From Apathy to Possibility: Scott Barry Kaufman’s Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

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Synopsis

In Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman shares his personal experiences with being labeled as learning disabled as a child, including the frustration of low expectations. This is an accessible, inspiring, and beautifully-written book that reviews current knowledge about the dynamic developmental nature of intelligence, creativity, and talent.

What’s it like to be on the receiving end of well-meaning sympathy for your learning disabilities, accompanied by low academic and career expectations? How does it feel to want to engage in the challenging learning activities that your friends in the gifted class are experiencing, and to be told you never will?

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute—describes his personal journey through special education, and what it taught him about the nature of intelligence, talent, and creativity.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these issues for a few decades, but nonetheless, my copy of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined is full of underlines and dog-eared pages where I’ve marked research findings, quotes, and ideas I hadn’t yet encountered or thought about in the way Kaufman describes them.  This book gave me fresh perspectives on many important ideas in my field and deeper understanding of many of the foundational concepts, as well as introducing me to research findings I hadn’t seen.

Ungifted is organized well to tell the evolving story of intelligence and ability. It’s divided into four sections: Origins (IQ and development), Labels (learning disabled, gifted, and ‘gifted souls’), Engagement (passion, mindset, and self-regulation), and Ability (deliberate practice, g, talent, and creativity). Woven into Kaufman’s discussions of current research and theory about each of these areas is his own story as a boy who loved learning but was relegated to a class for children who couldn’t learn (and who weren’t given much to engage their interest or motivate their learning), and as a young man who became passionate about music (I especially loved the discussions of his interactions with his grandfather, a cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra).

In the chapter on passion, Kaufman describes Edward Deci’s research on self-determination, an important component of the intense motivation that we call passion. Deci has found that ‘tasks that are intrinsically motivating satisfy the basic human psychological needs for competence (the desire to feel capable of mastery and accomplishment), autonomy (the desire to feel in control of one’s decisions), and relatedness (a desire to feel in connection with one’s peers)…The tasks that satisfy all three of these basic strivings lead to the highest levels of intrinsic motivation.’ (p. 101) When parents and teachers give kids tasks incorporating these three human desires—for competence, autonomy, and relatedness—they provide environments that nurture children’s abilities and passions, and greatly increase the likelihood of happy productivity across the life span.

In the chapter on mindsets, Kaufman describes a study in which Aneeta Rattan, Catherine Good, and Carol Dweck found that ‘teachers who held a fixed theory of intelligence were significantly more likely to diagnose a student as having low ability based upon a single, initially poor, performance. They were also more likely to “comfort” students for their low ability, saying things like “It’s okay—not everyone can be good at math,” which did in fact reduce student engagement with school subjects. Also disconcerting, students who were exposed to comfort-oriented messages reported less motivation, expected lower final grades, and viewed their professors as having lower engagement in [the students’] learning.’ The work on mindsets that Kaufman describes is so important for all parents and teachers to understand, as it runs contrary to so many well-meaning attitudes and actions. It’s not kind to comfort kids when they don’t do well. Instead, we can be kind in the ways we help them acquire the knowledge and skills they need in order to do better.

Kaufman brought a fresh perspective to many ideas I was familiar with, making them relevant in practical ways to parents, teachers, and others with an interest in children’s optimal development. For example, in the chapter on self-regulation, he describes programs that nurture the development of children’s social-emotional intelligence. He outlines ten features shared by Tools of the Mind and Montessori programs (pointing out there’s a wide range of programs that use the Montessori label). These ten features include taking an active, hands-on approach to learning, easily accommodating children progressing at different levels, and engaging children in teaching one another, among others.

Ungifted is not a dry analysis of research findings. As might be expected from an author who opens with a personal story of failure and disability, Kaufman is not afraid of poetic language, or of concepts that most academics steer away from. One of my favourite passages: ‘Another incredibly important but often overlooked activator of intrinsic motivation is inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way a person perceives his or her own capabilities…Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But a number of recent studies suggest that inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and has a major effect on engagement and achievement.’ (p. 103)

In Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman shares important findings on the nature and development of intelligence, creativity, and talent. He illustrates his understandings with a compelling personal narrative. This is an accessible, inspiring, and beautifully-written book that should be well-thumbed and on the bookshelves of every teacher, parent, psychologist, and anyone else who spends time with children and adolescents.

For more:

How Comforting Kids When They Fail Can Rob Them of Motivation to Learn, by Luc Kumps

Beyond Intelligence - Secrets for raising happily productive kids by Dona Matthews & Joanne Foster, July 2014 House of Anansi Press

Tags: ability, autonomy, competence, dona matthews, engagement, intrinsic motivation, passion, scott barry kaufman, self-determination, ungifted: intelligence redefined

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