I have just started reading Scott Barry Kaufman’s book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined: The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness. I really enjoy reading books that challenge my understanding and conceptions of giftedness because it is such a controversial label and I am curious to see how others engage with it. With this book just reading the cover intrigues and perplexes me. I am intrigued to see what he means by “intelligence redefined” as someone who not only regularly reviews assessments and identifies students, but works with these same students over a number of years. And I am perplexed by the final phrase in the title “and the Many Paths to Greatness.” This to me suggests, perhaps without intending to, that greatness should be our goal.
The book begins with his own school story, one that he has shared on this Ted Talk entitled from Evaluation to Inspiration. Suffering from a central auditory processing disorder brought on by numerous ear infections as a young child, he was labelled learning disabled and relegated to special education classes until the 9th grade. It was then, that he finally felt “seen” by a substitute teacher which inspired him to advocate for himself thus changing the course of his academic career. Now with a PhD in cognitive psychology specializing in creativity, he explores the world of neuroscience to see whether there are genetic links to creativity and intelligence as well as the connection between nature and nurture. In the first few chapters, he explores the history of cognitive assessments, their limitations and their power to impact the lives of many children. The interplay of many elements; DNA, environment, self efficacy and opportunity all contribute to our future success, as do the many genetic triggers and environmental obstacles that are yet to come. The message to the education system is clear: while the information on tests can be valuable, resist labels and find opportunities to inspire as there are many factors impacting our intellectual and creative growth.
I think what makes the educational journey so difficult for both teachers and parents is that the path to greatness is so personal and undefined and at any moment can spin on a dime. Is success somewhat predicated on the unexpected? Overcoming an obstacle can be a defining moment: would Kaufman be writing this book and conducting this research without the “inspiration” of his school experience? Other obstacles can change our trajectory entirely: my mother compelled to leave her home at fourteen and be schooled in another language, culture and country away from her family. Terry Fox diagnosed with cancer and mobilizing an entire nation while running to find a cure.
One cannot help but have great hopes for the children with whom we share and who will eventually inherit the world and therefore it is good that worry about their education. As parents we fear not doing enough to support them as much as we worry about not expecting enough and so what happens in school can create tremendous worry and have us constantly searching for educational alternatives and “better” ways to teach and learn. Living and working where I do, I know that these intentions drive our system, even though it may not always be visible and may still miss the mark for many. In the Epilogue (yes I sometimes skip right to the back of the book before reading the whole thing) Kaufman goes to see the substitute teacher, now a middle school principal, to acknowledge her for the impact she had on his life on one single day in Grade 9, simply by “seeing” him. Perhaps that is the most important message in his book-the impact we can have on one another when we look beyond behaviors, labels and expectations and see our students and others in the world as they are-full of potential. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book to see what Kaufman means by greatness and whether that too has been redefined.
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One of my favorite tools in helping parents and teachers understand giftedness are the six profiles outlined by Betts and Neihart as they go a long way in describing how differently giftedness can manifest itself in individuals. While there are times that reading through the profiles and discussing our observations can result in an “aha” moment there are just as many where we will note how the child we are speaking of doesn’t fit neatly into any of the categories. Despite the moniker, “giftedness” does not show up in a neatly wrapped package that is easily identifiable or predictable, but having the profiles is a great starting point for conversations about behaviors, needs and supports both at home and at school. Interestingly enough, characters and individuals from popular culture often become part of our conversations as well, but to what extent to they help or hinder in educating us about giftedness?
From Sheldon to Rachel, Matilda to Ender, we are enthralled with gifted characters. We are fascinated by the complexity of their thoughts, their unique and amazing abilities, their unusual reactions to situations, their character flaws and how they overcome difficulties. Do they serve us well as we seek to understand more and educate about giftedness? As with any caricature as characters often tend to be, storylines can highlight some qualities of the gifted experience but ultimately fail in capturing the unique qualities of many of the gifted students that I work with everyday. Thinking Sheldon (who is by far and away the gifted “character” who is referenced most often when people are looking for examples of gifted behavior), as representative of giftedness would leave one with a very limited understanding.
