Raising Cognitive Capacity
By Leanne Miller
Professionally Speaking, September, 2008, pp. 33-39
Review and Response by John Picone
Recently, a good friend of mine was required to have his leg amputated below the knee. For a time, he had to compensate for this disability: confined to a wheelchair. With time, however, a great deal of hard work, and the knowledgeable assistance of rehabilitation experts, he has overcome his disability. He now walks and drives his car as he did before the operation. He is, in fact, no longer disabled with respect to his ability to participate fully in living day to day.
Are learning disabilities any different? Just as a part of my friend’s body – his leg – became no longer functional, the child with a learning disability has a part of the brain that does not function properly. This impairs their ability in such areas as memory, reading comprehension, and understanding cause and effect relationships. My friend overcame his disability with a prosthesis. But what does the brain do?
Barbara Arrowsmith Young has found some answers! She has developed some solid methods for improving success among students with learning disabilities.
When she was in grade 1, Young’s parents were told by her teacher that she had a ‘mental block’ and would never be able to learn like other kids, that she would always be behind. “I was put in the turtles reading group.” Young notes that today she would have been diagnosed as having dyslexia and auditory processing difficulties. She couldn’t understand, let alone remember, concepts or what she read in books. She couldn’t read clocks (analog) and she couldn’t keep up with class discussions. So, she learned to compensate.
Although demoralized, facing low self-esteem and frustration, Young persisted in her education making it through high school and Guelph University where she pursued child studies. “I wanted to understand my own learning problems,” she explains. “That’s where my motivation came from.”
The article describes an all-too-familiar scene:
Traditionally, children with learning disabilities are taught to compensate for them, not to overcome them. Those with poor fine-motor skills, for example, use computers to get around poor handwriting or are given classmates’ notes. Students who have difficulty doing mathematical calculations may use a calculator instead of struggling (and usually failing) to memorize their times tables. A child with ADD may learn organizational and time-management strategies.
The Arrowsmith program, developed by Young, builds on the theory of neuroplasticity.
“We know that the brain is pliable and elastic, not fixed as we used to believe,” Young explains. “It can physically change in response to stimulus and develop new neuronal branches and synaptic connections. This means that the brains of children with certain learning disabilities can be strengthened to the point of average or even above-average functionality.”
In completing her graduate work in psychology at OISE, Young came to understand her own learning difficulties through reading the work of psychologist Mark Rosenzweig and neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Experimenting with rats exposed to three different levels of stimulation –none, normal and enriched – and studying their brains afterwards, Rosenzweig found neurophysiological changes in the brains of the rats exposed to an environment enriched with stimulation, including more neurotransmitters. He concluded that a rat’s brain is malleable and capable of improving its learning capacity as a result of stimulation. “This was radical thinking in the early 1960’s.” Young took up the challenge to see whether Rosenzweig’s findings were applicable to humans.
“I created my clocks exercise to test Rosenzweig’s hypothesis on myself,” she explains. Young could not tell time with an analog clock and she always struggles with cause-and-effect relationships and mathematical concepts. She created hundreds of flash cards with clock faces and drilled herself to read time, first with two hands, then three and finally four. “After a great many hours of practice, things began to shift,” she explains. “For the first time, I began to make connections in what I was reading. I began to understand cause-and-effect concepts. I pre-tested myself on certain mathematical concepts and after countless hours of clock work, I found that my mathematical abilities had increased significantly.”
Young developed brain-strengthening exercises. She tested her exercises on children with learning disabilities. First she identified their weak cognitive areas, then she removed their Special Education supports and finally she put her targeted exercises to work. She saw consistent improvement in the children’s academic abilities.
The most common outcomes of the program include:
Strengthened cognitive processes necessary for more efficient learning
Improved visual and auditory memory, as well as attention and concentration
Improved capacity for concept formation for both visual-spatial and language-based materials
Improved fine-motor skills necessary for writing and note taking
Strengthened working memory, processing speed and cognitive efficiency
Improved verbal and non-verbal thinking, reasoning and problem solving
An example of one of Young’s brain exercises is reading multi-syllabic nonsense words aloud, practicing moving the emphasis to each syllable and switching them backwards and forwards:
Lic’ pro’ fun; Lic pro’ fun; Lic pro fun’; Fun’ lic pro
In another, students study Norman Rockwell pictures to figure out what is happening. They discuss the pictures with their teacher, who presses them to look at the clues, the details, to put together a story. Yet another involves tracing symbols over and over with a patch on one eye; 30 minutes with the patch, 5 minutes without. As one student involved in this exercise observes, “Covering my left eye forces my brain’s left side to work harder – that’s where it’s weaker.”
Most students are in Young’s program from Grade 7 to 7 and, ideally, are reintegrated into regular classrooms in Grade 8.
The data shows that students’ rate of learning on specific academic tasks such as work recognition, arithmetic, reading comprehension and reading speed increased by on-and-a-half to three times the rate they were learning at prior to the program.
In reflecting on her own time in elementary school, Young says, “I was 28 when I started developing this program and it took me another 10 years to stop thinking I was stupid. Let’s not do that to any more children.”
My first response is to nominate Barbara Arrowsmith Young as Education Minister! She reminds me of the parents in the movie, “Lorenzo’s Oil” who were determined to find a better way, not content with the status quo of medicine. Heroes!
While the incidence of learning disabilities may be on the rise due to toxins in our air and water, or steroids in our food, the fact is that children with impaired brain functions have always and will always be in our schools. Foremost, it seems, in education’s mind is to label these children: LD, ADD, ADHD, Aspergers and so forth. My experience suggests that such labels are not only limiting, but they become an excuse for behaviour and performance. And, as Young points out, education’s response is to “teach” these children to compensate for their disability, not try to overcome it.
My personal frustrations in the classroom after three decades of working with labeled students is simply that often I don’t know how to compensate, usually by way of differentiating the program or its delivery in some way, and find it almost impossible to do so when tools are suggested to me because either I don’t know how to use the tools or I’m faced with the fact that there are 25 other “normal” students in the class that also need attention. This is particularly true in music when so much of classroom time is devoted necessarily to the band as a whole.
Another frustration informed by my experience, particularly as an English teacher, was the inattention given to current research. So many educators seem unwilling and/or unmotivated to stay “on the edge” of pedagogical research. And the macro-relationships in education – the influence of administration on classroom practice – are clearly ineffective in nurturing and supporting such attitudes. For whatever reasons, too many educators are prisoners of their own paradigms. To me, this is nothing less than being irresponsible. Is this the attitude of doctors and dentists and presidential security teams?
And so I heartily applaud Young’s impatience with current practice. Drawing upon her own experiences as well as recent neuroscience’s view of the brain as pliable and plastic, she has persevered to find ways to help learning disabled children overcome – not compensate for – their learning disabilities.
There was no mention of any activities designed by Young that involve music. There is clear evidence that listening to and making music has a significant impact on the cognitive functioning of the brain. And so I wonder what possible role music might have in addressing certain impairments of brain function these children have. I also wonder if, by its very demands of focus, memory, discipline, patience and organization, the experience of playing a musical instrument in a band might have an impact on the cognitive functioning of such children.
Reading about Young’s accomplishments with children with learning disabilities brought to mind two things a mentor told me in my early days of teaching: “Always have a healthy sense of impatience with what you’re doing and why.” And, “Blessed are they who do not leave well enough alone; to them we all the progress of humankind!”