Landmark University professor emeritus Ken Gobbo discusses harnessing neurodiverse minds.
(29 minutes) Ken Gobbo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Landmark College, USA. He has published numerous articles on learning differences, neurodiversity, and teaching in peer-reviewed journals. He is also a member of the steering committee for the Landmark College Center for Neurodiversity. He has published articles on neurodiversity, learning differences and teaching in several peer-reviewed journals including: Disability Studies Quarterly, Review of Disability Studies, Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disorders and College Teaching. His new book “Dyslexia and Creativity: Diverse Minds” is available now from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
For more information about Landmark College, visit: landmark.edu/
For more about Ken’s book “Dyslexia and Creativity: Diverse Minds” visit: cambridgescholars.com/dyslexia-and-creativity
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Introducing Ken Gobbo of Landmark College
DR HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi I am Dr. Hackie Reitman, welcome to another episode of exploring different brains. And today I’m so excited because we have with us here none other than the Professor of Emeritus of Landmark college who’s really gonna enlighten us about a lot of different aspects of the brain, Ken Gobo, Ken welcome to different brains.
KEN GOBBO (KG): Thanks for having me on Hackie.
HR: Why don’t you introduce yourself properly?
KG: Okay I am a Professor of Emeritus of Psychology at Landmark College and Landmark College is a small college in Putney Vermont. And we have about 400 students and all our students have different learning differences. We are a school our mission is to get people to think differently about education. Our students learn differently so we teach differently. I taught psychology there for, geez, about 30 years the college is about 35 years old. I have a lot of students with dyslexia, ADHD, autism. And being there with my students has been really inspiring. I retired from teaching a year ago, well last May that’s almost a year now.
KG: But I’m still on the steering committee for our neurodiversity committee and I still do research and writing so I’m still involved and I try to stay in touch with what’s going on at landmark.
HR: How’d you get into that?
KG: Into Landmark?
HR: How’d you get into doing what you do?
KG: Well I was working at another college on a counseling staff a New England college in Henniker, New Hampshire and I heard about this new school, Landmark college, and you know I had a lot of students who are really intelligent bright people but they had… they really struggled in school and at that time, 30 something years ago, I didn’t know much about learning disabilities or dyslexia. And I heard about this college, landmark college, and I said I want to hear what they’re doing. So I called them up and asked them about their mission and about their work and we talked and we had a great long talk with Carolyn Oliver and Jim Oliver. Jim is the first president and founder, one of the founders of the college. At the end of our conversation they said why don’t come over here and work for us, you know. I said no, no, no I can’t do that I am invested in what New England college is doing. But they kept working on me over the next couple years and eventually I went over there and I taught psychology there for many, many years and learned a great deal from my students and culminated, I guess, in the writing of the book.
Dyslexia and Creativity: Diverse Minds
HR: What is name of the book?
KG: Name of the book is “Dyslexia and Creativity: Diverse Minds” its published by Cambridge Scholars Press. And you can go on google books and read a good chunk of it, see a pic of the cover, or go to the Cambridge Scholars publishing website and see the book and get some information about the book.
HR: And tell us about the book.
KG: The book is about connection between dyslexia and creativity. In my teaching I found that many of my students who, when I first started teaching, most of them were dyslexic and many of them had different ways of understanding the concepts in psychology that I was teaching. Some of them would develop visual organizers a lot of them would take their own experience and take their experience and apply it to the psychological concepts we were talking about. The successful ones were very persistent very determined hard workers and I decided to pursue this topic of creativity and dyslexia and connections between the two things and the thing that really spurred me on was hearing about Robert Rauschenberg getting an award from the lab school in Washington and Rauschenberg was diagnosed as an adult and the book is made up of 5 short biographies, 3 artists, and 2 writers. All of them were diagnosed with dyslexia as adults. When they were kids in the 50s and 60s most people didn’t know about dyslexia and saw these folks as kind of noncompliant or lazy. But all of them have come to talk about their dyslexia and the role that it plays or came to play in their creative process. So I studied the lives of these two writers and three artists and looked for themes and connections between their learning difficulty and their creative process.
HR: And each one was different or were there any common themes you discovered?
