Scott Barry Kaufman knew he was different from his classmates. The evidence was overwhelming: he was about to enter the third grade for the second time, and he was subjected to beatings on the bathroom floor, doled out by bullies who regularly reminded him that he would never, ever be anything other than a failing third grader. As Kaufman recounts in a book released this spring, his family finally had his intelligence tested, and that afternoon with the school psychologist would change the course of his life.
"OK, well what if he discovers that I'm really stupid and I have to go to a really special school?" Mom sighs and does her best to alleviate my fears, but they are still there. I know what's at stake.
Kaufman, writing of his experience in Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness, may have thought he knew what was at stake when he visited that school psychologist for testing, but he would not fully grasp the influence that afternoon of testing would have on the trajectory of his life until much later. The psychologist who tested Kaufman concluded that he had a relatively low IQ, a score low enough to earn him the label "seriously learning disabled." On that basis, Kaufman was not sent to the elite private school his parents had been considering. Instead, he was sent to a school for children with learning disabilities. "My fate," Kaufman writes in the book, which came out in June, was "sealed by a single test."
When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as "seriously learning disabled," they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life. The reality of our educational system is that some children will be left behind; it's unrealistic to pretend otherwise. However, if our goal is to give each child at least the potential to succeed, we should take a moment to consider whether labeling students - particularly when those labels are the products of dubious science and flawed standards - is a bane or a boon to our children. We proclaim "seriously learning disabled," "gifted," "athlete," "not good at math," as if we have the power to see their lifetime developmental endpoint.
I've got to hide. I slump down in my seat and put my head down on the table. My heart beats fast. I feel anger, frustration, and anxiety. I start fighting back tears. But I accept my fate. After all, I wasn't born gifted and this means I will never be.
What no one bothered to tell the teachers and psychologists in Kaufman's school is that the measure of a child's intelligence is far more complicated than a quotient that can be represented in a single number. Furthermore, intelligence is not a data point that, once pinned down, stays put forever. How much intelligence and aptitude shifts over a lifetime is highly dependent on environment, and here's the really bad news for Kaufman's teachers: people who believe intelligence is fluid, and can be increased through hard work, are much more likely to put in that hard work and show that intelligence is fluid. Unfortunately, children who believe their intelligence is fixed are far more likely to avoid challenges and simply allow the label to speak for itself. Put simply, children who believe they can become smarter, become smarter through effort and persistence.