in a complex area: the intelligence required to lead a field is far too high for any degree of hard work to make up for it.

However, in fields where an ordinary degree of intelligence is required, then hard work can, indeed, distinguish one and make a success of someone who is, otherwise, relatively ordinary. One must not forget that certain fields will not respond well to conscientiousness alone in the absence of high intelligence.

The best combo of course would be to have both very high intelligence and to be conscientious: that would be a "killer" combination.

Thanks for the reference.

8:18 PM  
Blogger person said...

I swear, this post of yours is, by far, the most accurate description of education in Singapore. There is no learning, just pure memorising. We then produce a whole troop of parrots, highly intelligent and obedient, and ridiculously incapable of thinking.

Reading your post reminded me of a clip from an episode of Blackadder, about the importance of thinking:

9:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you "Person" for your confirmation. I don't know whether to be happy or sad that you agree with my this case, I think sad that it is so.

Singapore takes children of greater or lesser potential and turns them into nothing more than robots.(Or parrots, for that matter.)


12:11 AM  
Anonymous enadiz said...

being from the GEP myself, I would concur that even within the "differentiated" curriculum, we were never really challenged to think as we should have. even within the program, there was always the looming idea of cramming for exams and doing well- an inborn trait of singaporeans, it would seem.

yet, there really are geniuses that emerge from the system- few and far between, yes, but nevertheless I know/knew them well enough that they did directly benefit from the system, though of course, natural genius always shows itself in due course.

do you feel that genius passes down through generations? Our MM's family is one example. You could say what you want about their other achievements, but academically (not just in the exam sense), many of his family are really gifted.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Enadiz for your observations, re. the GEP.

I would say that any geniuses that come out of GEP were geniuses that went IN to GEP. I would doubt that GEP had any real formative influence on them. We didn't see much of value in what they were offering (which they overstated in the media...very little was on the table from them, to us).

Yes. I think genius does pass down through families. I am not familiar with the academic abilities of MM's family...but I take your word for it. If a parent has good academic ability, their children tend to have it as well, yes.

There are examples of Nobel Prizes in two generations of families - meaning that both the parents and the children ended up getting one. That seems a cut and dried piece of evidence for you.

Thanks for your comment.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous enadiz said...

I would say that the GEP pedagogy would not have helped that much, especially at the primary school level. And in my secondary school days, the GEP was prety much phased out, with the IP coming into play (where emphasis was on project work, which, while interesting, was probably even less intellectually stimulating.)

In my opinion, some of the more stimulating things during my GEP experience were the private conversations and discussions we had amongst ourselves- those were really interesting. As many will attest, it really is a great feeling to converse with an intellectual peer (in real life, and not just on paper, the computer...) - especially at such a young age.

Oh, and I must say, while few and far between, I have had the pleasure of having some really great teachers in the GEP (whom I feel really helped the geniuses develop)- who themselves were highly intelligent. (really quite rare at such a level considering the opportunity cost of teaching at a high school for them)

True, it seems that genius has a fair tendency to manifest itself in two generations, but I think it is pretty rare for it to be maintained end on end.

One thing interesting I note for Singaporeans- we tend to send students who do exceedingly well in the ICHo and IPhO (Gold medals, individual 1st/2nd rankings), which really is no mean feat, but we only manage at most, silver medals at the IMO. There are, however, a disproportionate number of gold medals, near fullmark scorers from the Eastern European countries who are not that muuch larger than we are.

(Interesting note- North Korea has gotten exceedingly good results in such competitions in recent years.)

4:25 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. The randomization of genetic inheritance means that there is an element of luck as to whether any particular gift is passed on, generation to generation. However, I can think of one example of notable talent through many generations (seven if memory serves me rightly): Bach's family had musical gift for a very long time indeed. So, it can be done.

Yes, conversing with intellectual peers is important and can be a source of support.

You are right that few teachers of very high calibre will end up as teachers at all (unless they have a real love for imparting knowledge and skills - for few are so idealistic). This might change if teachers were paid more, though.

Thanks for your telling us of your experience.

It is interesting to note your info on the Olympiads. Perhaps there is just more competition in the Maths ones.

The real question is: do these Olympians go on to become real scientists and thinkers? Or do they become bankers and lawyers?

4:34 PM  

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