December 11, 2023

What We're Reading: Ungifted

Blue Orchard Bee Resource

What We're Reading: Ungifted


A long-standing goal at the Blue Orchard Bee is to improve the accessibility of our resources for all of our listeners and readers. Our work this year is focused on republishing some of your favorite episodes with new, fully edited transcripts to accomplish just that. This video first appeared in the 2022 Spring series and features a discussion on the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. Join Jennifer Swearingen, Molly Gribble, and Danielle as they share their thoughts and reactions to this book.


The following video is a product of the Blue Orchard Bee and the Charlotte Mason Institute to hold a copyright.  You are encouraged to share this file with your friends family and colleagues.  Do not republish this information in any format, including electronic or digital, without permission from the Charlotte Mason Institute.  Ideas suggested in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the Blue Orchard Bee or the Charlotte Mason Institute. Information provided here is not to be perceived or construed as professional advice in matters of mental health.  You are encouraged to work closely with a mental health professional provider that meets your needs.


The copyright of this file belongs to the Charlotte Mason Institute, to Andra Smith and Danielle Sunseri. And it is for personal use only and may not be republished in any format without written permission from the copyright holders. The views in these files do not necessarily reflect the views of the copyright holders. The information provided is not intended to represent, be construed, or received as professional mental health advice.

The copyright holders encourage everyone with mental health needs to work closely with a licensed provider that fits those needs. Welcome to the Blue Orchard Bee. This is our last session for Spring 2022. It was fun seeing many of you at the recent CMI conference. We hope that the sessions at the conference and over the past year on the Blue Orchard Bee have been beneficial to you. In today's video, Danielle discusses with Molly Gribble and Jennifer Swearingen the book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. Let's join their conversation.


Danielle: I have been reading Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. Have either of you guys read this one? I am a big fan of Scott Barry Kaufman. The main idea of the book is that our concept of intelligence is very limited and biased. That really it has been carried down, but it is unsupported by the sum total of our current knowledge and experience that we have. He really challenges you as you are reading through the book to really take a hard look at what your assumptions are.

He does that through a combination of different ways. It is part autobiography, part biographical case studies, part historical, part scientific review. It is really quite a meaty book. But I really like him in part because he's such a brilliant scientist, but at the same time he was diagnosed with a learning disability as a child, so he's got kind of both of these perspectives and it's really refreshing in his writing because he's not - he's willing not only to admit, but also to wrestle with and really embrace kind of the push-pull between that objective side and his subjective experiences.

And really trying to bring those together to give us kind of a big picture, you know, like a really, really good comprehensive look. I found it really interesting that he gives us some historical context for what was going on in Mason's time around this idea, like what kinds of assessments were, were they doing, how did the IQ test even come about. He looks at, you know, what was the impact of culture and the social-emotional context of different kinds of kids. It's not really about one specific diagnosis. He really is kind of like Ross Greene, I think, in the sense that he would really prefer to not have diagnoses, but you know the case studies covered everything from learning disabilities to autism to, you know, synesthesia, and ADHD, and just all sorts of, all sorts of different kinds of kids and that's kind of his point is that, you know, we can look at all of these different kinds of diagnoses - we can look at hot topics, like growth mindset and multiple intelligences and deliberate practice and race and executive function and all of those different kinds of things, but we really need a big picture. And that's what he's trying to do in this book.

Molly: That does sound interesting. I think about those connections a lot, like how all that stuff kind of comes together. Yeah, especially with the advocacy work, you know that that I've been part of, it's just like those topics just tend to like - all these diagnoses and all these social justice issues and all that stuff really does like - it kind of has a kind of a common beginning I think personhood.

Danielle: Yeah, yeah, and that was actually one of the - he's got a lot of his, you know, great quotes throughout the whole book, but one of my favorite quotes was actually that he provided from this woman named Ann Marie Roper, who was a Holocaust survivor that had come to America with her husband and they started a school together. And she said, 'The question we have to ask ourselves is: do we want to use this child for our own purposes, using his talents for ourselves, or do we want to help him find a place for his sacred self in this world?’ I just thought that was such a beautiful thought to kind of carry through, you know, as we're thinking about all of these things. Like, these are real people, you know, real little kids. They're not products that that we're going to make use of.