KG: There were common themes each of them were different. Each of them were affected by their dyslexia in different ways. But there were some common themes. Common themes were you know kind of lead me to the itch and niche theory of creativity. All of them would hit a point where they were kind of feeling kind of out of sorts or out of kilter or you know had an itch that was hard to scratch and a lot of them would scratch that itch by thinking out of the box and trying new things. And all of them I think found success because of support from someone in their family in their families or groups of close friends and they all had teachers that encouraged them. So there’s that itch to try something new support from an environment that allows them to try new things and have the confidence to try new things and for all of them to have persistence and hard work.
HR: So interesting because our society as a whole really doesn’t want you think outside of box, doesn’t want you to be different, wants everything the same.
KG: I think that’s true but I think we are living in a time right now where we are going to need some out of the box thinking to get through some of the difficulties all of us are living with. These times of coronavirus and social distancing and looking for solutions. We need some out of the box thinkers.
HR: You know, absolutely, I remember when I was interviewing professor Matthew Schneps who’s dyslexic…
KG: I know Dr. Schneps, the Astrophysicists.
HR: Yes, the astrophysicist. So, a couple years back so I was interviewing him and he interrupted me and he said you know thanks for the nice introduction but you have it wrong. And I said well straighten me out. He said you said that I’m doing these things despite my dyslexia and I’m telling you I’m able to do these things precisely because of my dyslexia. And that was such an example to me of finding your nitch in this world.
KG: Yeah Dr. Schneps has done some great work and sort of using technology to help young people with dyslexia sort of tackle their reading and their receptive and expressive language difficulties. You know we have machines that will read for us now and machines that we can talk to and write for us now. A lot of the technology has really shifted the experience of people with autism, people with attention difficulties, and people with language processing difficulties. In fact one of the things I’m very interested in which is kind of the thing that underpins what you do at different brains is this idea of neurodiversity. And the emergence of neurodivergent culture and I think that the availability of personal technology has enabled a lot of people who didn’t really like to communicate face to face. To communicate via personal technology and there’s a whole culture that is growing because of that technology and its allowing people to connect and people to talk about their differences and people to realize that their differences are part of who they are. That they’re not broken they do not need to be fixed. Those differences, like their dyslexia or their autism, is part of their personality and in a sense part of their power apart of their ability. I’m not romanticizing it I mean it can be very difficult and very very frustrating but it affords positive things as well.
HR: And our goal and I like this in the landmark mission statement maximizing potential. Whatever that individual potential is let’s maximize it.
About Landmark College
HR: Tell us about Landmark College and I can see from this discussion why you gravitated there but tell us about their mission and what you found when you got there.
KG: Well when I got there I found a very young college. With you know I was at like 38 I was the old man there.
KG: Jim Oliver I think was maybe two years the president was maybe a year or two older than me. And a lot of enthusiasm readiness to try new things some people thought you know starting a college 35 years ago it was a not a great environment for higher education and you know. A lot of people thought it was crazy and maybe in some sense it was but it was a chance to try new things it was a chance to do what I liked to do together with my students. At first we had a lot of almost all of our students were dyslexic. And the model we used for teaching which included micro-uniting. You know breaking things down into bite size digestible pieces, helping students to identify the main idea. Things like that worked very well and then maybe like 4, 5 years into it we started to get a wave of students with attention difficulties.
And we had to make some adjustments in teaching them. And, of course, we had a lot of students with attention difficulties, who had language processing difficulties, and students who have language processing difficulties, who had attention problems. And then maybe 5 years go 6 years ago we started to get another wave of autistic students and all these students bring strengths. You know the challenge, sometimes it wasn’t a great challenge and sometimes it was, was to find the thing the student was passionate about find the students strength every student. Was a guy named Robert brooks a psychologist from Boston always says every student has an island of competence you just have to find that one thing that they’re good at and build on it.
HR: And this is the unfortunate thing about society. Education in general the educational establishment and employment you really don’t get exposed to different things to find out what you like and you don’t like. That’s why I’m very big on internships and shadowing and different things. How does landmark do it?
