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Barbara Young, author of The Woman Who Changed her Brain, founded the Arrowsmith School. (Tibor Kolley/Globe and Mail)
Barbara Young, author of The Woman Who Changed her Brain, founded the Arrowsmith School. (Tibor Kolley/Globe and Mail)

Can a controversial learning program transform brains? Add to ...

From a young age, Sebastien Klein seemed to have an extraordinary memory.

“He’d help me with gardening and know the names of all the plants,” says his mother, Kathleen. “But at school, he always had this problem we couldn’t figure out.”

Although he had a great long-term memory, Sebastien struggled to learn new facts. In Grade 3, he was assessed as learning disabled – with particular challenges around short-term memory and a slow processing speed.

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“The diagnosis was, ‘This will be with him the rest of his life and you’ll have to accommodate him,’ ” says Ms. Klein, who spent the rest of the year arranging for a teacher’s assistant to sit next to her son and repeat information.

It didn’t help much, and Sebastien felt ostracized. So his mother decided to try an experimental – and controversial – learning program at the Arrowsmith School in Toronto.

Founded by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young in 1980, the private school not only claims to help learning-disabled students, but that it can actually transform their brains. Their approach is based on current research in neuroplasticity, which suggests that the brain is dynamic, constantly rewiring itself. It is also based on Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s own experience: In her late 20s, she had logical and verbal impairments that were so severe she couldn’t tell time by reading a clock – a struggle detailed in her recent memoir The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.

To help herself, Ms. Arrowsmith-Young developed cognitive exercises she believes helped to stimulate the growth of neural pathways. She now has her students – who are not only children, but include adults into their 70s – follow a similar approach.

“If we look at a lot of special education programs, the majority assume the learner is fixed,” Ms. Arrowsmith-Young says. “What my program is saying is that we can change the learner so they can learn.”

That change comes at a cost. Tuition is $23,000 a year. But demand is so high – there’s a year-long waiting list in Toronto – that Arrowsmith opened another campus in Peterborough, Ont., and created part-time programs for schools willing to pay $3,500 per child in the Greater Toronto Area. Four Catholic schools have signed on, covering costs for students.

What students get for their fees is a half-day of focused math and English lessons with a 7-to-1 student-teacher ratio. The rest of the day is then spent puzzling over Sisyphean tasks most of us would not recognize as schoolwork. To strengthen his memory, for example, Sebastien listens to a phrase and, after being distracted for a few minutes, must repeat it. Those who have trouble with symbol recognition (they can’t picture words in their heads) are asked to identify a word in an unfamiliar alphabet such as Urdu or Burmese in an array of similar-looking words. Students do these exercises thousands of times.

“It’s like physiotherapy, where someone has to rebuild a muscle,” says Andrea Peirson, a teacher at the school since 1998.

Do these exercises work?

Some research supports the program’s effectiveness. A three-year study of 79 Arrowsmith students in 2005 by Mount Sinai Hospital psychiatrist William Lancee found that students improved in the specific cognitive areas targeted by the program. A 2007 report on pupils in the Catholic school program also found gains.

Students typically spend three to four years in the full-time program, after which many return to regular school, Ms. Peirson says. The school says up to 30 years after their students have left the program, they have maintained improved capacity.

Ms. Klein says her son has benefited in other ways too. “By Christmas of last year, [he] was relaxed,” she says. “He wasn’t anxious about school any more.”

But not everyone is on the Arrowsmith bandwagon. A 2010 paper by Larry Alferink and Valeri Farmer-Dougan in the academic journal Exceptionality warned that brain-based curricula are oversimplifying complex neuroscience research.

And Linda Siegel, a University of British Columbia professor and the winner of the Canadian Psychological Association Gold Medal for lifetime contributions, is a prominent critic. Dr. Siegel says she initially had high hopes for Arrowsmith, but last November in the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, she wrote that “hype has triumphed over science” at the school.

She contends that the studies done by Dr. Lancee and the Catholic board lack control groups and have too many technical problems to support the school’s claims. Not only are parents paying for an expensive, unproven program, she says, they could actually be setting kids back if they are only spending part of the day learning content.

“If somebody has a reading problem, you work on their reading skills,” she says. “If someone’s having difficulty with mathematics, you train them in mathematics. … I don’t know of anything in the literature that’s been successful in training memory by itself.”

Ms. Arrowsmith-Young defends the effectiveness of her work, saying the Lancee study used a scientifically valid research trial design called “N of 1,” where the subject is its own control. Other studies of her program had a comparison group (if not a control group).

If anything, Ms. Arrowsmith-Young wants to expand her reach. Already offered in several schools across North America, her program will soon be launching in Australia, and she says she has been meeting with educators in India. In fact, her ultimate ambition is to offer all children basic cognitive workouts. That would help kids with learning disabilities before they even become apparent, she says.

As for taking a leap into new territory: “Any time there’s a shift in an approach or way of thinking,” she says, “there’s going to be resistance.”

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