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, May 06, 2010

Is creativity encouraged in the classroom?

I ask this question because my own life supplies the answer.

Looking back over my schooling, my childhood and my education, I see something, in the young boy and man I was, that I have rarely seen in the students I have taught in the decades since. I used to approach every task given me, not from the point of view of what have other people thought about this problem, or question, but from what did I think of it? I always did my own thinking. It was not something I made myself do, it was something I did naturally, anyway. Indeed, I think I would have found it much harder to do it the other way, the way almost everyone else did it: with reference to the thoughts of others. I couldn't do that. I didn't think that way. I wasn't built to absorb the thoughts of others and make them my own, undigested and uninterpreted. Yet, that was the way of most people.

So, when given a question to answer, I would answer it in my own way. Typically, this would result in an original answer, because I was not influenced by other people's prior thoughts. Yet, how was this creativity received? Was it welcomed by my teachers?

Well, the short answer is sometimes, yes, but often no. Even the times when it wasn't spurned, it wasn't really respected.

Once, for instance, I gave the beginnings of a book I had written, to my favourite English teacher, Mr. Stephen Kerruish, so that he could read it and give me feedback. He smiled his customarily broad smile on receiving it, took it from me, and listened as I asked him to let me know what he thought of it. I would like you to guess what he did with it. Have a good think.

I expected Stephen Kerruish, being my favourite English teacher, and one whose opinion I valued, to read my science fantasy story and perhaps provide some helpful comment. I hadn't shown it to anyone else and I trusted his opinion. He was the only person in the world, I let read my work. Not even my family got to read it. Well, I asked him about it, a week or so later, but he hadn't read it yet. He just nodded, and smiled and didn't commit himself to anything. A few weeks later, I still hadn't heard from him, so I asked again. He nodded again, smiled and didn't commit. I decided to be patient. Weeks became months and soon the months stretched to the end of the year. He never got back to me about it - and he never returned it. In time, I forgot to ask him anymore and I never saw my work again. Now, it had been perhaps a sixth of a book, written very quickly, over a few days. So, its loss was, to me, at the age of 15 or so, quite a loss, indeed. I never got the chance to read it again and I never got the chance to finish it. Of course, it was not anywhere near as well written as my later works - but, you know what, I would give anything to have it back, again, so I could have the chance to read my teenage thoughts and once more, come to know the boy I had been.

I found Stephen Kerruish's response discouraging. Clearly, my creative efforts meant nothing to him. He didn't even value it enough to return it to me - even if he couldn't be bothered to read it. The saddest part of it was that I respected him as an English teacher and really would have liked his opinion. In asking for it, I lost my work, because I never saw it again. How disenchanting.

That was my best experience, with teachers, with regards to creativity. So, at best, I received a smiling indifference.

I had an art teacher called Jeremy Bournon, who used to do something very demoralizing whenever I discussed my art ideas to him. He would laugh at me. He would laugh in my face. Now, I understand what he thought was funny. He thought my enthusiasm for my ideas was funny, he thought my passion was funny. He found it hilarious that I should care so much about my ideas - so he laughed at me. What is more he would encourage anyone else who was present to laugh, too. So, I would end up being laughed at, for ideas which were, actually, very original and striking (so much so that they were typically plagiarized and used professionally by others, in later years). I remember those discussions well. Jeremy Bournon would begin with a smirk, and end in a mocking laughter - and any others watching, would join in the general amusement at my expense.

That was how creativity was encouraged at my school, King's College School, Wimbledon.

Jeremy Bournon had another habit, too. He was forever mocking me for my name. He would try a dozen different variations on it, in one conversation. He would never get my name right. He would pretend that he couldn't remember it and would pretend to struggle to recall it. He would refer to me with a long list of wrong names, finding my irritation at being misnamed, most amusing. Again, he would invite witnesses to laugh with him. So, everytime I met him, he would go through this routine. He never failed to find it funny - perhaps because I never failed to find it irritating. I would, of course, supply him with my correct name, and he would pretend it was news, to him, and stop the chain of misnomers.

Another interesting habit of Jeremy Bournon was that he never attended his own lessons. I took A level art, but this "teacher" never showed up to teach me. So, I had no art teacher for A level at all. I don't know why this was so. Perhaps the school, in all its administrative efficiency, had not informed him of when my lessons were supposed to be. Who knows...or maybe he just couldn't be bothered.

The only interest he ever took in my art was to present it at a public showing, without my permission, to make it look like he had been doing some teaching. The art works were cut and framed up (thus permanently altering their characteristics in a way I had not chosen). Furthermore, I was not allowed to take them home, despite repeated enquiries. After I had left the school, I asked for my art back and no-one seemed to know where it was. There were indications that, perhaps, it had been thrown out. So, there went all my painstakingly created adolescent work. It should be noted that I had a very detailed style in those days, and would sometimes spend months on a single work. What a waste.

