Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review:  Ungifted by Scott Barry Kaufman

Todd I. Stark  5/29/2013

Link to review on Amazon

Intelligence turns out to be a difficult topic, for reasons that aren’t at all obvious at first. Our understanding of mental ability has been captured in several independent threads of research that are surprisingly oblivious of each other for the most part.  Our stereotypes of the gifted and the ungifted often miss the details of what is going on.  The study of individual differences in general, while useful, doesn’t just de-emphasize, but actually systematically misses some of the most important things going on when people become exceptionally successful contributors.  

The author of Ungifted is well situated to make an important contribution to our understanding of intelligence.  He has made a deep academic study of a wide span of existing research programs, he has worked directly in collaboration with many of the leading researchers in several related fields and he has passionately engaged these ideas since childhood when he became  painfully aware of the academic sorting process for giftedness, and he himself is a wonderful example of many of the principles that emerge in his new book.  This is not another book that just starts out with a vague progressive vision of education and ability that everyone is a potential “genius” and then fills it in with wishful thinking.  No, this is a book that dives very deeply and realistically into the literature of psychometrics, heritability, cognitive neuroscience, and expertise.  It looks closely at patterns from the span of phenomena of human differences, including savantism, prodigy, autism, schizophrenia, personality, g factor, motivation, and creativity.

Ungifted is so compelling, rich, and significant a book for me that most of it was well worn by the end of the first day it arrived. What makes this book so rich is the unique combination of personal passion, strong but not intrusive scholarship, deep domain expertise, clear analysis, and all tied together with an original new and constructive perspective. Hard to ask for more than that from a non-fiction book. Every chapter is a stimulating lesson in an important topic that brings together a broad range of data, ever heading toward the book’s conclusion, nothing less than a complete rethinking of human intellectual ability, consistent with considerable evidence gathered along the way.

The most impressive and distinctive aspect of the author's thinking is his consistent and effective use of perspective-taking. In each case where a controversy is identified, each side is explored with great depth and sympathy to understand what its advocates understand that those on the other side seem to miss. It isn't difficult to do that for the side of an argument we agree with but it is an impressive achievement to do it for different sides and then to synthesize the perspectives into an overlapping understanding. This ability is particularly relevant to topics like IQ, giftedness, and learning disabilities, where sharp controversy shapes conversations at every turn.

Ungifted is about how we conceive of mental ability in general. Some people manage to accomplish much more with their mind than others do. There’s no escaping that basic observation, nor the fact that it has immense significance for political and educational thinking. What is the difference that makes a difference? The answers we get depend on the kinds of questions we ask.

Ungifted is in part the story of how the important questions have changed over time and why. There seem to be two tragic errors that we’ve fallen into historically. For one, we’ve often ignored the differences between us and tried to force everyone into cookie-cutter educational molds that well serve only a minority of the people they are intended to serve. Most of us appreciate this personal plight, as does the author in his "subjective" voice and personal experience throughout the book.

The other tragic error is ironically the reverse. In trying to appreciate the differences between people we’ve taken the opposite extreme of becoming obsessed with stable, predictive individual differences. We test ourselves and compare ourselves with each other and we look for the numbers that tell us who deserves what because we assume we are identifying potential. The author appreciates the motives and sometimes successes of this approach when done well, but the focus of Ungifted is on how we can do better.

It is the tragedy of our obsession with individual differences that Ungifted in the author's "objective" voice most eloquently addresses. We assume that testing people against each other will tell us how to best teach each person by identifying what makes people different. Ungifted describes in great detail and punctuated by the author’s own personal life story why that well-intended approach has failed us time and time again.

It isn’t simply as many politically motivated accounts would have it, that IQ has no meaning, or is too culture bound, or just measures test taking ability. IQ and similar kinds of tests when given and interpreted intelligently provide a useful and well-validated way of identifying the lion’s share of variation in human intellectual ability across a wide range of situations and this has some very real correlations with meaningful life outcomes. The problem is not that the tests are useless but that they have come to be misconstrued as if they measure a single stable ability that resides in each person and predicts what that person is capable of accomplishing. People who do well in IQ tests do tend to be smart people in general. But so are many people who do more poorly in IQ tests, and doing well in IQ tests doesn’t provide any guarantee that we also have persistence, motivation, or other qualities so important to making the best of our abilities.

