Since I have been searching for a theoretical foundation for the type of teaching and curriculum I am attempting to design for my music students, I have been studying several theories of learning and intelligence in order to see if there is one that seems to support what I do. I have also been looking for theories with which I disagree so that I can position myself and develop a voice about where I stand and what I believe about how my students learn and how best to teach them. In the case of the work of Scott Barry Kaufman, I most definitely and wholeheartedly agree.
Like my students, Kaufman has struggled with a learning difference, and his experiences in school have motivated him, just like many of my students, to seek out some explanation of how he became the way he is. His book, Ungifted, tells his story, and also traces the history of our understanding of intelligence, culminating in his final chapter, the subject of these annotations, in which he creates his own, empirically supportable definition of intelligence, and outlines his own theory of intelligence, Personal Intelligence Theory.
Kaufman begins by reviewing the definition of intelligence put forth by fifty-two experts in the field of intelligence and published in The Wall street Journal in 1994:
“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. …it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings” (291).
First reading this definition, especially after studying theories of intelligence and learning by Howard Gardner, Lev Vygotsky, and David A. Kolb, it seemed to adequately capture the ways in which intelligence manifests itself. One thing is for sure, after twenty-two years of teaching, I know that “intelligence” manifests itself in my students in myriad ways. And many of them are not related to traditional academic skills, such as note-taking and critical writing. Not only that, I have seen Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences be used to pigeonhole my learning different students into a box that they can’t break out of and that limits their academic potential. So this definition, by its sheer wordiness alone, seemed to be hedging all of its bets and covering all of its bases. Most importantly to me, it speaks to the value of learning from experience. This is an aspect of intelligence that affects the way we approach almost every problem we encounter, and yet subjective experience is kept out of so much of our academic discourse. Kaufman seems to feel the same way about the depth of the definition, but asserts, “defining a term is one thing, measuring it is another” (291). This contradiction becomes the crux of his argument against so many prevailing definitions of intelligence, and the foundation of his own theories. The paradox is that, as Kaufman describes throughout the chapter, most theorists agree that intelligence is really much more than intellectual capacity, and yet our measures of and expectations of intelligence by and large focus only on this one element of overall intelligence. Therefore, our schools and our assessments only cover part of the picture; only teach part of the person. David Wechsler (of the WISC fame – the general IQ test that tortures my students!) has even said, “My main point has been that general intelligence cannot be equated with intellectual ability, but must regarded as a manifestation of the personality as a whole” (298). If we agree that intelligence is much more than just intellectual ability, why do we test students on one aspect of intelligence alone? And who decides what those academic skills are that best manifest intelligence? And why does this single test burden so many of us for the rest of our lives? Sure, intelligence is an amalgamation of affect, volition, intellectual capacity, and adaptability, but most tests of intelligence test only intellectual capacity. Do poorly on one of those tests, and you will be labeled for a long time. You’ll be deemed “ungifted”, as Kaufman coins, and your education will forever reflect that title in both the limited curricular offerings, and stilted expectations of your peers and teachers. This is, of course, ridiculous and unfair, and has both Kaufman and me asking the same question – why do we still bother with these tests at all?
Many theorists have tried to compensate for the shortcomings of IQ testing by creating other criteria that aptly demonstrate other characteristics of intelligence, but they all require testing as well, thus piling on test after test on a poor child who struggles with learning, all in an attempt to quantify something that we all know and see in our experience of that child, and that we know does not even need to be tested. Kaufman argues,
“From the very first test of intelligence, we’ve been operating in an individual differences paradigm, and have been stuck in that paradigm ever since. Attempts to go beyond IQ seem to just add on more individual difference variables, and slap the label ‘intelligence’ on them. This creates more tests, and more ways to compare one person to another on whatever tests of intelligence the psychologist has created. But here’s the thing: there’s no objective reason why society still needs to operate in this paradigm” (300).
Yes! I could not agree more. Why are we persisting in comparing our students with each other, when the reality of the world is that they will need to dig down deep within themselves to find their own inner strength and intelligence in order to achieve the dream that they want for themselves. I, for one, never wanted to fulfill the dreams of my English teacher. And while my dad seemed to have a good idea of what I should do with my life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to oblige with his goals. I knew what I wanted and have sought for most of my life to get there. How I compare with my peers has nothing to do with that, but that is how our schools have been set up. This is why my learning different students so often come to me beat up by school (metaphorically and yes, sometimes literally). They have been compared with their peers for so long, and they just don’t fit in with the arbitrarily defined criteria of what comprises intelligent behavior in school. They have been taught, essentially, to become helpless. They have no ability to dig down deep within themselves anymore because school has taught them that what they need can’t be found there. It can be found in some textbook they can’t read, or some test they can’t pass. And indeed, many of those books and tests are the exact walls that are keeping these students out of fulfilling, powerful opportunities.
