The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities, a description of which appears in the article, Building a Better Brain or in Chapter 2 of the book, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge.
Diagnosed in grade one as having a mental block, which today would have been identified as multiple learning disabilities, she read and wrote everything backwards, had trouble processing concepts in language, continuously got lost and was physically uncoordinated. Barbara eventually learnt to read and write from left to right and mask a number of the symptoms of her learning disabilities through heroic effort, however she continued throughout her educational career to have difficulty with specific aspects of learning.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young holds both a B.A.Sc. in Child Studies from the University of Guelph, and a Master’s degree in School Psychology from the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). After her undergraduate studies were completed Barbara worked as the Head Teacher in the lab preschool at the University of Guelph for two years where she began to observe learning differences in preschool children.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s Master’s thesis, entitled, A Follow Up Study of a Clinic Sample (1982), followed 62 students who had been assessed at the O.I.S.E. psycho-educational clinic nine months to five years prior to the start of the study. Interviews at follow up were conducted with a parent and the student’s current teacher and ratings were obtained on social, emotional, behavioral and academic variables. Children who were achieving below their age expected grade level on academic tests administered during their initial assessment at the O.I.S.E. clinic (mathematics, word recognition, spelling and reading comprehension) continued to perform poorly in the same subject areas in relation to their peers based on their teachers’ achievement ratings at follow-up. Further it was found that the amount of intervening educational remedial intervention (hours, months, intensity) was not related to change in the children’s academic problems or performance. Interestingly, it was found that students who received more than the median intensity of intervention (more than 10 hours/month) were achieving even more poorly at follow up than those receiving less intervention. These results confirmed Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s own experience with the limitations of academic remedial work in addressing a range of specific learning disabilities.
In graduate school she came across two lines of research that intrigued her. Luria’s description of specific brain function lead her to a clearer understanding of her own learning problem and the work of Rosenzweig suggested the possibility of improving brain function through specific stimulation, at least in animals. This lead to the creation of the first brain exercise designed to improve the learning capacity involved in logical reasoning. The results were positive with gains in verbal reasoning, mathematical reasoning and conceptual understanding. This lead to a further exploration of the nature of specific learning capacities and to creating exercises to strengthen them. This is the ongoing work of Arrowsmith School which can currently identify 19 cognitive areas and has programs to strengthen the functioning of each of these. The program originated in Toronto in 1978 and today is implemented in 38 schools in Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
As the Director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program, she continues to develop programs for students with learning disabilities. It is her vision that this program be available to all students struggling with learning disabilities so they may know the ease and joy of learning and to realize their dreams.