Then there was Cambridge University, which I have written about before. I would just like to remind you though, of the incredible hostility I received, from the academic staff, whenever I handed in a creative essay. Staff guilty of this included, Dr. Barbara Politynska, a psychologist of little apparent intelligence, who crumpled up my essay, most intently, and handed it back, after ironing it flat again. In the margins she had written comments like: "Is this a moral thesis or an extract from the Sun?". She behaved as if she had been highly offended by what was, after all, nothing more than an analytical work offering a different, perhaps challenging, perspective on some established thinkers. When she handed it back, she HAD TEARS IN HER EYES and said I was "precocious". Now, why being precocious would make her angry and tearful I have no idea. It was a most disturbing experience for me.

I never saw her again. Nor did I have a supervisor for the rest of the year, in Psychology. It was most bizarre.

Another terrible supervisor was Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick, who refused to mark my essay, called its 22 pages, a "work of inappropriate length", made an OFFICIAL COMPLAINT ABOUT ME to my college, for writing it, blamed me for Barbara Politynska's disturbed personality problems - and I ended up being disciplined, in a special hearing, for my "misconduct". Oh, and he never returned the essay, so I could not benefit from all the work I had put into what amounted to a thesis.

What had I done wrong? I had written essays based entirely on my own thought - and not that of others. That is all. It was really perturbing.

From that moment forwards, I wanted nothing more to do with Cambridge "University". It had shown itself to be positively inimical towards anyone with any thoughts of their own.

This post has been deliberately brief. It is little more than a precis of the events in question, a suggestion of what happened. Much more detail would make it too long to read. However, the lesson of my own educational experience, at school and University is this: creativity is NOT welcome, in the present education systems, in the UK at least. Being creative won me indifference at best and a venomous, seemingly jealous hostility at worst. I was even punished for being creative, at Cambridge. Now, how is that for encouraging creativity in the young?

The best place for a creative person is out of the school and University system altogether. There is no place for the creative person in the education system I grew up with. "Education" might as well be spelt "ERADICATION", where creativity is concerned.

So, what advice can I give to a creative person? Firstly, don't expect a positive response from authority figures, of any kind, if you choose to reveal your creativity to them. Expect jealousy and consequent hate from the more insecure and competitive ones. Expect to be plagiarized. Expect to be marginalized, for it. Secondly, find a quiet place of your own, secure from the interference of others, where you can work on your ideas and creative products, yourself. Work in peace. Expect no help from others. When you are ready and feeling strong, you may show your work, to someone in a position to bring it to the wider world (a publisher, a gallery, a scientific journal etc.) but preferably not someone who would be in a position to feel competitive towards you.

It won't be easy, but this is, unfortunately, the only safe way to proceed, if you are creative and wish to build any kind of creative career. You have to be tough - and you have to be immune to the discouragement that you will, inevitably, receive along the way, from the insecure, the jealous, the spiteful, the incomprehending, or the simply indifferent.

Don't give up, however. If you have something to say, make sure you find a way to say it - but like I have said, don't expect the journey to that point to be a happy one or an easy one. It won't be.

Best of luck.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to:

I also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

My Internet Movie Database listing is at:
Ainan's IMDB listing is at
Syahidah's IMDB listing is at

Our editing, proofreading and copywriting company, Genghis Can, is at

This blog is copyright Valentine Cawley. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited. Use only with permission. Thank you.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:41 PM 


Blogger Christine said...

I do agree that creativity is stifled a lot in education. I think too many teachers don't want a student to disagree with them on anything. They also see what they call "wild ideas" to be "cheeky".
Many great people throughout history exasperated their teachers. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein all gave their teachers headaches. Both Franklin and Edison had little formal education for those reasons and were mostly self-taught. I do think that the most creative people were so creative becauses they spent so much time on their own, just to develop their creativity. They also learned not to listen to the critics and kept on doing what they wanted to do.
I do think that many people who become teachers never gave it much thought. A teacher needs to like teaching, must be a good mentor, and must be willing to help students be creative. Many teachers out there would have served society better had they entered different professions. Sadly, they are teachers and most will just keep at it until they retire.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I agree. Too many teachers are actually DAMAGING to their students, because of the attitudes they have towards creativity, or difference of any kind. They want the students to conform, in some way, and, unconsciously or deliberately, punish them, if they do not.

The main problem is that most teachers are not, themselves, particularly creative and so don't understand it, when they encounter it.

Thanks for your comment, Christine.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

By the way, you are right that almost all creative people develop it for themselves. Education is no help there.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry if I sidetrack a bit.What subject did you major in during your university days,especially during the part II/part III of the tripos?

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once had an art teacher who asked my class to make clay cups. However, he then smashed all the cups that were not circular and smooth. Square cups, cups with interesting dents and even dainty cups ended up in pieces. What a waste.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. cups.

That is a strong example of enforced conformity: anything different from his one objective, was just not allowed. Such an approach would tend to have a very inhibiting effect on the creativity of the children concerned. That art teacher did more damage than he could possibly understand.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Tripos

I took a deliberately broad ranging Natural Sciences degree (since I had and have broad interests and skills). My first year consisted of Physics, Chemistry, Biology of Cells, and Maths. My second year comprised Experimental Psychology, Molecular and Cellular Biology and History and Philosophy of Science. In my third year, I decided that I wanted to be able to express my own points of view, rather than be straitjacketed by subjects that enforced conformity (at least that was the way they were taught: one’s own thinking didn’t seem encouraged at all). Thus, I chose to continue with History and Philosophy of Science…though I focused on philosophical issues. I was right, to a degree: there was the chance to express one’s own thoughts…but some dons (like Dr. Robert Lee Kilpatrick) took a sharp dislike to it.