We are no less fascinated by gifted individuals whose lives in the spotlight have given us yet another glimpse into giftedness. From Elon Musk to Oprah Winfrey, Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson we are not without our iconic examples of giftedness. That their giftedness is tied to astronomical levels achievement carries no small burden for many gifted students whose talents and abilities can sometimes become the focus of who they are. But having said that, there is a benefit to reading biographies of gifted individuals and gaining some insight into their journey. As a songwriter myself, Joni Mitchell’s biography In Her Own Words by Malka Marom is a favorite. I have learned so much from her struggles, not only with how she saw herself as an artist in contrast to the expectations of the musical community, but also to what she was trying to achieve with her lyrics and music. All this on a landscape of considerable social change helped me to understand the inner world contributing to the music that I love.
But despite some of the drawbacks to how gifted individuals are represented and/or celebrated in popular culture, I will admit to being very drawn in by how one of my favorite literary characters is being served up in a very modern rendition of a popular mystery series. Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes rates as my favorite series with the major drawback of not airing often enough. If you haven’t seen in yet, watch this short clip Sherlock and John’s First Meeting. A very different portrayal of the gifted detective, I really enjoy the pace with all the twists and turns in the plot. Cumberbatch is a no slouch either!
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It is often said that gifted students should read the biographies of gifted individuals to gain insight into the struggles that some of our more eminent individuals have experienced in finding their place in the world. After reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I would like to add this book to the list of must read biographies. While I have had a number of people say to me, “he may have been brilliant, but he was a jerk” I think that it is worthy to explore what constitutes that evaluation of his character in light of his accomplishments, something Isaacson does very well in the book.
I have been fascinated for some time with Steve Jobs’ story, especially after watching the movie Pirates of Silicon Valley more than 13 years ago. The movie contrasted the stories of Bill Gates and Microsoft to Steve Jobs and Apple as they raced to make personal computers accessible to everyone. Even in that movie, the quirkiness of Jobs’ life story and habits would sometimes overshadow his gifts. “He may have been brilliant but…” stops us from looking a little bit further and trying to understand how the “but” might contribute to his brilliance. In reading Isaacson’s book, I was able to get a better understanding of this and reflect on how some of the gifted students that I work with can also be misunderstood.
One of the things referenced often in the book is the “reality distortion field” that seemed to surround Jobs. One of his colleagues described it as “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any face to fit the purpose at hand.” (Chapter 11) At first read the statement makes Jobs comes across as manipulative in his drive to make people do his bidding. But as I was reading through the chapter I couldn’t help think about a colleague of mine who refers to the gifted brain as “wired differently”. Some of my students affirm this when they refer to the loneliness, lack of understanding and alienation they can feel simply because they experience things differently. I wonder if sometimes they feel a continuous pressure to fit into what could be considered from their point of view, the reality distortion field of mainstream society.
Which brings us to wonder what made it possible for Steve Jobs to make what others might have seen as initially unrealistic, into reality. There were two things that really struck me in considering this. The first was his vision. Not only was it idealistic in his genuine desire to make computers intuitive to the point of removing all barriers for the users to be creative, but it was also holistic as he believed every single aspect no matter how large or small, contributed to the whole. So what happened if you were contracted to come up with a contribution to the project and it didn’t quite fit with the vision. Jobs would likely tell you “it sucks” without kindness or tact regardless if you were a mile or a millimeter off the mark. It was not unlike the “all or nothing” mentality I’ve seen from more than one gifted student. In the case of Steve Jobs, his attention to all aspects of production gave us some pretty innovative products. (Yes, I love my iPad!) It also makes me wonder what kind of amazing things lie the in the reality distortion fields of other gifted individuals who aren’t able to negotiate social situations well.
I could go on and on about the book and how his competitive nature didn’t seem to be about money but more about creating not only awesome “stuff” but better “stuff”. How his fascination for simplicity was underscored by the understanding that true simplicity tends to be incredibly complex. How his very human struggle with lifestyle choices and relationships impacted his health and well-being. It was a fascinating read.
I think I am due to examine a few more biographies. There is a great post at Ingeniosus that will link you to some great biographies for gifted students. As I look through the list I see a lot of “disruptive” individuals…