Is that a prodigy or a genius?


HAVE you observed a child who is very advanced with his or her skills on a musical instrument, or with the handling of concepts in smarter subjects, like mathematics?
The logical question that most people have when observing such a child is: Is that child a prodigy or a genius?
But, wait a minute. Is a genius the same as a prodigy?
No, it is not the same.
This article should explain why that is so.

In 2017, Waterloo University made history when it enrolled 12-year-old Cendikiwan Suryaatmadja to start his honours degree in physics.

Was that boy a genius or prodigy?
In the last decade, there was a piece of news that rocked the nation when a young boy, aged about 16, entered a university in Papua New Guinea.
Even one newspaper headline stated that a genius was entering university. That also become a hot topic on social media.
As an educator, and someone who has read many biographies of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs, I said to some of my colleagues: “Certainly the kid was a prodigy, but whether he is a genius or not is something that time will reveal.”
Before we go on, let us differentiate between those two terms.
A dictionary defines “genius” as someone with exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.
On the other hand, a “prodigy” is a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities.
A child prodigy is a fast learner for someone his or her age.

Examples of prodigies

Let us take the case of child prodigies.
Such advanced learners can be found in different fields and I have shared some information on these people in the past few years.
Lionel Messi is a child prodigy in football (soccer). He was brought over from Argentina to the Barcelona FC at the age of 13 and trained there because his abilities on the pitch attracted the attention of the Spanish club.
He took to the field in the top division of Barcelona at the age of 17 and at that age his feints, pace and other skills with the ball amazed people.
Messi has captained the Argentinian national team in a number of Fifa World Cup tournaments, and recently, at the age of 34, he moved over to join Paris-Saint Germaine which plays in Ligue 1 of French football.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is a child prodigy in music. He had a father who was a musician and one who trained both child Mozart and his sister not just the basics in music, but textbook stuff, the advanced concepts.
It was said that by the time he was four, Mozart was already advanced in playing the keyboard and violin. Soon after, at the age of give, he composed music and played before audiences which were composed of the high class in Austria.
Adora Svitak is a child prodigy in writing, and one who learned to write very early, thanks to her parents. She completed her first book “Flying Fingers”, before she became a teen.
Wikipedia tells us that Svitak’s mother is a Chinese immigrant and her father studies physics and works as a software engineer.
There are many other child prodigies who go on to do remarkable things and contribute to the world, even as adults.

Adora Svitak was a child prodigy in writing. While still a pre-teen, she published her first book. – Paictures borrowed

Geniuses who were never child prodigies
Here is an interesting thing I have discovered in my own studies of remarkable men and women.
Some people who we now can call geniuses were never deemed child prodigies. Yet, they contributed immensely to making the world a better place.
Albert Einstein, possibly the world‘s most popular physicist or scientist was never known to exhibit any startling abilities when he was younger. Teachers also thought he had something wrong with his brain.
It was not until he was in his late 20s that a few research papers he published caught the attention of the world. Some of the concepts in those papers were ground-breaking and proposed a complete shift in the basics of theories in gravity and wave.
About 300 years before the time of Einstein, Isaac Newton contributed immensely in research and was a first-rate physicist, mathematician and astronomer. But Newton’s brilliance never shone until he was already in university.
While taking a break from his studies where he spent time in his grandmother’s farm, he began toying with different scientific theories that later made him famous.
My favourite inventor is Thomas Alva Edison, the American prolific inventor.
He was never a child prodigy and left the school at the age of 10 because his teacher called him a bad name. However, at the rate at which he was giving the world useful gadgets and devices, like the phonograph (sound-recording device), anyone would have mistaken him for some highly-educated man with a degree in science or technology.

Parents make it easier for a child to be a prodigy

From my decades of reading of the biographies of men and women who have made an impact in the world in remarkable ways, I have realised that generally child prodigies are born into families who are keen in developing the education of the child at an early age, either in music, mathematics, physics, writing or football.
Those guardians are well-versed in the skills in those respective fields and pass on the discipline to the child. Alternatively, they can also engage someone else to help develop those essential skills in the child.
It is important to note that a child prodigy already possesses talent or the inner desire to be a master of skills and the teaching that comes from someone else helps develop those gifts.
It is not just the teaching that makes the child a prodigy, she or he must also have nature working for them, as in planting in them those special gifts.

Some universities enrol prodigies

Some universities in the world are aware of the importance of treasuring the abilities or talents in child prodigies and helping them develop them.
That is important because they know that such abilities, if not properly developed quickly, can be “lost” as the child is placed in the same classroom as others of his or her own age. The pace at which the many others are going will slow down a prodigy.
This is something that we in PNG have not reached yet. We are still grouping everyone, the advanced and slow learners, in the same classroom and that may not be the best for fast learners.
Waterloo University is such a university that aims to develop the advanced abilities in children. They know that a better environment is needed to aid the progress of a gifted child.
In 2017, a 12-year-old prodigy entered Waterloo to do his honours degree in physics. Cendikiwan Suryaatmadja said most people “don’t really care” about the age gap, but he is still “learning to socialise”.
Suryaatmadja is the youngest student ever to have entered Waterloo.
In 2013, the Perimeter Institute, another institution in the same neighbourhood as Waterloo, took on Jacob Barnett, a 15-year-old prodigy to do his master’s degree in theoretical physics.
It was reported that Barnett saw the world in a unique way, and was the youngest to have been admitted to the institute.
Interestingly though, Barnett is autistic.

What can we learn about prodigies and geniuses?

The big lesson that we can learn about prodigies is that parents can help develop advanced skills in children at a young age.
Some parents understand that “parents are the first teachers” and make it their duty to provide all the help they can to help the child start on the right foot in learning.
Sadly, many others still think that the school is where the child will learn all they need to.
Parents and guardians and teachers must also understand that just because a child in their home or class is slow is no reason to give up hope on them.
As in the case of Newton and Einstein, their genius never lit up their classroom when they were young. That came on later, much later in life.
In education, we often talk about the “late bloomers”, the seemingly slow learners who later in life make remarkable discoveries and contributions to our world.
The bottom line is: Train the child as best as you can and create the environment in your home and help them master vital skills before they go to school.
You never know, one of your children may be a child prodigy.

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