KG: We do have internships at first we were we only granted associates degrees and many, many of our students would come to us for a short period of time and get their skills up to par and then they would transfer. But over the years we have developed Bachelor’s degree programs and art and Psychology and a few other areas and we do have internships. We try to place the students in internships. We have interns that work at our center for neurodiversity, we have interns that go out to you know insurance companies, computer companies and it’s a learning experience for them but you know it’s also an interesting learning experience for the employers too or the potential employers. Some of them are you know they’re not shocked but surprised at some of the skills and abilities some of the students bring with them. You know the creativity some of them have some of the autistic students have remarkable memories and can follow these complicated computer protocols which I could never even get through the first 18 steps ever as many steps as there would be. But we do things with internships and that kind of thing. And I found in teaching psychology you know in teaching things like child development I like to get them out into daycare centers and elementary schools to see and work with young kids.
Harnessing Diverse Minds
HR: What’s been the biggest challenge at Landmark College?
KG: The biggest challenge I don’t know it’s hard to say some young people struggle you know some young people have a hard time getting in the groove of education sometimes they get distracted by things that really have nothing to do with education. Those things are challenging. It’s hard for me to see a really bright individual not be able to complete their studies for any reason. And then you know, that’s offset by the many great graduation speeches that we hear as well. Yeah I’m always looking to find a way to get through or to reach the student that you know didn’t seem motivated or didn’t seem curious and try to find the thing that will spark their interest.
HR: And isn’t it funny when we talk about these things we think about it with this specific population but that’s very generic [laughs] throughout everything and I remember when I was writing my Aspertools book about Asperger’s, Autism and Neurodiversity, that Dr. Lori Butts, who was the outgoing president of Florida Psychological Association she’s also an attorney she’s on our board now at different brains, and I have in our little documentary said I’m paraphrasing I told Hackie he was a moron because he thought he was just writing a book about Asperger’s and autism but all of these things apply to all of us. You see and yet when you have learning differences it’s kind of on steroids isn’t it?
KG: Well we get out and talk to teachers, educational administrators, a lot. We have kind of division called LSERT, Landmark Institute for Research and Training Landmark college institute for Research and Training we do a lot of outreach and frequently what happens when our LSERT people go out and talk about what we do, almost inevitably there’s someone in the audience that says wait a minute you’re just talking about good teaching. Yeah we are! You know having we train our teachers we talk about teaching a lot and sort of being organized, being multi-motile, trying to find a lot of different ways to present the information and have a lot of different roots to the concepts and a lot of different ways to prove your understanding of the concepts.
HR: It’s like I said to my daughter who has Asperger’s when she graduated Georgia tech and went to tutor kids over at Cumberland academy of Georgia, which is for autistic individuals, and I said well why you gonna tutor why don’t you go teach and get a real career? And she says dad you still don’t get it do you? Brains are like snowflakes not two are alike. And I didn’t get then but I get it now I get it very well now and that’s where modern technology can also really be helpful. It’s amazing to me that the students who get the most individualized attention in many cases are the students in the old fashioned one room school house in rural areas where they’re all sitting and working on their projects on their computers and the teacher walks around to each them what are you working on here you know kinda thing.
KG: Well, this shift to online learning which we’re seeing all around the world now because the buildings and classrooms are closed but the learning is continuing in the way that you and I are talking right now. At Landmark we all already had platforms like we already had a platform that we were working from and we already had our courses kind of digitized and information for the content for our courses accessible to students 24/7. Whenever they went to the class site all the assignments were there, all the rubrics that I used to grade were there, all the readings were there, the button to push to ask me a question was there. So, in a sense we were kind of, not totally ready, but kind of ready to go a month ago when we had to go online. And I’m not doing it now, but I’ve been following many of my colleagues and friends who are shifting over to 100% online teaching and it was really something to see. You know, we took a week of the spring break and then we added an extra week for all the teachers and we have a big faculty. It’s a very labor-intensive way of teaching.
We have a large faculty and it was just all of them breaking into teams with the people who were really good at online teaching working with the people who were needed a little help and a little support and then they all got ready to go and they all been teaching online for a few weeks now. But one of things like we know some kids some young people are gonna flourish online and some of are gonna struggle. And a lot of them need the face to face contact and what our President Peter Eden, really, really bright guy who’s been a good leader in this whole process, and Gail Gibson Sheffield, the Academic Vice President, put together was a system by which every student has an online advisor and every day Monday through Friday that online advisor checks in with the student. How’s the math course, how’s the psych course, how’s the economics course? Are you stuck anywhere, you need is there something you don’t understand do we need to talk to Dr. Smith about this economics test that’s coming?