A number of theorists have made useful additions to the body of well validated tests, but these are still tests of static abilities and they don't solve the most basic problem identified in Ungifted. The reasons the individual differences approach has failed us in the broad global sense that we have tried to apply it are that while effectively explaining variation between people in the same population, it has not taken broader environments into account, it has not taken the course of development into account, and it has not taken the dynamic differences into account that make the most difference in human lives over time.

A number of fundamental misunderstandings of heritability, genetics, development, and psychometric research have been exploited, often through politically motivated movements, to obscure the larger vision of intellectual ability. Ungifted makes a serious bid to help correct these fundamental misunderstandings.

Do some people have more of a critical trait or traits from the start, or do some people learn more from their experience, and in either case how much can we influence our abilities over the course of our life? The traditional dialectic of nature vs. nurture seems to have its own unavoidable groove in our thinking that we rarely manage to escape. Yet as long as we have been studying human ability scientifically, there has been evidence that the dichotomy is inadequate. 21st century research has given us some useful insights into the specifics. Ungifted summarizes the most important lessons from a wide range of data about human abilities, and the author is particularly careful to distinguish his subjective passion for the subject (which is often in evidence) from his more detached coverage of the data in the various fields.

Ungifted starts out with a concise summary of principles of the 21st century picture of development, setting the background for the rest of the book. The concept of traits is explored, and the patterns by which they develop.

Then we have a tour of the ways we have tried to measure human mental ability and our reasonable motivations for the various testing innovations over time. From the measurement of ability, we then see how measurement slides into the sorting of people into categories for practical purposes and the allocation of finite educational resources. We see the well-motivated practical reasons for labeling people, but we also get a sense of the often tragic real world limitations of that way of thinking.

We are introduced in an understandable but expert way to the real strengths and weaknesses of IQ testing, and to the best available model of how its scales map to specific cognitive abilities. This prepares us to begin to understand the different ways that "giftedness" has been defined and measured and why we are still so far behind where we need to be to cultivate the best in every individual. We also are given enough background to begin to appreciate the unique challenges of being different, whether perceived as higher or lower in ability than others around us. Ungifted artfully blends a sympathetic understanding of the needs of researchers and testers with those of teachers, and the diverse individuals just striving to do their best.

Then we are introduced to the core concept that distinguishes this developmental reframing of human mental ability, the concept of engagement. Engagement brings together the factors that distinguish the learnable, experiential aspects of intelligence from those that seem particularly stable. Engagement is the hinge that swings the big door to individual potential. Engagement is built on a number of factors that are particularly malleable and context-dependent, so it is of particular interest to the way education is done. Once we have a sense of what engagement is about, we take a fresh look at human abilities in terms of what is known about their development over time. The role of engagement over time in development begins to become clearer as we tour through the critical concepts of intelligence, creativity, talent, and expertise, and begin to see how they each relate to development over time. At the end, the key points learned along the way are summarized to give the outline of a new theory of intelligence.

For me the theory of intelligence introduced here is distinguished by two critical characteristics: (1) it emphasizes what happens in the individual over time rather than differences between people, and in so doing draws on different kinds of data, and (2) it is synthetic in spirit, emphasizing multiple ways of achieving the same outcomes by drawing on different resources, rather than looking for additional ways of distinguishing the abilities of different people. These two characteristics make this theory very different from most of the alternatives that are intended to address some of the same gaps in our intelligence models, alternatives such as “multiple intelligences,” “emotional intelligence,” and so on. Rather than just identifying more things that we think might be missed by IQ testing, and turning them into new sources of labeling and categorizing, the personal developmental theory of intelligence assumes that there are many different components to be identified, but places them into an overarching biological framework where ability is developed over time by identifying, selecting, modifying, and constructing niches suited to the thriving of the individual.