‘The question we have to ask ourselves is: do we want to use this child for our own purposes, using his talents for ourselves, or do we want to help him find a place for his sacred self in this world?’ ~Ann Marie Roper quote from Ungifted

There was something that he mentioned by this group that worked under Carol Ames that I wanted to learn more about called TARGET lesson planning. And so the idea is that the learning environment should provide for our basic human needs and in education that is needing a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others, to the world around us. So, kind of Charlotte Mason [inaudible]. And the learning environment needs to be there and the idea is that each of those things is going to vary like where the person is or what their need is going to vary from one child to the next and so the learning environment needs to nurture the engagement of the child and their self-agency, their self-efficacy, and their social-emotional and physical development, so there's this whole it's this six-step, or six things that she defined as being really helpful to think about in lesson planning. And so it's that T is for the task or the design of the lesson. A is for autonomy - how much autonomy is the child going to have? R is reward - what's, what's the nature of the reward going to be, is it going to be, you know, extra time outside or a sticker or, you know, screen time or Legos or, you know, what is it going to be? G is for grouping - what kind of grouping is going to take place in the lesson? So, like is the child going to be working independently, is it going to be one-on-one with the teacher, is it going to be with a group of three or four kids? You know, what's that going to look like? E is for evaluation - how is the child going to be evaluated for their work? So, for us that would be like, how are they going to narrate? And then what's the Timing or the pace for the lesson? Like, is it going to be 10 minutes, is it going to be two weeks that this is going to, you know, whatever they're doing like a science lab, it's going to go on for two weeks, is it going to be the book that goes on for, you know, the whole year. So, I wanted to look more into into her work on that because that sounded like it maybe a helpful framework to be thinking about.

Jennifer: Ann Marie, is that right? What was her last name?

Danielle: The woman who did the target lesson planning work? Her name was Carol Ames. Carol Ames. Oh, right.

Jennifer: She's the - is she the growth mindset person?

Danielle: No, that's Carol Dweck.  

Jennifer: Oh right. Yeah. Thanks.

Molly: That sounds a lot like some of this stuff. Well, it sounds like an overlap of like Charlotte Mason stuff with like some other things probably.  I don't know, does Charlotte Mason ever talk about rewards? I know she talks a little bit about like outside time or something, right?

Danielle: Yeah, I mean she does - she talks about not having, like, extrinsic rewards, right. Like, the teacher's going to go get a piece of candy for this or for that. And so I think people tend to interpret that as no rewards. But she does say - she does talk about extra outside time or getting to go outside earlier which is, which is another kind of reward. So, I think it's just kind of like, how you're looking at it. Is it something that, you know, the teacher - like this meaningless prize that the teacher is applying from the outside or is this something that the child genuinely desires, you know, from the inside out?

Molly: Never arbitrary, if it's Charlotte Mason. Right? Yeah, I think that's the problem with so many, like any reward-punishment system, it's often, it's just arbitrary. It's not the only problem with it, but it's one of the problems is that it just isn't connected to anything meaningful. What were you gonna say, Jennifer?

Jennifer: It was about the reward, it slipped my mind, it's okay.

Molly: Have either of you read Alfie Kohn's book? It's not that new, but it's a little bit new. Punished by Rewards, I want to read that.

Jennifer: I have, it's been a while and I don't remember if I finished it. I thought it was interesting when I went to Andy's first class and she was talking about how it's okay to use rewards because it's just one of those things that as Charlotte Mason educators, we've been so conditioned against using rewards, but I do feel like what Charlotte Mason did with the extra outside time, it's just really kind of a natural consequence. If you finish your work early, you have more time to do something that you want to pursue, whether it's a hobby or just more time in the fresh air, kicking a ball around or whatever. It just seems like her rewards make more sense than giving out scratch-and-sniff snickers, stickers or fun things like that. But I just remember in school one of my favorite things that I was so proud of when I brought home is every time I got 100 on a spelling test, I got a star and everybody's name was all over the chart and the person with the most stars got to take the chart home. This was fifth grade and I just felt so special that I got to bring that chart home, but what did all the other kids feel like, right? So, I don't know that that is really the best reward even though it feels good for the child who gets to take the chart home.

