Q&A: Ungifted and Talented

An erstwhile remedial student sets out to overturn ideas about intelligence.

By Andrea Hilbert, published July 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Scott Barry Kaufman
Scott Barry Kaufman was 17 when he read that a person with his IQ would be lucky to finish high school. "If you force me to express my intellectual potential in a standardized fashion, I can't," says Kaufman, now a cognitive psychologist who teaches at NYU. "I'm not anti-IQ; I'm just against measuring every single person's intelligence as deviations from a singular standardized metric." Kaufman's own book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, charts his research and personal stake in challenging what predicts achievement. 

How does a kid go from special ed to a Yale Ph.D.?

The first year of my life I had a lot of ear infections, and I developed a learning disability called central auditory processing disorder. I had trouble hearing and processing things in real time. That left me a step behind the rest of the kids, and people just assumed I was learning disabled. I outgrew whatever early difficulties I had—I definitely compensated for them—but I didn't question the system. In ninth grade, a substitute teacher looked at me afresh, took me aside after class, and said: "Why are you here?" No one had ever asked me that before. And I asked my parents: "Why am I still in special education?" They didn't know. Some switch turned on as soon as someone believed in me. And then I wondered: How many people are falling into the cracks of the system? What are people really capable of? My scientific journey has been to understand that.

How does your theory of intelligence differ from the prevailing view?

Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of abilities, engagement, and the pursuit of personal goals. We can't view ability as static, as completely divorced from engagement. We all have things that capture our attention, and we ignore the things we're not interested in. Skills are strengthened through projects that are personally meaningful, so you can't really understand what someone is capable of achieving intellectually unless you know their goals and give them a long period of time to actually engage. In the real world, people spend years playing with ideas within a particular domain. But in a K-12, we lose sight of the big picture. A lot of students get very dejected by the end of high school, thinking their life is over when it hasn't even started.

How can a strained school system promote a more individualized approach to education?

By the time you get to high school, there's no justification for a general curriculum. In a system that sorts people as gifted and ungifted, we're sending a message that you either have it or you don't. We're not promoting hard work and discipline. I believe in teaching a general set of skills that you can apply no matter what your dream is, no matter what you want to do in life. Schools that are project-based do that and make all their students feel that they're making a valuable contribution.

Do you see any positive role for competition?

People would benefit if we compared ourselves only to our past selves and our future selves. That's the healthiest way of achieving your goals: staying focused on what you need to do to get there.