It is said that the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Well, it goes a little further than that. In chapter 2 of “The Brain That Changes Itself”, Norman Doidge writes about Barbara Arrowsmith Young who was labelled retarded but she managed to “heal” her brain dysfunctions through brain exercises that she developed.
The interesting thing about Barbara was that although she had some severe learning disabilities, she was also brilliant in other ways. For instance, her auditory and visual memory tested in the 99th percentile. Because of this, she was able to use her the power of her memory to cover her deficits and get through “normal” school, albeit she managed this with great difficulty and was under tremendous pressure.
It wasn’t until she was 28 years old when she discovered that the key to treating her learning deficits was not to compensate for them (which she had been doing her entire life) but to exercise her weakest areas. She did so by practising with exercises she designed herself until she “normalised” her deficiencies.
After her breakthrough, she founded the Arrowsmith school to help others like herself who had learning disabilities to overcome them with brain exercises that she developed.
The Arrowsmith Program is based on the philosophy that it is possible to address specific learning difficulties by identifying and strengthening cognitive capacities.
The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are hypothesised to underlie a range of specific learning difficulties. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify specific learning difficulties.
Our Framework for Results
- detailed assessment and identification of 19 learning dysfunctions
- innovative methods which include specialised exercises and computerised programs
- clearly defined and individualised goals
- a positive, supportive and structured learning environment
- building self-esteem by developing competence
- low student to teacher ratio
Can the Arrowsmith Program Benefit Your Child or Student?
Students in the Arrowsmith Program are typically average or above intelligence but are experiencing problems in school, which may include difficulties with reading, writing, mathematics, remembering understanding, or attentional issues. Each student is unique in his or her combination of problem areas, and our exercise program is individually designed for each student.
We recommend that parents and educators who find that their child or student is being held back by specific learning difficulties review the Description of Learning Dysfunctions Addressed. An abbreviated version of this list also appears in our Brochure that can be downloaded. This list covers the only problem areas that are currently addressed by the Arrowsmith Program.
Theory Underlying the Arrowsmith Program
The Arrowsmith Program’s identification of learning dysfunctions is based on the work of the neuropsychologist, A. R. Luria, who investigated the functions of specific regions of the brain.
Luria concluded that complex cognitive activities, such as reading, writing and mathematics, require the interaction of several areas of the brain and that each individual brain area has a very specific role to play. Suppose one brain area that is part of a specific learning activity is impaired. In that case, the performance of that learning activity will be impaired in a way particular to the contribution of the weaker brain area. At the Arrowsmith Program, we view this as the source of a specific learning dysfunction.
The philosophy of the Arrowsmith Program is that these cognitive areas may be improved through strenuous cognitive exercises, resulting in strengthened learning abilities.
Each student in the Arrowsmith Program has his or her specific schedule of tasks and exercises to be completed during the course of a day in the Arrowsmith Program. The exercises for each student differ depending upon that student’s identified learning profile. These include written, visual, auditory and computer exercises.
In one instance, a student with an inability to distinguish between similar sounds, such as “hear” and “fear” will be taught to listen to speech sounds drawn from other languages until he/she is able to hear and reproduce the sounds accurately. Repeated practice strengthens the individual’s ability to hear and differentiate English speech sounds.
Each student enrolled in the Arrowsmith Program is assessed at the end of each year to evaluate progress, and the student’s program is modified as needed for the subsequent year.
The goal of the Arrowsmith Program is to help students capitalise on their improvements and eventually reintegrate them into a full academic program at a public or private school at their appropriate grade level following the completion of a three to a four-year program of Arrowsmith cognitive exercises.
Can Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s cognitive exercises change your brain?
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is extremely believable. Sitting opposite her, it seems impossible that she’s deliberately deceiving anyone, about either her own experience or her program. The same goes for Arrowsmith parents: Yagnik, Beare and Green appear to be straightforward, concerned, normal people, who tried all reasonable mainstream alternatives before turning to Arrowsmith.
But despite this, there is a fundamental problem for many people – including almost all researchers and experts – with Arrowsmith. And that is that there is no high-quality scientific evidence to prove that it works. “After 35 years, there has still not been a single, controlled clinical trial, adopting stringent methods, published in a peer-reviewed journal, to show the efficacy of the Arrowsmith Program,” explains clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Dr Tim Hannan, head of the school of psychology at Charles Sturt University and former president of the Australian Psychological Society. “Of course, a lack of evidence does not mean a treatment doesn’t work. But the Arrowsmith Research Initiatives Report was announced in 1997, and there’s still not a single publication in a peer-reviewed journal.”
There is research, responds Arrowsmith-Young – and in one sense, she’s right: she mentions several studies completed by Arrowsmith classes, involving many measures and results. But none has been published in a mainstream, rigorously critiqued publication, and none has involved a control group. In an experiment, this means that, however persuasive the results, it’s impossible to be absolutely certain that an intervention – be it a pill, a program or a purple people-eater costume – is responsible for the change.
Indeed, what large-scale, randomised, control group studies do show is that brain training programs like Arrowsmith achieve very little. “Any improvement made is task-specific, and temporary,” says Dr Renee Testa, a clinical neuropsychologist who specialises in child and adolescent neurodevelopment disorders, lectures at Monash University, and works in private practice. “I wish we could say there was a magic bullet solution! But that’s what the science tells us.”
So how, in that case, does science explain the wide-ranging and seemingly permanent changes described by Arrowsmith parents?
Well, say the scientists, it’s not that anyone disputes that these children improve. It’s that, without a properly designed trial, it’s impossible to identify why. It might be Arrowsmith; it might equally be something else. “There are all sorts of reasons kids improve,” explains Testa. “Just giving a child one-to-one attention improves their performance across a range of measures.”
Anne Castles, professor of cognitive science at Macquarie University in Sydney, adds, “There’s a lot of research on the effects of feeling special: that you’ve been selected to be part of a special program. That’s all huge motivation.” (This response, known as the Hawthorne effect, is well-known in psychological research.) “Or parents can feel very invested in seeing improvement because they’ve committed so much – time, money, emotion – to a program. And so they do see improvement.” (Another tendency, known as confirmation bias.)
“People sometimes assume [in cases of learning difficulty] that development is static,” writes Dr Dorothy Bishop, an internationally respected researcher and professor of developmental psychology at Oxford University, who has written several times about Arrowsmith. “But children get better at most things as they get older. As a child grows, features [of a learning difficulty] may become milder or take a different form. If your child has some intervention and then shows improvements, it is easy to assume that the intervention was responsible. However, the improvement may well have occurred anyway.”
The Arrowsmith methodology is to strengthen the weak links in the chain, so these individuals gain access to skills whose development were formerly blocked. In some ways, it is a little like the concept of treating a lazy eye. Under normal circumstances, the lazy eye gets weaker as the individual relies less and less on the weak eye. Similarly, the inherent weaknesses in an individual progressively get worse through avoidance of use. Once those skills are restored with specific brain exercises targeting the weak areas, these individuals are then better able to reach their full potential. Here is an example from the book:
Ideally, brain-based assessments should be performed early so that if problems were discovered, exercises to strengthen the weakened areas could commence during the early years when neuroplasticity is greatest.
That said, it is never too late for neuroplasticity. Even adults can benefit from the implementation of brain exercises. Brain exercises have also been shown to halt, or slow down, age-related and disease-related effects on the brain.