I like the idea of rewards that just seem to flow out of, I can't think of what else to call it, but natural consequences of, 'hey, you've done your work and now, if you wanna go spend some more time playing your instrument or go talk with a friend or whatever, you just...'

Molly: Or like 'you read a whole book, so let's get another book.' I think that that's kind of like... Yeah, absolutely.

Jennifer: What is it the library, the librarians of Alcatraz or something?

Danielle: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, you know what that was the one I was going to talk about because, well we can talk about that in another time, but...

Jennifer: He's just finished number three, I think, and he just loves them.

Danielle: Yeah, yeah, mine do, too. My 13-year-old was offended by the title and was absolutely like 'no, I'm not reading it. I love librarians. It's like sacrilege.' And then, and so then my 10-year-old was kind of like reading it, like, so that she could see over his shoulder and he and she caught some passage about the one character whose name is Bastille and it's a very good fit, so now they're - my son is Alcatraz and she's Bastille and they have this whole thing going now.

Anyway. I did want to mention there's a couple of, kind of like thought-provoking ideas in this book that I thought were really interesting because they might kind of rub up against some of our traditionally held perspectives and one of them was that, he suggests, which is something that's not necessarily new to us, but he is encouraging people to think about - that all of these traits that we describe are balanced on a continuum, so rather than thinking about them as being like positive traits or negative traits, let’s instead think about them as being complimentary and that they all have their place in certain circumstances and so the one of the examples he gives is that intellect can be thought of as a drive for truth whereas openness to experience can be thought of as a drive for beauty and there are some situations or some circumstances where those two will like encourage each other and they'll both flourish and then there are other circumstances where those two will be inversely developed, but we need all kinds of people who have, you know, all of those situations because we - in real life, we have all of these circumstances, so we need to stop labeling them as being good or bad.

All of these traits that we describe are balanced on a continuum, so rather than thinking about them as being positive traits or negative traits, let’s instead think about them as being complimentary and that they all have their place in certain circumstances.

And then the other idea that he brought out was that, and this one was, I think, maybe more abrasive to some of us in the Mason community, is that he suggests that there's an importance between differentiating between mind wandering that is constructive and that that is not. Because studies show that mind wandering can be very constructive for creativity and building empathy and self-regulation and future planning and all of these other really important life skills and if a child is mind wandering, right, and they're not attending to what we want them to attend to because they're working on these important life skills, we should not interrupt that process. That's really detrimental. So, that was something that I thought was really important to be - to think about. You know, what does it look like when the child is mind wandering in one of these constructive ways versus just, you know, all over the place and kind of destructive?

Jennifer: Did he give examples of what that might look like?

Danielle: I believe he did. I can't remember them off the top of my head. There were a lot of little case studies worked in here and there and specific case studies and then also kind of a review of the medical literature, right. So, then there's not specific case studies, but like oh, there was this study of, you know, 5000 people that showed such and such.

I think he - so, you can see I've got like - [that's a huge book] - markings in here. So, like one of the examples he gave, I think for that specifically, were related to like a lot of artists, and how they struggled in school because people always said that they were mind wandering and one was actually one of his mentors, I believe, and he commented that he wasn't mind wandering. He was very present with his own thoughts. He was right there. He was just working on something. It just wasn't what, you know, these other people wanted him to be working on. But he was being very productive.

There's an importance between differentiating between mind wandering that is constructive and that that is not.

