The Story of Alisa Teplyakova: Nine-Year-Old University Student and the Most Talked About Child in Russia
"Nine-year-old freshman student Alisa Teplyakova passed two exams out of four," a Moscow State University press spokesperson told RT. The news came not long after a member of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights in Russia recommended suspending the young student’s studies. The story of Alisa Teplyakova – a Russian girl who entered university at the age of nine, has received extensive media coverage and continues to fuel debate. RT Documentary looks into the issue to determine the price of early success. Tune in to the premiere of Child Prodigies: The Price of Success on Monday to learn more!
Alisa Teplyakova may be the most famous and talked about child in Russia. She is only nine but already a university student. Alisa’s siblings are way ahead in their studies too. Some might even try to get into university earlier than their sister.
Are those kids the product of early education, or do they have a natural gift? Could…and should a five-year-old be taught chemistry and calculus? What’s adult life like for a former wunderkind?
In the new film, RT Documentary tries to answer these questions.
The Teplyakovs have seven children and take care of all their progeny themselves, with no help from babysitters or grandparents. All the kids are home-schooled.
Alisa, the eldest, is already at university. Heimdall passed his ninth-year tests at seven. Five-year-old Leia has finished fourth grade. At 4, Terra is just getting ready for school. Aylung is two and is already learning to read. So Feylung and Tesey, the youngest, are the only two who’re not yet breaking any records.
The Teplyakovs don’t believe that some children are born gifted. They think any child’s intelligence can – and should – be developed as early as possible. That’s why they’ve created their accelerated teaching method.
Their methods have proved so successful sometimes Natalia fails to understand her children – so well-informed they are in different subjects.
Alisa’s parents wanted her to start school early because her reading, writing and mathematics were advanced by four. But the school said she was too young. This is why Evgeny and Natalya decided to home-school their kids.
“There were a lot of psychologists who took the child aside and told her, ‘You should start school at seven.’ Many people were saying, ‘She draws a man wrong. She can’t go to school. The man’s lacking a few fingers on his hands.’”
In the fall of 2021, Alisa entered Moscow State University – one of Russia’s most prestigious higher education institutions. Unfortunately, she didn’t score enough to qualify for a state education grant in her exam. But confident she’ll do well, her parents nevertheless decided she should go to university on a fee-paying basis.
When asked why she chose psychology as her future profession, Alisa hopefully looks at her dad.
“Why does she need occupational and organisational psychology? Why does she need psychogenetics? Why does she need psychogenetics? To be able to say it makes no sense. Why does she need psychology of intelligence and general abilities? To be able to say it makes no sense. Why does she need developmental psychology? To say: Guys, I’m sorry, but different principles are at work when a child’s mind is developing.”
As Alisa is only nine, the Teplyakovs asked the university to create a particular timetable for her so her parents could accompany her to lectures. However, the plan didn’t work as intended.
RT Documentary wanted to meet Alisa at university, but it seems she doesn’t go there very often. The Teplyakovs had constant disputes with the university. Alisa’s father complained he couldn’t accompany his daughter to lectures and the university authorities wouldn’t develop an individual curriculum for her, even though it only took her a month to master the curriculum for the whole semester
“Alisa hasn’t attended classes in person since September 10th,” says Alexander Thostov, the head of the neuropsychology department at Moscow State University. “As far as I understand, she hasn’t taken any of the tests either. They suggested we adjust the curriculum to accommodate Alisa’s abilities. We replied that since we don’t see Alisa at university, we don’t know what her abilities are.”
Evgeny Teplyakov still insists Alisa could graduate in two years. However, the psychology department has never seen anything like this, nor has it admitted such a young student.
“There’s another issue too,” adds Alexander Thostov. “As for students majoring in psychology, we talk with them about sexuality, about relationships. I don’t understand how to teach all this to a nine-year-old. Because there are certain age restrictions. Is her father going to cover her eyes and her ears when these things are discussed in class?”
The price of success
Alisa’s story has fuelled debate in the media and among experts. But, apart from enthusiastic comments and amazement at the girl’s talents, it has drawn scepticism and even criticism from some experts.
“Unfortunately, a lot of parents, [even] the most wonderful ones, impose their vision on their children. ‘You must be ahead! You must show them! You must do this! Why aren’t you first? Why aren’t you...’ We see a lot of such children," says Natalya Shumakova, doctor of psychology.
Psychologists say going ahead is considered more beneficial than not but only to a certain extent: if you skip no more than two years. Going above it is likely to entail losing social connections and having issues with social interaction and personal development. And these risks are increasing exponentially.
RT Documentary talked to former wunderkinder to discover their views on child upbringing and early development.
“First of all, I wish Alisa Teplyakova happiness and the greatest success,” says Artyom Oganov. “I hope joining the university at the age of nine was the right thing to do. However, I would advise my child against doing it. And I didn’t do it myself. But everyone has their path to follow.”
Artyom Oganov is a renowned chemist and Nobel Prize candidate. He developed a method for predicting the crystal structure and properties of substances that haven’t been discovered yet. Artyom has worked at prestigious universities in Switzerland and the US but now lives in Moscow and is a professor at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology.
Artyom has been into chemistry since the age of four. He was a prodigy and could go ahead of his peers in his education. However, his mother was a psychologist and had ideas about early childhood development.
“We had a big bookcase, and we liked to rummage around in it. And my mother would put all sorts of books in it, especially on the bottom shelf. And then she’d wait and see what we’d get excited about. I got hooked on a chemistry book. My brother chose a maths book. That was what had set us on our way.”
When Artyom’s mother realised books were no longer enough, she persuaded professors at the Mendeleev Institute to talk to her son, allowing him to attend lectures.
“She was a person incredibly devoted to her children,” says Artyom. “Twice a week, she took me to the other end of Moscow to attend chemistry lectures. My mother sat with me even though she hated chemistry, and she took notes for me. When I was little, I could not write fast enough. I wrote rather slowly. I understood quite a lot though, but not everything, of course.”
The gifted child went to an ordinary school on the outskirts of Moscow. Of course, he could have easily skipped grades quickly or transferred to a school with a more advanced curriculum, but his family decided that Artyom should go to school with his peers.
“If a person lives under constant duress, because there are super-talented kids around them, and they try their best not to look like an idiot next to them, so there’s always something for them to do... This is not a childhood. That’s torture, a forced-labour camp. The child’s nervous system won’t develop properly under such conditions.
So, I don’t want my children to skip grades either. Not only intellectual maturity is essential, but an emotional one as well.”
Do you want to learn more about Alisa Teplyakova and see more stories of former prodigies? See the premiere of Child Prodigies!