The Positive Side of Learning Differences: A Variety of Ways of Thinking and Learning

By: Ken Gobbo

Ken Gobbo

I am by no means the first to do this Edward Hallowell and John Raty devote portions of their writing to the positive face of attention disorders. For the past ten years I have been working with college students who have ADHD, dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. While the learning and thinking differences of my students often provide them with challenges and cause frustration, I have also come to appreciate the many positive facets of these differences. I am by no means the first to do this Edward Hallowell and John Raty devote portions of their writing to the positive face of attention disorders. Thomas West has in fact written an entire book about some of the positive possibilities learning differences offer. I have also been fortunate to learn from the variety of ways my students understand and think about the material presented and discussed in my college psychology classes. Their ways of understanding have regularly helped me to understand what I teach in new and deeper ways.

In my classes I expose students to many theories including those that try to answer the question, what is intelligence? When we discuss the work of cognitive scientists, including Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, such ideas that explain the variety of ways of understanding quickly become more than a matter of mere discussion. Students use their spatial, kinesthetic, intrapersonal or contextual intelligence to comprehend the concepts we are covering in class. For example they might diagram a concept before writing about it or offer examples of from their own circle of friends to represent different aspects of intelligence. As I share in my students' different ways of understanding it helps me to understand the same concepts in new ways. I also use that experience in later semesters to teach the students who follow them.

Another strength I see in many of my students is one that allows them to see what is meaningful as they review information. Howard Gardner, who for more than fifteen years now has been talking about seven different intelligences, has recently added an eighth to his list. Naturalist intelligence describes the ability to see patterns in nature. He suggests that in earlier times the ability to see these patterns helped us to hunt, gather and grow food. An intelligence or ability of this sort is again rapidly becoming more important in our society. Because we can now access information in such large amounts, we have to move through it very quickly and sift out the needed elements. Information on the internet now includes much more than the written word. Images, static and moving, and sound are becoming more and more common on the net. Those with an ability to view the vast landscape of information in different, or nonlinear ways, are likely to be more astute at using the massive databanks that are now at our disposal. The amount of different kinds of information becoming available to us is growing so rapidly that it is my guess that shortly we will soon be having nostalgic discussions about the days when there were only one or two internets.

Students with attention disorders may even be able to take advantage of their fluctuating attention spans when using a tool like the internet which lends itself to the impulse to move from site to site and collect and use information quickly. As the amount of information and the variety of kinds of information available to us continues to grow exponentially, the ability to see patterns quickly and recognize that which is needed and to be able to leave behind that which is not becomes more significant.

Now more than ever it is important to teach students with learning differences and attention disorders the basic skills they need. Building their basic academic skills will enable them to use the strengths they already have. Given the rapid changes taking place in information technology, perhaps the combination of learning differences and basic skills will make them more successful than those of us who can only think in a linear, linguistic, deductive fashion . I have found that being open to my students new ways of understanding helps them to value their abilities and helps me to understand in new ways. It looks as though our society is likely to benefit from doing the same increasingly in the very near future.

Landmark College is the only fully accredited college in the country designed exclusively for students with dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder, or specific learning disabilities.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Checkley,K. (1997). The first seven and the eighth, a conversation with Howard Gardner. Educational Leadership, 55, 1.

Hallowell, E.M. & Raty, J.J. (1995). Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Raty,J.J. & Johnson C. (1998). Shadow Syndromes. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell

West, T. (1997) In the minds eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

Ken Gobbo (1999)