Book Review: Ungifted

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. While I enjoyed the book, it was not really what I expected going in. I had come across this book through a blog post that suggested it would help me understand why it is okay that my child is not labelled gifted. And the book certainly does address that topic, but it spends the bulk of its time discussing what makes intelligence and what characteristics or advantages or habits help people to succeed. I was expecting something a lot more accessible to Mr. and Mrs. EveryParent, but this is actually a fairly dense book. Kaufman reviews what must be dozens if not hundreds of studies that have had something to say about what intelligence is or what other factors cause one to excel in a given field. It uses words like “prefrontal cortex” a lot, and while I consider myself a fairly intelligent person by the traditional standards (which I have learned are not so great anyway), there were numerous parts at which I found my eyes glazing over.

But while the meat of the book can be a little tough to chew, Kaufman does make the conclusions drawn from each study pretty understandable. And he begins each section with a personal narrative that shows his own journey from a “special” (not in a good way) student to a Yale Ph.D. (it is Yale, but still impressive, I suppose). I really enjoyed these personal tidbits. Not only did they give my mind a break from the meatier parts of the book, I really appreciated knowing where the author was coming from and I suspect it took some guts for him to come out and say, “I was one of those kids whom the system labelled and tried to dispose of.”

Because Ungifted is such a wide-ranging book, there is a lot in here that may appeal to different interests. Kaufman begins with the idea of giftedness which has traditionally been measured using IQ tests. So the first part of the book discuss IQ tests, how they came about, and what they really measure. If your child has ever been subjected to such tests and either found wanting or deemed “gifted” based on them, you may want to read this section to find out what they are really saying. Kaufman then goes on to look at a myriad of other factors which may affect one’s success and ability to excel. Along the say, he discusses other topics like Autism, savantism, and left- versus right-brained thinking. The list of things which he ends up finding may contribute to success include but are not limited to: passion, self-regulation, creativity, “grit”, deliberate practice, fluid reasoning, and things such as the ability to free up working memory space.

As his title suggests, Kaufman does in the end offer a new definition of intelligence which is:

“Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.” (chapter 13 “Redefining Intelligence”; does anyone know how to cite locations when I read this book on a  Kindle and don’t have page numbers??)

A key element of this for Kaufman is that it is personal; it does not compare one individual to another as IQ scores do. It acknowledges that there are many different skills that come into play and that these will vary based on the person’s field of interest and also that they may develop over time so that intelligence is not static. In the traditional gifted classroom, not every student can be included. The set-up is by definition exclusive, including a small fraction of students and leaving many behind. Kaufman believes that all students can excel in their chosen fields if given the right support.

This leads us to ask how do we then educate students? This is of particular interest to me and I was very glad to see Kaufman address the issue of practical implications for education. He looks at a few examples of programs within the public schools that he thinks have been successful and they do sound like wonderful programs. I was a little disappointed that he did not mention alternative approaches to education such as homeschooling and unique private schools.

There is a lot more I could say about the specifics of the studies Kaufman looks at, but I will save most of that for future posts. I only want to touch on one more topic now and that is the idea of success. Kaufman’s focus in this book is on the leaders in their fields, whether is by the best professional basketball players or the Nobel prize winners in physics, he is concerned with how these people got to where they are. I have used the word “success” but really it even goes beyond that. His initial question is “what causes some people to excel above their peers?” And he concludes his book by stating that he believes everyone can excel at something. This is a noble sentiment and I do think every child should be viewed as unique and able to succeed (I have never been a big fan of the gifted label myself). But at the same time, if we become too focused on this definition of success, we risk losing sight of what really matters in life which is not anything we do but who we are. Kaufman wants to tell every child “you can be great”, but what about the person who chooses to opt out of the system? Perhaps not everyone aspires to greatness. Is that okay too?


5 responses to this post.

  1. I learn so much from your book reviews. I can’t get to all of these books right now, so I glean from your knowledge and am grateful!


  2. […] other place I have read about memory is in the book Ungifted by Scott Kaufman. I have reviewed this book already, but I wanted to touch here on one idea that Kaufman raises. Among the many things that he finds […]


  3. […] in conversations frequently, and I know I have blogged on it many times before (see here and here). A book I read recently, Scott Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, touches on this issue as well. […]


  4. […] which I finished reading recently has inspired me with a lot of new thoughts. I have already given my review of the book and talked about motivating learning. Now I want to talk about fostering […]


  5. […] It is on Scott Kaufman’s book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (see my earlier post on it here). There are just a few more passages that struck me that I wanted to talk about briefly so this […]


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