So, indeed, I agree with Kaufman that we need a new definition of intelligence, and a new way to frame intelligence in the classroom, and a new way to assess it that more accurately captures what it really is, and the purposes it really serves in our lives. “For too long, there has been a mismatch between theory and practice” (300). Kaufman seeks to bridge this gap with his Theory of Personal Intelligence. Here, intelligence is defined as “the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals” (302). The most important parts of this definition, for me are the words, “personal goals”. I feel relief that someone is finally admitting that the hoops set up by traditional education are just that: hoops. They have been placed there for me to jump through, and when I get through them all, I can go do what I really want to do. Whether or not what I learn in school helps me accomplish my own goals has little or nothing to do with how I achieve them. My “intelligence”, as it was framed for me by my years of educations, is not related to “intelligence” as it is manifested every day in doing what I love to do. Kaufman expands on this by providing four basic tenets of his theory: “the self is a core aspect of human intelligence, engagement and ability are inseparable throughout human development, …both controlled and spontaneous processes can be adaptive for acquiring a personal goal, … [and] there are no ‘ten-year rules’ or ‘creativity thresholds’” (303-305). In my own words, I see these four tenets as meaning that, first, we must stop comparing ourselves with others. A grade in a class we take is a rating, a means of comparing how we did in arbitrarily defined assessments with our peers. Such measures are artificial in truly assessing an individual’s true intelligence, and by extension, their potential. Second, our engagement is intimately tied to our ability. By this, I’m not arguing for the ten thousand hours rule about talent, rather, I’m saying that time devoted to a domain improves ability. What do my students devote their time to? I’m not sure. I’m too busy assigning them papers in my English classes, and of course grading them to find out. And as Victor Wooten argues, “Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say, we only tell them what they are supposed to say” (TED-ed). As a music teacher, the work of which is most relevant to my research here, I have tried to rectify this problem, but much more on that later. The point here is that many students never get to demonstrate their intelligence because it is manifesting itself in an activity outside of the traditional norms of education, where intelligence is most commonly assessed. They are spending hours building computers in their basements, or composing songs on their laptops, or coding video games with their friends. The sheer time devoted to these tasks determines their ever-increasing ability. Not only that, Kaufman’s idea completely flips the concept of a linear curriculum - learn one concept and move on to the next. Instead, don’t be afraid to spend a great deal of time in one area, for the time devoted to it will increase intellectual capacity. Expecting our students to learn as quickly as we do is simply silly. Third, we view our traditional models of education as full of “best practices”. Once, while teaching in the inner city of Philadelphia, surrounded by students who could easily beat me up if they wanted to, I realized how absurd and precarious it was that they so willingly spent forty minutes a day sitting in my presence while I, standing in front of them, spoke. Not only, neither of us was particularly interested in the information I was spewing at them. Why didn’t they ever revolt? I like to think it was my rapier-like wit, or the fact that I’m an all around great guy, but I know that it really was nothing except learned behavior. We see controlled environments as the best ones for acquiring knowledge and striving towards goals. But control is not always a good thing. Sometimes spontaneity gets us much more. Sure, sometimes it causes chaos, injury, or some sort of property damage, but at others, it leads to brilliant decisions. Sometimes, decisions made in an instant of impulse, passion, or desire, can lead to life-changing realizations, like when I spontaneously dropped out of my first graduate school. I remember driving as fast as I could to get to my advisor’s office to tell him I was quitting. It was completely liberating, even though professionally, it was a crazy idea. That decision, made in one afternoon, completely changed the course of my professional life.
Lastly, Kaufman’s assertion that there are no benchmarks is, in my experience, simply true. When my oldest daughter was an infant, our friends told us that by three months, she’d be sleeping through the night. Didn’t happen. The doctors told us, put her down and let her cry. In a half hour she’ll stop. She lasted four hours one night. Now, at age twelve, she stills wakes me up every night. Benchmarks are just one more comparative measure. We have to start asking, “compared to what?”
Of course, Kaufman’s theory, while I agree so strongly with it, has yet to be put through a serious battery of quantifiable tests. But one thing is for sure, his work flips education on its head, and I really like that. As a mostly self-taught music teacher working with students who learn differently, I have sought to teach in innovative, humanistic, intuitive ways. I have actively tried to stay away from traditional approaches to teaching music, learning music, and performing it. In this way, I feel that Kaufman’s Personal Intelligence Theory, along with a few other theories, informs and supports my work. Since I use improvisation as my main mode of teaching, students are able to play music at any ability and experience level. In this mode, all ability and experience levels are honored as the same. In fact, the least experienced player in an improvising ensemble is the default leader because their ability sets the standard by which all others playing in the improvisation will have to compare. I see improvisation as humanistic and fulfilling Kaufman’s tenet of placing the individual at the center of their own determination of intelligence, because every player in my classroom has equal value, and the spontaneous playing of any player at any time, regardless of experience or ability, can sway the entire class. In this way, we exercise both controlled and spontaneous processes in the work of helping students achieve their learning goals. In addition, improvisation requires a depth of engagement that completely removes the roles “teacher” and “student” from the relationship. Instead, when improvisation is happening properly, we are all equally and intensely listening like mad to each other, and focusing entirely on the goal of creating the most beautiful music we can in the moment. This is not only both controlled and spontaneous, but it also requires that all of us log serious engagement hours in the pursuit of increasing our abilities and creating beautiful music. Lastly, the idea that improvisation thrives on diversity of ability and experience is in line with Kaufman’s powerful argument against benchmarks. In the improvising music classroom, we are all learning at the same pace because we are all learning at our own pace. And each of those individual experiences of learning contributes equally to the power and beauty of the music.
In the end of the chapter, Kaufman describes several examples of educational practices that he sees best fulfilling and playing out his theory. Through all of it he enthuses, “the full landscape of human intelligence really is so much more beautiful, exciting and hopeful than any single perspective can possibly reveal” (314). I completely agree with this, and seek to empower and give voice to as many perspectives as I can through an innovative, humanistic, intuitive approach to music education. Maybe Scott Barry Kaufman and I could get together for coffee one day and talk about it all!
Kaufman, Scott Barry. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. New York: Perseus Group, 2013. Print.
TED-Ed. “Music as a Language - Victor Wooten.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.