Barbara Arrowsmith-Young on neuroplasticity in the classroom

Interview by Rachel Power

As a child, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young read and wrote backward, struggled to understand basic concepts, continually got lost, and was physically uncoordinated. Her long struggle to address her own severe learning difficulties led her to recognise the benefits of exercising the brain. This became the basis for the Arrowsmith Program, her approach to helping students overcome specific learning difficulties, which has been operating in Canadian schools for more than 35 years and increasingly taken up around the world. A revised edition of Arrowsmith-Young’s bestselling memoir, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, was released in early 2017.

RP Considering the extent of your own learning difficulties as a child, which were profound, it’s extraordinary that you had the tenacity to overcome them. What was it about you that gave you that determination?

BA-Y I think it was the unique combination of my cognitive strengths and weaknesses. I had an exceptional pre-frontal cortex, which controls executive functioning – thinking, problem-solving, planning. That critical part that drives for a solution was in really good shape. So I was incredibly driven; I just couldn’t make sense of most of my experiences and my world. Whereas somebody who possibly had the same problems I had, but didn’t have really strong problem-solving capacity, might just have given up.

Very early on, I tried to come up with solutions or compensations for my difficulties and, for me, it was relying on my memory, which was pretty exceptional. I had a whole ritual, where I would line all my books up on my bed when I was studying, I would kneel down in front of my bed and basically cry until there was nothing left in my system. I think actually I was draining my amygdala of all that fear and anxiety, till I was just empty, almost in a Zen state. But, as an 11 or 12-year-old, I had no idea that that’s what I was doing. And then I would start this memory process – I would look at my book, I would read the first sentence, say it to myself, close my eyes, visualise it; then I’d read the next sentence, do the same process, then match it to the first sentence… and I’d just keep going until I could close my eyes and go through all of my notebooks.

Then, when it came to an exam, I’d go through that library in my head and try to match the question to an answer. Sometimes I’d do a really good job, and sometimes not such a good job, it would depend on the match I made, because I didn’t really understand the question, and I was always hypothesising, always thinking maybe this is what it means but never being certain.

Secondly, I think it was my parents. My mother was an educator, and passionate about education, so that got instilled in me very early. When I was identified in Grade 1 as having “a mental block”, she just decided, “Well, my daughter’s going to learn how to read and write, and learn numbers”, so she started using flashcards and teaching me those skills, which didn’t address the learning difficulty, but gave me the skills to read and write, and some basic numeracy.

My father was a physicist and mathematician, who became an engineer, and was always very creative – he had 30 or 40 patents over the course of his career. He would come home with all his blueprints and designs and lay them out on the living room floor and try to explain them to me. I had no idea what he was trying to explain, but I caught his excitement about creating something. Also, he had this belief, which he instilled in all of us, that if you had a problem and no solution, you go out and find one. He said, “Don’t be limited by conventional wisdom. If the rest of the world tells you that you can’t do it, don’t let it stop you, this is part of the process in creating something that didn’t exist before.”

So my cognitive strengths and having those two models – that, I think, is what drove me.

Later, at university, you came across two very important pieces of research that transformed your approach to your own situation.

Very early on, I was hunting for a solution to my difficulties – initially compensation, and using strengths to support the weaknesses. Then, in graduate school, coming across [neuropsychologist Aleksander] Luria’s work out of Russia, looking at the impairment of brain function, and really starting to see: “Oh my gosh, that’s what my problem is, it’s parts of my brain that aren’t working as they’re designed to” – because if you’re solving a problem, you have to understand its nature.

And then, this concept of neuroplasticity with [American research psychologist Mark] Rosenzweig’s work looking at rats – and figuring that if rats, through experience, can actually improve brain physiology and function, which led to better learning, probably humans had that same capacity, even though people weren’t really looking at it at that time.

That was my breakthrough – that hunt, and then coming across those two pieces of information – which led me to create the first cognitive exercise, which was “symbol relations” [then a series of 100 handmade flashcards featuring analogue clocks]. It wasn’t that I wanted to tell time; I couldn’t at that point. But it was trying to find an activity that would work that part of the brain as much as possible without the supports and compensations that people use.

Luria talked about the fact that someone with that particular difficulty couldn’t tell time because they couldn’t see the relationship between the hour hand and the minute hand, and I thought maybe this was a way to force my brain to start seeing relationships, making connections. Again, I had no idea if it would work, but I thought I had to try something, because I was pretty desperate. I was in graduate school at that point and I just truly didn’t see a future. At that point I was thinking, for the second time in my life, that I was going to end my life, and this time I knew how to do it, more than I could at 13.

I suppose that you were always going to hit a point where those compensatory methods weren’t going to work for you anymore.