I had the option to have chosen to do an extra year and do more physics, but, by that time, I was tired of Cambridge’s narrow thinking ways and elected to graduate and leave. I would say that I have learnt much more on my own, than I ever learnt at Cambridge. I have continued to develop my scientific interests, by myself, and have done interesting work – with much greater freedom than was afforded me there. I realize that I prefer to be independent, than tied up in a course.

11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this case,you managed to complete Master's degree at Cambridge in 3 years?

This was quite from the current practice by which a candidate has to spend 4 years of studies in order to obtain a MSci degree in Natural Sciences and,in addition,has to stay at Cambridge for at least 6 years from the end of the first term in residence in order that the MA degree is conferred.

1:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thoughts on your experience and that of others is that education from a public university (or other public schools for that matter) is for the masses, not for the rare geniuses.

Geniuses are best taught at private institutes which have the financial resources to hire better staff and develop more tailored programs.

So perhaps for all then geniuses who are reading this, take note not to enroll in a public school. And if you do, don't complain. You have been warned. But then, if you are a genius, you should know this already. Lol.

I hope that you continue developing your interest in your own personal way! My friends and i in university love learning. Unfortunately, we are forced to learn too much in a short span of time, giving us little time to digest and really understand the concepts taught.

3:02 AM  
Blogger Mochi said...

From personal experience, most teachers don't allow for much creativity. And because of that, I'm rather disappointed. If I were to ask something that is beyond the curriculum in science class, my teacher would dismiss it. We're taught with a lot of restrictions where we can't go past it or it would be deducted from our overall score. Even with my math teacher, who has had similar experiences as me, still doesn't like me going past the curriculum or even asking for harder work.

4:57 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Re. Master's.

Yes. I received one. However, what you are overlooking is the massive workload that the Natural Sciences course entailed in those days. Each subject would try to pile on the work, as if it were the ONLY subject. The result was that the Natural Sciences course required more from its students than any other course I can think of.

That being said, they still didn't allow much room for people who preferred to think for themselves!

10:27 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Mochi, most teachers find creativity annoying because it challenges them, in ways they would rather not be challenged. They think their role is to impart the "facts" - and not, in most cases, to provoke thought in their charges. Little real thinking goes on in most classrooms, from my point of view.

I hope you find personal space in which to grow in your own way, even if the school system doesn't help you along in the way you would hope.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Yes. I find it better to develop by myself. As for you, you are right that Universities speed too quickly through the material. I think this leads to superficial learning. It would be better to study less, for longer and get more out of it. However, economics, alone, probably disallows that.

Best wishes on your studies.

10:31 AM  
Blogger teacherlet said...

many of my A level art ideas was rejected by my teacher who insisted that I must perform in a certain manner in order to get that distinction grade. sad.

many teachers are shackled by the system. they have numerous superiors to answer to. limited time to attend to numerous kids.people shouldn't really expect them to address the needs of education fully. partially, perhaps. but not fully.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

An art teacher - or any other teacher - has no place rejecting ideas based on whether or not they conform to some ideal. They should be respecting ideas as a means to self-expression and a representation of the uniqueness of individuals.

Basically, the teachers and the system have got it wrong: it shouldn't be about 'grades'...but about personal and intellectual growth.

I hope you found other avenues to express your work, later.

By the way, the demands upon the teachers are no excuse for dismissing ideas: it takes no time at all to say: "That is good/interesting/thought-provoking"...etc. Ideas could be welcomed. It is no extra burden on the teacher.

Thanks for your comment.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i share the same sentiments. :)

3:23 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Zally.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Joyce said...

I think creativity is certainly stifled in the classroom especially in mainstream schools.

My nephew once came home from year 1 school in KL upset and puzzled. Upon asking, he showed me a page of homework that was marked as wrong and circled in RED. He had colored his oranges brown instead of orange and his teacher told him that it was wrong and he was being naughty. Well, I reasoned with him that oranges are usually orange. He took me to our prayer altar at home and pointed to the oranges there that has been left on the altar too long. It was brown, of course! LOL

I wonder if the teacher thought of taking some time to listen to his reasoning before putting him into neat little boxes and stifling the child's creativity.

Forward to 10 years later, my nephew is now a model student in school, sits on the prefect board and keeps good grades. He does not color his oranges brown anymore and he likes his things and thoughts in neat little boxes and squares. So, shall I be happy or sad?

4:47 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

How you feel is a personal choice, Joyce. As for me, I would feel sad if my son felt he had no choice but to colour oranges orange. I would trade prefectship and good grades, for the freedom to be different. However, that is just me.

How do you feel?

Thanks for your comment.

5:07 PM  

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