So, his ultimate thesis is, suggested by the title, is that he wants to redefine what we mean by the word intelligence and kind of give us a framework for that. And so he - his definition, his new definition is that intelligence is the dynamic and complex dance between engagement and ability toward personal goals, and he gives us four tenants that, of this framework, that we should be thinking about in schools or after school programs or you know whatever kind of the learning environment is that we're looking at. Three of them I thought stood out to me because they were very consistent with Mason's principles. I think, especially the principles that we kind of hold most dear in the Blue Orchard Bee community. And then one of them was, like I said, with that other example, was maybe a little bit more "ooh," some of us are probably uncomfortable with that. So, the first one is that the child's concept of self is critically important and as he's describing what that means to him, it's really personhood. And then the second one is that engagement and ability are inseparable. So, I feel like that's an idea that we've talked about, not in those exact words, but specifically in terms of that kind of being the key to getting these kids to narrate well, right - they have to be engaged in whatever it is and it has to be fitted to their abilities. The third one was that he wants people to realize that there is no set time frame for achieving our goals. So, this is kind of like an important part of education as a life, right? Like, if the kid doesn't get it this year, that's okay, they're still working on it. You know, we'll come back around to it again and maybe it's not important that they get that one goal this year. Maybe it's not important that they can write the five-paragraph essay this year. And then that fourth one kind of comes back to that one example that I gave where he states that he believes that both controlled and spontaneous cognitive processes are valid and relevant for learning. So, we shouldn't be cutting off these spontaneous cognitive processes and labeling them as bad.

Anyway, so it's a pretty dense book. I had a hard time getting through it a little bit. I knew we were having our meeting tonight. So, we were at Taekwondo and I'm like, 'okay, I got to read this.' And the kids are all doing their keyups and I'm like, 'I'm trying to read.'

Jennifer: But I really wish I were one of those people that could be impervious at what's going on around me and just focus on my book and read, but sadly, I need a pretty quiet atmosphere and focus depending on what it is. But yeah, that's not me.

Danielle: Yeah. I actually, I was driving. This is the second time I've tried to read this book. Well, it's the first time I've tried to read it. I tried to listen to it in the car when I was driving back and forth to DC. This was like pre-pandemic when my daughter was in school there. And I just, I couldn't, I can't listen to stuff in the car. I should have known better, but I tried anyway.

Molly: It's like certain, I feel like it's certain books I can listen to. And yeah, during the pandemic, like a lot of people described like they just couldn't do some of this heavier reading. You know, it's just like your brain just kind of checks out because it is intense. It's like very, you have to concentrate on it. So I tend to read these books really slowly.

Jennifer: Well, for me, it's audiobooks are - it's easy for my mind to wander and then I lose the story. And so I like audiobooks, but I usually - my son just likes to listen.

I usually like to follow along in the book. So, I mean, clearly I couldn't do that while I was driving. And audiobooks are really good for when you're driving. I just find my mind does not usually stay super engaged.

Danielle: I had the same, I tend to listen to books in the car that like we've already read once, you know, like Harry Potter or something. But if they're, if they're not, if it's not something I'm already not familiar with, I can't seem to stick with it in the car. I'm lost.

So what do you, what do you, how do you guys see, I'm interested in how you guys see that one point that he brings up. Is that something that would be difficult for a lot of people in the Mason community? Do you agree with that? Or do you feel like now that that's not accurate?

Jennifer: I'm intrigued by it. I would really like to know more because I feel like that probably applies to my son a lot, but he does maybe mind wandering and I'm, you know, trying to pull him back in. And if that's something that is not honoring his personhood, I'd really like to know about it. I spent so many years as a Mason educator trying to fit him into the mold of a neurotypical child to the point where we were both reduced to tears at times that I'm so freed by this idea of honoring him in his education that I have a feeling that Charlotte Mason would approve if she, she just didn't know the things that we know about the neuroatypical community, but I think if she did, she would be on board with it. So, it intrigues me. I'd really like to know more about it.

Molly: Yeah, I think it's one of those things where we need to change the way we're thinking about something. We need to change it from like, this is some part of character to like, no, this is just a difference in the way someone's brain is functioning. And that's not what character is. Like, that's not it. I'm not sure sometimes what we mean by character because it has been so - it seems like we know so much more about the brain and how it works that we kind of have to rethink that those are the big things we have to rethink.

Danielle: And it's a huge shift then to start thinking about it. Not only like, it's not bad character, but it can actually be good. Right. And, you know, certain situations and so it's a reason to honor it.

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