Scott Barry Kaufman, the author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, is a cognitive psychologist and was a student in special education classes. As a student enormously impacted by intelligence testing and labels, he presents the enduring emotional impact that a learning disability diagnosis and IQ testing had on him; as an Intelligence researcher, Kaufman traces the history of defining and testing intelligence, delineates other personal qualities key to success, and ultimately proposes a new definition of intelligence that aims to help each individual thrive.
Kaufman presents the continuing disagreement about what constitutes intelligence. Some intelligence scholars, such as Charles Spearman, conceived of intelligence as a single entity, a general intelligence. Others, like Howard Gardner, believe that there are in fact multiple (seven or more) independent “intelligences” that a person might posses.
Since Alfred Binet’s first modern IQ test there have been numerous iterations of IQ tests, but all are imperfect measures of intelligence. There is substantial variability in an individual’s IQ score both between two administrations of the same IQ test and among various different IQ tests. Kaufman challenges the practice of summarizing a person’s intelligence based on a test that lasts only a few hours, that asks decontextualized questions that may be dissimilar to an individual’s everyday experiences, and that offers little opportunity for practice. In addition, a test-taker’s score can be affected by her anxiety or by stereotype threat (the phenomenon in which a person’s fear of confirming a culturally relevant stereotype can make him perform in a stereotype consistent manner).
There is variation in conceptualizations and determinations of giftedness. While our federal definition includes 6 distinct abilities (intellect, academic aptitude, creativity, leadership, artistic skill, and psychomotor ability) states vary considerably in how they operationalize giftedness. Most states rely on IQ tests to determine giftedness, and no state includes measures of motivation in giftedness determinations. This perpetuates a view that intelligence is fixed and that giftedness is a trait one does or does not possess rather than that a student can act gifted. The Matthew Effect sets in; those labelled as gifted become genuinely more gifted. Conversely, students with a learning disability may become less interested in school and perform less well than they would otherwise.
Kaufman’s examples of people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia, ADHD, Bipolar disorder, Schizophrenia/schizotypal traits, prodigies, and savants speak to the problem of relying on IQ measurements to determine a person’s strengths or potential. For example, a boy known as NP, was an extraordinary musical savant, and yet he had an IQ in the 60s. The deficits in social skills that people with ASD typically display can virtually disappear if the person discusses a topic of special interest. People on the schizophrenia spectrum are more creative than people without these diagnoses. All students, Kaufman argues, should be given resources and opportunities to demonstrate their strengths, even if they are atypical gifts.
Study after study finds that various personal characteristics and beliefs are better predictors of success than intelligence alone. Kaufman embraces Adele Diamond’s argument that a student will reach his highest academic potential when schools invest in his full development as a social, emotional, and physical being. A person’s motivation to succeed and persistence in working towards a goal even in the face of set-backs (grit) best distinguishes and predicts the highest achievers. Those with a growth mindset, a belief that their skills and intelligence can be improved, are indeed more likely than those that believe intelligence is fixed to seek out challenging tasks and to process deeply feedback from these tasks. Kaufman sites research suggesting that more so than IQ, hope was related to academic success. Self-regulation skills are critical for success as early as preschool and are predictive of important later life outcomes like substance abuse, financial prudence, and criminal convictions.
Kaufman believes that intelligence must be redefined. He offers the Theory of Personal Intelligence, that is, “Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.”
Intelligence, he argues, should be measured relative to one’s self and one’s aims, not relative to other people. We can recognize each student’s gifts without diminishing the greatness of any other student’s talents. Any behavior that helps a person achieve her goals is an intelligent behavior; as such, personal characteristics like grit are included in Kaufman’s Theory of Personal Intelligence. All students should be encouraged to set lofty goals. Fostering the skills (i.e., perseverance, communication, emotional intuition, self-regulation, creative thinking) required to achieve these ambitious goals will benefit all learners more than enforcing strict test score thresholds. When all students are provided with the academic and social skills necessary for success, when students are no longer deemed gifted or not, and when our educational structure is “ungifted,” we will help the most students reach their fullest potential.