Book Review of "Ungifted" by Scott Barry Kaufman
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Rachel Plucker, Middle School Math Department Chair, Randolph School, Huntsville, AL
In his book, Ungifted: The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness, Scott Barry Kaufman presents a multifaceted look at intelligence against the backdrop of his own struggles of being diagnosed with a learning disability at a young age. Considering himself the victim of a standard IQ test, Kaufman took it upon himself to study the damaging effects and misconceptions of the traditional IQ test. The book, which is organized to correspond with his personal story, follows being placed in a special education class to achieving his ultimate goal of receiving his Ph.D. at Yale.
Reading Kaufman's account of his challenges reminded me of my own struggles in math in early middle school. I have been a math teacher for 15 years, and I still remember how devastated I was when I failed math. Thankfully, I did not let that failure define me. I was resilient. What is it about my personality that caused me to keep pushing and working hard? I don’t know. I was at a great independent school, I had supportive parents, and I had good friends. I also have a mother who claimed she was “not a math person” and could not be of assistance with homework after 4th grade. My father is an Ivy League graduate, and I never felt I could measure up to him intellectually. In short, we all have many positive and negative influences. Maybe I hoped that in reading Ungifted I would find some answers to my own situation or some advice to help me help my own students when they falter, but rather I came away with the universal understanding that there are problems with how we define and test for intelligence but no definitive answers as to how we can do better in our current educational system.
As teachers, we recognize that the labels of learning disabled and gifted are narrow descriptors and in no way reflect the whole child we know in the classroom. I was struck by how the idea of these labels is in direct opposition to the concept of Carol Dweck’s idea of mindset that we try to teach and instill in our students today. Throughout the book, Kaufman presents many of the tests that have been created in the quest to figure out what attributes predict a child's success and how IQ tests do nothing of the sort.
Kaufman challenges the validity of IQ testing, exploring the many different intelligences as well as how personality, experiences, and persistence impact a child's success in school and, more importantly, in life. Kaufman explores the impact of passion, mindset, self-regulation, deliberate practice, general intelligence, talent, and creativity. There are so many outside influences and inside wiring that make each student unique so that no one student is clearly defined by a label. In short, Kaufman presents a convincing case that we have to stop trying to define children. As teachers, we need to know our students, try to reach them where they are, pique their interests, and encourage them to push forward always.
As much as I wanted to enjoy this book, I found it difficult to get through at times. In places, it reads very much like a textbook and can be quite heavy as he recounts study after study. I did enjoy reading his personal narrative at the beginning of each chapter. His trajectory from special education to Ph.D. is indeed an achievement. Kaufman is a great example of overcoming labels and being persistent as a learner.
In the final chapter, Kaufman writes, "We should encourage children to dream the impossible, to think beyond the standard expectation, to dare to be unrealistic.” Greatness comes from pushing the limits, daring to explore what has yet to be explored, and instilling a desire for lifelong learning in all students.
In our faculty discussion group this summer, we all noted how we wanted more from this book, which presented a lot of research but few conclusions. Is intelligence too multifaceted to ever be figured out or fully explained? This book is interesting, but readers should be prepared to continue grappling with the questions set forth in the book’s opening chapters and may reflect, as the author does in his own Prologue, “I wish I could say I solved all of these mysteries. But the truth is, I ended up with even more questions.”
Rachel Plucker is the middle school math department chair at Randolph School in Huntsville, AL. Follow her on Twitter @primeplucker or reach her by email at email@example.com.