So everyday somebody checks in with every student. And that’s you know that kind of support in the Dyslexia and Creativity book that kind of support usually then it came from family, or it came from friends, or there was one teacher that kind of held the person and got them through. You may have read some work by John Irving “The World According to Garp” or “Cider House Rules” he has quite a few successful books. Well, for him it was his wrestling coach. Guy named Ted Seabrooke Coach Seabrooke was his wrestling coach and his father was Irving’s father was a faculty member at Exeter which is a very competitive prep school. Sure and so he got to go to Exeter for free but he struggled you know because he had has severe dyslexia and but his wrestling coach just taught him about hard work and doing things over and over until you got them right and writing and rewriting. So, you know you never know where that support is gonna come from.
Landmark’s Center for Neurodiversity
HR: No, you do need somebody you need that pat on the back that encouragement. Tell our audience what’s going on at the center for neurodiversity.
KG: Sure. We have at Landmark we have a lot of kind of diversity centers. We have a center for African American students, and a center for LGBT students, and a women’s center. But we also, about 4 years ago, set up a center for neurodiversity. And so, Lady Shmulsky is the director of that center and we’ve got research projects, internships, connections with businesses for internships in businesses, and recruiting on graduation. So we also have a steering committee with people with neurodivergent people on adults who graduated college professionals. Neurodivergent people on the steering committee. When we get into doing research, we sort of consult with the neurodivergent population about the research about what they think would be useful. We just don’t as researchers just say oh I think I wanna study this we consult with them on what they think will be helpful. We try to do things to recognize the emerging neurodivergent culture. We have speakers come onto campus people like Lydia Brown, don’t know if you know of their work, Lydia X. Brown, Temple Grandin has come to visit us, John Elder Robison is an advisor to the neurodiversity he’s the author of “Look Me in the Eye”.
HR: He’s great.
KG: Yeah, he lives nearby us so he comes and visits us just about once a month.
HR: You know, Dr. Rick Rader down in Chattanooga who is a MD a Psychologist but Anthropology is like his big thing and one time I was giving a keynote on neurodiversity and he came up to me afterwards and he goes Hackie all you’re taking about is anthropology. It’s just differences people’s brains are different you know kind of thing. And now neurodiversity, thankfully, is coming into the American lexicon and the world lexicon as well.
KG: We’re probably preaching to the choir but you know there is no one normal brain and neurodiversity you know like biodiversity brings kind of richness to the landscape and you know you go into you know, I spend a lot of time in central America and south America, you go into the jungle in central America and you see all different kinds of birds and animals and plants and flowers. You know that biodiversity just you know it just makes the world a wonderful place and you know the different kinds of brains give us many, many opportunities that we wouldn’t have if we thought there was just one kind of correct or normal brain you know.
HR: To our audience who might be in interested in Landmark College, okay how do they get more information?
KG: Well, we have you know we have a website of course they can google Landmark College and go to our website and talk to people in our admissions office. We are we have summer sessions we are either gonna if we can run them face to face we will if we can’t we’ll run them online we have like two planning tracks going for summer and fall if it’s safe for our students to be together on campus. We’re gonna try to go ahead and offer face to face courses and if it’s not time yet for them to be on campus we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing right now and teaching virtually. And we’re good at teaching virtually we know what our students need.
HR: [laughs] Well sounds like you sure know what you’re doing. How can people learn more about you?
KG: You can read my book “Dyslexia and Creativity: Diverse Minds” Cambridge Scholars publishing. Go to their website or go to google books and put in “Dyslexia in Creativity: Diverse Minds” and probably see a few chapters right there online or yeah that’s probably the best way to learn about me I poured a lot into that over the last couple of years.
Hard Work and Dyslexia
HR: What’s one thing you learned while writing about creative minds with dyslexia?
KG: One of the salient things I took away from writing this book is that each of the writers and artists who’s lives were covered in the book their creative processes were very much influenced by their dyslexia. And for each one of them persistence and hard work was an important thing they got up every day and they did what they had to do. They didn’t reinvent the wheel everyday they just got up and kept working hard.
HR: Thank you so much for being with us here at Different Brains. So great to hang out with you Ken!
KG: Yeah, yeah it was great to talk to you I really enjoyed it! We’ll do it again!