Well, there just aren’t enough hours in the day! By the time I got into graduate school, where clearly you’re expected to understand information, I was working seven days a week, 20 hours a day, just to tread water. There was no future. I compromised my immune system – I have an immune disorder even now, due to all that adrenaline and all that stress. Then I’d get pneumonia, and I’d just work through...

So, it all started with Luria’s discovery with the rats in 1977, which destabilised that common wisdom that the brain is fixed. Then, 40 years later, brain plasticity is discovered, and suddenly all that work that you’ve done is in the spotlight. The timing is quite extraordinary.

Again, I do thank my father, because it was his message of not being limited by conventional wisdom [that drove me]. Certainly, when I first developed this work, I thought the world would be excited. When I had my first breakthrough, at the four-hand level [of the clock exercise], I was ecstatic! I could sit and watch 60 Minutes on TV and I could understand it as the people were talking. Before, I used to have a friend who would interpret for me, and even with his interpretation I didn’t always get it. I would read a page in a book – not something simple like Nancy Drew, but anything conceptual – and I might have to read it 20 times before I thought I knew what it was saying.

You live in this constant state of uncertainty, and Luria was the first person I read who described it so beautifully: he said you can never verify meaning, so you’re walking in this cloud of the unknowing all the time, and just feel incredibly threatened because you don’t understand. I was always terrified that one of my professors would get on the elevator with me and ask me a question. I’d think: “I’m not going to understand what he’s saying and I don’t have time to play it over for the next hour in my head before I answer him.”

It was like all of a sudden the fog was gone and I could listen to conversations and understand what the person was asking me and be part of the conversation. Before – it was so profound – I was not part of human discourse; I was not a part of human relations, because I couldn’t follow things. I used to feel like my face was pressed up against a plate glass window and there was this banquet on the other side, which I wanted so much to be part of. It was incredibly isolating, and then all of a sudden I could do it. I was walking on air!

But the world was not at all excited, because it was still in the paradigm of seeing the brain as fixed; back then, in 1977–78 (and I like the term in Australia ‘specific learning difficulties’ versus ‘disability’), there was the belief that these difficulties didn’t have anything to do with the brain. I don’t know where they thought learning resided. The idea that the issue was cognitive – there’s something not working properly in the brain, and then that we can change the brain – those were two very controversial statements at the time.

So I decided I had two possible paths. One was to spend a lot of time arguing the point; or to spend time working with people developing more and more programs. And I felt that if there was validity and truth to what I was seeing, over time the field would come to that recognition or understanding, which is what’s happened.

And yet you still face the argument that your work is not scientifically proven.

What is scientific proof? There are different levels of proof. We have a number of very reputable outcome studies – from University of Calgary, University of Toronto, the Toronto Catholic District School Board – some looking at academic measures, some looking at cognitive measures, showing significant change. Now are they randomised control studies? No. But most social science does not use randomised control studies; it’s too hard to split classes into those kids who can and those kids who can’t participate – we don’t want to run it like that.

There are lots of other experimental designs, one called an N1, where you take, say, 40 Grade 5 students, all with learning difficulties, and you have them as their own baseline, based on their progression since Grade 2. Then you have an intervention, and if they’ve improved by two year levels, whereas before they were achieving at half a level per year, you can infer that it’s probably the outcome of that intervention.

So we have a number of research designs used in social sciences. The piece that we didn’t have, which we’re getting now, is the imaging work, and that’s what is being done at Southern Illinois University. We’re seeing now the changes in the brain that I’ve postulated all these years; we’re seeing the pre-frontal cortex activated in the brain in students where it wasn’t active; we’re seeing reorganisation in their brain structures; and we’re looking at cognitive and academic changes as well.

In the study that’s being done at the University of British Columbia, we have students in the Arrowsmith program; we have a group of normally developing individuals – because we know that in normal development the brain changes through childhood, so we want to control for that; and then we have a group of students who are in traditional special education programs. What we’re working on now is to increase those sample sizes. And we’re seeing really positive change, both cognitive and academic, and in neurophysiology. So it will be there in the next year. It takes time to get all this research done and then it’s a process to get publication.

Do you still confront the attitude that the brain is fixed?

I think it’d be very hard to find anyone who still believes in that pre-neuroplastic paradigm where the brain is fixed. But there are those who still say: “Yes, neuroplasticity is a phenomenon, but it has no place in education.” Those individuals – I don’t know whether they’re ever going to be convinced by the research. Then there are those who will want this [scientific] research in order to feel more comfortable about implementing the program. And then there are schools around the world that say: “We’re dealing with students whose needs we’re not meeting through traditional programs, so we going to try this.”

When a school signs on with us, it’s just a one-year commitment; I’m never going to lock anybody in beyond that. But I don’t think there’s been one school that hasn’t continued beyond a year, because parents, teachers and students see the results. So I think over time there’ll be a groundswell, where we’ll have enough on-the-ground evidence. I like research – I think it’s useful and important – but, to me, it’s much more important to see what these individuals can do in the world that they couldn’t do before.

For me, it was [a case of] one day I couldn’t do this, and then one day, getting to a critical point in the exercise, I could. Before, with all the compensation in the world, it didn’t matter how hard I tried, I could not listen or read and understand simultaneously.

The implications are enormous, particularly for early intervention, and I imagine it could seem like a big leap for many education systems, which can be very constrained for various reasons, including a lack of resources.

The vision that I ended my book with is one where every child starting in Grade 1 would do a cognitive program, and we have two schools that are doing that now – one taking the Grade 1 class and one taking the Grade 2 class. For Grade 1, we’ve picked the exercises related to Motor Planning; every child can benefit from that, not just students who’ve been identified as having difficulties. And what they’re already seeing is that after ten weeks [of the program] not one of the students identified as needing Reading Recovery still needs it.

There are a number of different models. One is you take a cognitive exercise per year and progressively work through the critical ones in those early years. Or a school can have a full-service model, where those students who get to the end of the first year and clearly need more, could filter in and out of a cognitive classroom for any number of activities. It’s very fluid, and that’s why it’s a real vision of personalised education. Everyone can benefit from cognitive stimulation, and the ones who are more at risk can have access to a more intensive program. It’s based on their needs.

So what do you see as the main barriers to schools picking up the program?

I think lack of awareness. There’s still a lack of understanding about neuroplasticity and a lack of awareness that brain functioning is a problem. And there’s still this divide. Most of education is still content and skills-based: the idea that education is pouring content into a black box. A lot of educators are committed to supporting the learner in learning how to learn, but they have a mandate whereby they’ve got to teach a lot of basic content throughout the school years. And then there’s the capacity-based model, which is saying that we can change the capacity, which will allow the student to learn the skills and the content not only more efficiently, but it will also be retained, as the structure will be there to retain it and build on it.

The University of British Columbia is looking at creating a Department of Education Neuroplasticity, which I’m really excited about, and that has partly grown out of the work that we’re doing on my program there. It will be the first in Canada, bringing all of this knowledge into education so that students can benefit from this. I’m very optimistic; I think that in the next 10 or 15 years we’ll see this much more accepted: that you go to school to learn, and that we learn with our brains, so if we can do things to enhance cognitive functioning, that’s going to make us better lifelong learners.

As you say, there are those standard subjects, such as Maths, which require cognitive development but also impart the building blocks of knowledge. Given that Arrowsmith students are working outside the curriculum, or parts of it, while doing the program, what would you say to those with concerns about students potentially missing out on those building blocks?

When Arrowsmith is implemented in a school, we request four periods a day, so there’s another half day that students can be undertaking academic subjects, and we will recommend literacy and numeracy for the reasons you’re suggesting, because there are critical experiences and building blocks that are necessary, and what we see are the cognitive functions start to improve, so they start to be able to benefit from that learning.

But we know that once a child can think, reason, problem-solve, retain information and express themselves, they can pick up subjects like History and Geography in Grades 3, 4, 5 or 6, whereas before they could have sat in those classes not being able to comprehend what they were meant to be learning. We learn the content more efficiently and effectively, and retain it, when we have the capacity to do so. They go hand in hand.

That’s what we have to foster out there in the world: that understanding that we can change capacity, which then will allow content to be learned, but also all the effective ways of how to learn. We know that many graduates can move between quite different disciplines because they’ve got the capacity and wherewithal to pick up the content. I think some of the criticisms that get levelled at this work are by people who aren’t informed: they just want to put up a barrier.

And of course students who are struggling in class are not only failing to learn, they are also likely to be having a very negative experience of schooling.

That’s right. Learning becomes negative and aversive, and students get into all sorts of behaviours we wish they wouldn’t, from avoidance to self-harm to addiction. We’re currently putting the Arrowsmith program into an American school for troubled youth, because we know a number of these individuals go down that path because of learning difficulties.

If you can’t reason, you can’t see cause and effect, and you can’t benefit from therapy. I could have been in therapy for years and my eyes would have glazed over, because I just couldn’t see the consequences of my behaviour. So it’s not just critical for education, it’s critical for learning in life, and being able to benefit from insight. Our brains are fundamental to the core of our beings; it’s what mediates our relationship to the world. When something’s not working there, it means our relationship to the world is distorted.

When I started this work, the belief that was promoted by organisations dealing with people with learning disabilities, as we define it here, was that we have to accept that “some people are squirrels, some people are rabbits, some people are ducks… and you’re not going to be able to make that rabbit swim”. That’s essentially what I was told in Grade 1: “You’ve got a mental block; just accept that there are certain things that are going to be impossible for you.”

What makes me really sad is that when I go out there and give talks, there are still pockets of people operating with that world view. It’s not that I’m suggesting that you don’t accept that beautiful being and love your child as they are – however, it’s recognised that we can change those capacities, so that they can swim or fly or run or hop, and then the world is open to them and there are all these possibilities.

Many of the adults I work with say their curve was chosen for them, because they got to a certain point when almost every door was closing. This work opens so many doors and possibilities for them – and maybe they will still decide: “Actually, I do want to go through that door”, but then it’s a real choice; it’s not a forced choice. I think that’s the power of this work: it allows people a different trajectory for their life.

Teachers always say that their most heartbreaking experiences are not being able to help a child they know could be helped, if they only had the time and resources; and their most satisfying moments are when they see a child finally ‘get’ something. So how do teachers describe their experience of implementing the Arrowsmith program?

Most teachers get into education because they want to make a difference, and it’s not very rewarding if they keep hitting roadblocks. One teacher told me that before, when her students with special needs left Grade 8, she wasn’t thinking, “Are they going to pass their Maths exam?”, she was thinking, “How are they going to find their locker?” But after doing this work, she didn’t have to worry anymore; she could watch them go out the door knowing they were going to be successful. So it’s really satisfying for teachers, because this is what they got into education to do.

Has developing and running your program given you insights into the role of equity in education?

If we talk about equity, this program needs to be in the public system, because these are the kids who really get marginalised. If they can’t access private tuition, they are doubly disadvantaged. I’m thrilled that it’s in independent and Catholic schools, because people make that choice as well, but the program needs to be accessible, so that anyone who needs it doesn’t get turned away.

That’s my vision: that every child walking into school, irrespective of where it is, has access to a cognitive program to address any problems. Whether it’s my program or another quality program, they need access to this kind of work to allow them to be productive, engaged members of society who are contributing down the road.

Several of the students in the schools where we run the program here in Toronto, their parents would never be able to afford private tuition. My commitment – and I’m working as hard as I can – is to get this into more publically funded systems, and I believe all it takes is an administration with vision. The funds are out there, and how costly is it if we don’t do this!

In our society, we’re very short-sighted. A brilliant study done here in Canada looking at the cost – physical, emotional but also economic – to society [found it costs on average] half a million dollars per individual with learning difficulties, in terms of additional supports, some of it worn by society, some of it worn by families. Another recent study showed that people with learning difficulties are twice as likely to be unemployed or marginally employed; a significant number of them end up in the prison system; and they suffer triple the rate of mental health disorders, so they’re in that system, too.

A small intervention, perhaps only for the first four or five years of a person’s schooling, and we’re not going to have that societal cost. In one of the follow-up studies we did with the Toronto Catholic Schools Board, in 2007, we found the reduction of welfare services and resource support for students was dramatic, because most didn’t need it any longer. So, even within the education system, there’s a saving, but these people also go on to contribute to society.

You’re working on a revised edition of your memoir. Can you tell us about that?

It’s going to be an update for the past four years. The book was published in 2012. It’ll talk about the research that’s happening and some of the preliminary results. It’ll talk about one of the things I’ve become really passionate about, which is looking at behaviour through a cognitive lens. We look at somebody’s behaviour and think: “Oh my gosh, that person really is obstreperous or obnoxious or difficult or rude”, and possibly they are – but sometimes it’s a cognitive problem that’s affected the way they experience the world, and if we at least step back and look at that, maybe we’ll have more compassion for that individual and their experience. Maybe that individual will have more compassion for themselves, too. And then there’s the possibility that something can be done.

Also, I talked about my vision, and now we have two schools here starting what I call the ‘whole-cohort model’, so a whole class working on a cognitive exercise. We look at the demands of each grade, in terms of what the learner needs to learn, and pick the exercise that would most suit that class. So I’ll be talking a bit about that and some of the results those two schools are seeing.

We’re also in discussion with the University of Madrid, where they are looking at introducing the ‘Symbol Relations’ exercises. Imagine – if we could create a laboratory at the university that the students could filter in and out of throughout the day, in between their classes. Over a year they only need four hours per week. That would be really exciting.

Rachel Power is a writer, editor and artist. She has contributed to many publications, including Mamamia, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings and The Age. She has worked as a court illustrator for Channel 9, production editor of Arena Magazine, and is currently Communications Manager for the Australian Education Union (Victoria). Rachel is the author of Alison Rehfisch: A Life for Art; The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood; and Motherhood & Creativity.

This article appears in Professional Voice 11.3 What works (and what doesn't).