Barbara Arrowsmith-Young struggled with acute learning difficulties until adulthood before a chance encounter sparked her research into the plasticity of the brain. Now Illawarra students will have a chance to benefit from her work, writes KATE WALSH.
There's an issue Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has spent a lot of time mulling over.
If the Canadian educator had access to an education program when she was young like the one she developed for people with learning difficulties, she would never have experienced the depression and failing self-confidence that came from not being able to learn as easily as her peers.
But without that struggle, she would never have spent countless hours developing exercises to change her brain, never would have created the Arrowsmith Program that has since helped thousands.
'It would remove the stigma around having a learning problem because it would just be a normal part of a curriculum'
"If I knew this program existed, I would have been pounding on my parents' bedroom door saying: 'You have to take me'," she says.
"But it didn't and because of the struggles it led me to develop the program. If I look at my life, I think everything was lined up to lead me in this direction.
"Would I have preferred to not have all that suffering? Probably yes, but here I am. It shaped me to do what I do."
As a child Arrowsmith-Young was diagnosed with a mental block. Among other issues she wrote things backwards and couldn't process relationships in language.
These blocks meant she had to go over new facts or ideas countless times to gain some degree of understanding, but it wasn't just when hitting the books that she faced a hurdle.
Following conversations, recognising sarcasm and getting the punchline of a joke were just as difficult.
"I just didn't understand what people were saying to me. The part of the brain that attaches meaning to things wasn't working very well," she says.
"Whether it was a conversation in a class, in a lecture, in a social conversation, if there was any degree of complexity in that conversation, I was lost."
"It caused anxiety, it caused depression, poor self concept, no self-confidence because it didn't matter where I went, I struggled with trying to understand what was going on around me."
She persevered with her problems throughout her schooling, until she came across a book in her mid-20s that shed light on the workings of her brain.
As she read The Man with a Shattered World, about a Russian soldier who experienced learning challenges after he was shot in the brain, she realised she had experienced the same hurdles with learning, albeit without the injury.
It's a memory she's no doubt recounted hundreds of times, but the amazement at finally discovering a kindred spirit, or brain, is still present in her voice as she speaks on the phone from Toronto.
"He couldn't tell time, he couldn't understand relationships, things like greater than, less than, smaller, bigger, which I struggled with, he couldn't understand fractions," she remembers.
"And he was using the same language in his journal, saying he lived in a fog, [that] meaning was ephemeral and kept disappearing in a mist, the same kind of language I was using in my journal."
At the same time she was swotting up on research by an American pyschologist, whose studies on rats found their brains changed and better supported learning when constantly stimulated.
Assuming humans had greater neuroplasticity than the tiny critters, Arrowsmith-Young tried a similar experiment.
"I was desperate. I thought what do I have to lose but time - and I couldn't tell time. I was 25 or 26 and I still couldn't read a clock," she recalls.
She developed a series of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen what she believed was the under-functioning part of her brain.
Despite her learning difficulties, Arrowsmith-Young had, and has, a strong drive to succeed and an excellent memory. Using these strengths, she spent hundreds of hours working on the exercises, making them more difficult as she began to master each level.
She began with clock faces, teaching herself to read the time accurately, adding extra hands as she improved to fire her sleepy synapses. It worked.
"I could listen to conversations and understand them as people were talking," she says.
"I could open a book and read a page and understand it, where before I had to read that page 15 times, 20 times because I didn't understand what the author was saying.
"I knew my brain had changed because I could never do those things. No matter how hard I tried, I could never do them. At that point I realised humans do have neuroplasticity."
Through trial and error Arrowsmith-Young developed more exercises to target other areas she had difficulties with, such as physical coordination, and began helping others who had similar learning problems to retrain their brains.
In the 35 years since, Arrowsmith-Young has continued the "humbling" work and the Arrowsmith Program has expanded exponentially to help children and adults around the world who have difficulties with learning.
While full-time Arrowsmith students spend part of their day learning core subjects such as maths and science, the program itself does not teach content.
Rather, it is a series of repetitive exercises designed to strengthen cognitive processes and make the brain better at registering, absorbing and understanding information. Arrowsmith-Young and her staff have now developed exercises to improve 19 different cognitive functions, including reading, writing, visual memory, auditory processing and logic.
Most students spend between three and four years in the program full time, with tales of families moving across the world so their child can attend an Arrowsmith school.
Five schools in Australia currently offer the Arrowsmith Program, but there are many more considering it, including the The Illawarra Grammar School.
TIGS headmaster Stephen Kinsella first became aware of the Arrowsmith Program after reading Arrowsmith-Young's book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, which chronicles her journey and the stories of some of the first students who overcame their learning problems through her program.
While TIGS already provides substantial support for students with learning difficulties, including special education classes and situation-specific support such as extra time in exams for those who struggle with comprehension, Kinsella says the program is intriguing because it helps address the cause of the issue rather than compensate for it.
"There are some students who for reasons that we can't fathom as educators are just not connecting in the learning process," he says.
"We know it's not to do with basic intelligence. There's something in the challenges they have in learning, there's something that occurs that makes them not connect with what's going on.
"[The program is] not for everyone, but for those students who would benefit from remediation of cognitive dysfunction, they would benefit because from that platform, to put it crudely by rewiring their brain, they're able to engage in special education programs that would bring them up to speed."
If the school decides to implement Arrowsmith, it would be available for about 10 students enrolled at TIGS from 2015, with students spending half the day doing the cognitive exercises and the other half in regular classes.
Kinsella says current research highlighting the impact advances in the understanding of neuroscience have on education were also of particular interest to teachers in a wider sense.
"There are things teachers know intuitively. When you stand in front of a class a good teacher knows the needs of each of their students.
"Understanding why is the exciting thing and to have a scientific basis that supports what a good teacher does by instinct is very empowering and very encouraging."
Already more than 450 people have expressed interest in attending an information session at TIGS on Arrowsmith in June, at which Arrowsmith-Young will speak as part of her coming Australian tour.
She attributes the growing interest in the program to research on neuroplasticity becoming more prevalent, particularly in the past decade.
"Now we can open any magazine and often there will be an article about the brain. It's in people's consciousness that our brain isn't fixed, that it can change, so that means certain problems we thought we were just going to have to live with for the rest of our lives, now we don't have to," she says.
"Now that there's awareness and we know in special education we've done the best that we can with the tools and knowledge we have, but now we're getting new knowledge we don't have to live with the problem[s], we don't [have to] work around or compensate, we can actually address them."
Some have criticised the program for a lack of peer-reviewed scientific research exploring if and how it works and for relying more on anecdotal reports than hard facts.
But Arrowsmith-Young counters these barbs by pointing to the research papers available on the program's website that show most students who take part experience significant improvements in their academic, cognitive and interpersonal skills.
"We probably have more research than what's traditionally done in special education and now we have a number of research initiatives going on at various universities," she said.
"We have more than anecdotal evidence. But even if we did only have anecdotal, if you have enough anecdotal, several thousand cases all showing the same thing, there must be something happening."
Ultimately, she envisions an education system where cognitive exercises are part of every school's curriculum, where learning difficulties, and associated hits to self-esteem, are overcome before they are an issue.
"It would remove the stigma around having a learning problem because it would just be a normal part of a curriculum and every child would be doing it," she says.
"Any child can benefit from good cognitive stimulation. It's my hope for the future of education that that's what happens. I just think it would make such a difference."
The Illawarra Grammar School will host an evening with Barbara Arrowsmith-Young on Friday, June 27, at 7pm at the school. To book a place at the free event visit tigs.nsw.edu.au.