‘Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined’ by Dr. Scott Kaufman – Book Review

Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD is a Cognitive Psychologist, Researcher and Author who has focused his work on redefining how we think about intelligence and creativity. In ‘Ungifted’ Kaufman shares his own personal story of being diagnosed as learning disabled as a child and recounts the limitations and restrictions that he faced as a result of this labelling process, how he resisted it and moved beyond it. ‘Ungifted’ is impressive because it combines Kaufman’s inspirational first person narrative account with an indepth critical and reflexive analysis of the relevant theory and research, its implications for practice and of course its relevance to our everyday lives!

'Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined' by Scott Kaufman

Theory of Personal Intelligence

With his ‘Theory of Personal Intelligence’ Kaufman presents us with a much more nuanced and holistic view of intelligence than we have encountered before. It is a complete paradigm shift which moves us away from the ‘individual differences’ approach which has predominated our view of  intelligence for over a 100 years. This has unfortunately been a view of intelligence which has caused us to compare ourselves to others and has left many of us feeling as if we are coming up short, that we’re missing the mark in some fundamental way or that we just don’t fit in.

Instead Kaufman offers us a theory which defines intelligence as the a ‘dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals’. It acknowledges the importance of the wider context in the shaping of our abilities and encompasses factors such as motivation, inspiration and passion in a dynamic and developmentally based theory. It embraces quirkiness and difference in a way that other theories do not. The ‘Personal Theory of Intelligence’ opens up a space for us to embrace our individual strengths and work on the areas that we struggle with. It gives us encouragement to pursue our dreams.

Problems with Labelling

“It seems to me no matter what I want to achieve I am imprisoned by my label.”

Excluded from mainstream classes and placed in a Special Ed program, Kaufman felt cast aside and was languishing in an environment which underestimated his abilities and failed to see his potential. Kaufman almost lost hope that things could ever be different until he met Joyce Jules a special education teacher who saw his frustration and unhappiness and encouraged him to challenge the status quo. Inspired by the recognition of his potential, Kaufman began to hope that things could be different. Scott KaufmanHe immediately began questioning authority and eventually broke free from the constraints of the label and a classroom environment that had been limiting him for so many years.

‘Stereotyping students with disabilities on the basis of a disability label of standardised test score is not only unsupported by the best evidence in the field of psychological and education measurement, but it’s just plain discrimination.’

Away from the restrictions the label had imposed on him Kaufman was able to engage in subjects that had always fascinated him. At first Kaufman fell in love with playing the cello and there are wonderful sections in the book that describe how his grandfather (a famous cellist) acted as a role model and source of inspiration to him. He dove into  many of the subjects with enthusiasm which had been off limits to him due to his learning disability status. Kaufman went on to study Cognitive Science at Carnegie Mellon, he got an M.Phil in Experimental Psychology at Cambridge and his PhD in Cognitive Psychology at Yale. Throughout his journey Scott reached out to work with psychologists and researchers who inspired him. A number of them acted as mentors and role models in his quest to understand and then to later re-define intelligence.

‘Ungifted’ is divided into 4 sections: Origins (IQ and development), Labels (learning disabled, gifted, and ‘gifted souls’), Engagement (passion, mindset, and self-regulation), and Ability (deliberate practice, g, talent, and creativity). Kaufman provides us with an insightful guide to the complex history and the origins of intelligence testing, the contested and socially constructed nature of the disability field and the philosophical and practical problems associated with the labels of both ‘giftedness’ and ‘learning disability’.

Redefining Intelligence

Kaufman challenges us to think more carefully about concepts such as ‘giftedness’, ‘talent’ and ‘creativity’ which are often viewed as fixed and inherent qualities of an individual that you either possess or you don’t. Using an interesting mix of personal experience and wide ranging research he explores factors such as intrinsic motivation, deliberate practice and the influence that characteristics such as inspiration, passion and hope can have on the learning process and the development of talents in any particular domain. Inspiring relationships, mentorship and support play a key role in the learning process. Kaufman claims that factors such as inspiration can play an important role in intrinsic motivation which is often overlooked.

“Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way a person perceives of his or her own capabilities.”

‘Ungifted’ encourages us to focus on a child’s strengths and to find ways of tapping into and maximising our unique intelligence and creativity. The kinds of environments we create and the types of relationships we provide can play an important part in realising our potential. In a similar way nurturing our children’s interests, passions and preferences can tap into their intrinsic motivation leading to increased engagement, joy and feelings of competence.

Connections with Unschooling 

I was interested to see that many of Kaufman’s recommendations that arise from his ‘Theory of Personal Intelligence’ align with an unschooling approach to living and learning. For example, Peter Gray and Gina Riley noted in their research with grown unschoolers that over 70% of their sample believed that they had benefitted  from unschooling because it provided them with the freedom and opportunity to follow their passions and engage in activities they enjoyed. They reported that their childhood passions had provided a seamless transition to the later occupations they had as adults.

The Importance of Socio-Emotional Development

“The more we can address the whole child the more likely we are to see that child flourish”.

‘Ungifted’ also explores the importance of socio-emotional development in the learning process. A child’s emotional well being and ability to self-regulate has a big impact on their ability to engage in meaningful activities and to learn from the world around them. Clancy Blair and Adele Diamond describe how many children start school at an age (3- 6 years) before these socio-emotional capacities are fully developed. This can leave children struggling to cope in a classroom environment and may lead to negative consequences for the child and an increasing negative feedback loop is set up. Those with less well developed regulatory skills fall behind and the gap increases.

As a Clinical Psychologist and parent with an interest in attachment theory I see the ability to self-regulate and to make meaningful choices develops within the context of inter-subjective relationship between parent and child (K. Golding (2012), D. Hughes (2011), A. Schore (2016), D. Siegel (2014),D. Neufeld (2012)). This is a further benefit of adopting an unschooling approach as parents can be available to support, partner and nurture their children as they grow and mature. Children are not prematurely separated from their parents by attending nursery or school before they are developmentally ready.

Outside of the school context there is no pressure to read or write by a certain age or to learn particular things before a child is ready or motivated to do so. Each child can follow their own unique developmental trajectory. There is no need for labels as each child can be met exactly where they are at and supported to learn in ways which are suited to them. This seems to fit well  with Kaufman’s perspective which offers us a more inclusive, hopeful and inspirational perspective of what it means to be human and how given the right conditions we can all maximise and celebrate our unique brand of intelligence and potential for creativity.

If you would like to hear more of my thoughts on this book, I had an in depth discussion with Pam Laricchia on her ‘Exploring Unschooling’ Podcast. You can read Pam’s show notes of our discussion on her webpage, read a transcript of our discussion or listen to the show below:


Writing and articles by Dr. Emma Marie Forde, DClinPsych – Parent, Clinical Psychologist and Unschooling Advocate.


‘Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined’ by Scott Kaufman

Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (9 April 2015)





Scott Kaufman’s Homepage

Scott Kaufman, TED Talk