Several important shifts of emphasis emerge:

1.      Away from reliance on studying stable individual  differences and toward the details of person-centered development

We have focused primarily on measuring stable individual differences, whether “general intelligence” or other kinds of “intelligence” or personality in order to support research and allocate finite educational resources.  What this approach misses is the details of development within each individual over time.  It turns out that these two approaches, individual differences and person-centered, are not just different but produce incompatible results.  So this is a very important source of new information about how mental ability arises.  It is common for authors to point out that nature and nurture are an archaic dichotomy and that it is the interaction that matters, but the details are generally left vague.  There’s a need for specific research programs that focus on the development of ability over time.  The developmental approach is not just a detail, it is a separate source of crucial empirical data.

2.      Away from viewing the positive manifold of abilities on tests (“g”)  as a single ability in each person, and toward understanding its value in conveniently capturing most of the variation an array of mental abilities that collectively underlie many different kinds of tests.    

3.      Away from seeing intelligence as a number or even a trait, and toward seeing it as the adaptive fit between the individual and their environment by finding, selecting, shaping, and creating niches they can thrive in.

4.      Away from focusing on cognitive skills in isolation, and toward consideration of the motivations, strategies, and experience that turn those skills into practical abilities over time.

5.      Away from the focus on being able to measure abilities that represent potential in a brief test, and toward finding the best way to engage and cultivate each person.  Active engagement with the world and ability are inseparably intertwined in a mutual feedback process over time.

6.      Away from focus solely on controlled cognitive processes underlying reasoning, and toward better understanding of the role of both controlled and spontaneous processes in intelligence.  Being smart involves flexible use both controlled and spontaneous mental processes, and using the right resources when needed, rather than relying on one to the exclusion of the other.

7.      Away from fixed rules about how long it should take to become good at something or what special levels of ability provide thresholds, and toward seeing our “readiness for engagement” as a better indicator of potential.

8.  Away from seeing intelligence and expertise as independent (and one inborn and the other learned), and toward seeing the overlaps between them as cognitive abilities,personality, and motivation support the acquisition of expertise, and cognitive expertise is part of what shows up in testing for ability.  One of the most remarkable findings in the book that links intelligence and expertise is that chunking in memory, a key aspect of organizing knowledge in memory involved in expertise, activates the brain structures involved in fluid reasoning, a central component measured by tests.  

The resulting view of intelligence doesn’t see everyone as equal by any means, it seems unavoidable that some people will not be able to excel at some things relative to other people.  Stable individual differences do not somehow disappear because we shift emphasis to the person and their development.  However we do begin to see the real value of changing the nature of education to focus on the fit between people and niches rather than selecting people for special treatment via brief tests and subjective judgments of merit.  Several practical working examples of programs that successfully accomplish this change are described in the book.

I place this book alongside two others in a trilogy that for me represents a broad understanding of the nature of mental ability as it is best envisioned at the current time.

1. "Surpassing Ourselves" is about how outstanding performers learn differently.  It shows expertise as a distinctive way of learning rather than just an endpoint of domain specialization. By comparing the same person over time as they develop, rather than just comparing novices with experts, we get an understanding of the process by which people become smarter.  This is very similar to the shift made with intelligence in Ungifted, but applied specifically to expertise and shows again how the shift to a process perspective captures additional important information.  Surpassing ourselves also introduces  the reinvestment perspective, which looks at the growth of ability in terms of becoming more efficient over time and then reinvesting the saved time and energy in new learning, which seems to be a big part of how people who ultimately become exceptional learn differently from those who do not.

2. "Outsmarting IQ" is about learnable intelligence.  It shows how experience, stable cognitive abilities, and strategies work together to navigate realms of knowledge and let us apply our knowledge.  It gives a good account of the role of strategies, including learnable strategies and cognitive expertise, in trading off between cognitive abilities in order to make the best of our existing stable cognitive abilities.

3. "Ungifted" combines the intrapersonal process perspective with a developmental model and an overall hierarchical model of cognitive abilities, consistent with the other two books in this list and yet going way beyond them to explain in much greater detail where “IQ” and other tests scores come from and what they tell us, and how stable cognitive abilities, expertise, creativity, and personality all interact to produce intelligence.

Update 5/29/13 1PM:  Link to abbreviated GoodReads version of review:

Ungifted: Intelligence RedefinedUngifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews