Yet another trial of brain training for students who struggle to learn has concluded that brain training works.
I'm not surprised that the students who did the Arrowsmith exercises over the two year trial experienced improvements in their learning ability. This study joins many hundreds of earlier studies that have shown students with learning and reading difficulties benefit greatly from completing well designed, scientifically based brain training programs.
Hundreds of published studies have shown the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord brain training and reading programs and the Cogmed Working Memory program. And with Fast ForWord, the brain training exercises improve not only learning challenged students but also average and even gifted students who increase their learning capacity.
Read the transcript of the ABC 7:30 report:
Host: A specialised learning program based on altering brain functions has been given the green light by the Catholic Education System in Sydney. It's called the Arrowsmith Program and it has been trialed by a group of high school students over the past two years. In 2012, 7.30 New South Wales looked at the program on the eve of its introduction. Now preliminary research is supporting the classroom results that show the brain training exercises are working. Sharon O'Neill reports.
Teacher: Okay, that's a really good start to the morning. Thanks, everyone. Keep your trackers beside you and Mrs. Byrne and I will along to check what you're doing.
Sharon O’Neill: It's the start of the school week at Casimir College in Sydney. But this is no ordinary class.
Teacher: Okay, Bea. Say, if we're looking at your goals for today, you're on... what level are you on?
Bea (Student 1): I'm on level G.
Sharon O’Neill: Each one of these students has a learning difficulty and they're all part of a two year experiment, which is attempting to change the way their brains process information.
Teacher: The change is something that I haven't seen before in my 30 years of teaching.
Sharon O’Neill: The changes taking place in these students has persuaded Sydney's Catholic Education Office to expand the program to primary school students. The experiment, it seems, is working. And do you feel two years on that it is helping you?
Stephanie (Student 2): Yes, dramatically. It has helped me through everything.
Sharon O’Neill: The Arrowsmith program was created by Canadian, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.
Barbara Arrowsmith: My journey is a very personal story of how I came to learn that not only does our brain shape us, but that we can actually shape and change our brain.
Sharon O’Neill: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was born with severe learning difficulties.
Barbara Arrowsmith: My brain was interesting, to say the least. It had parts that were functioning exceptionally well and other parts that were really very, very deficient. Almost at the level of a stroke victim. And what we know now, which certainly wasn't common knowledge when I was growing up is this whole concept of neuroplasticity. I mean, we know now and there's so much evidence and it's irrefutable that the brain is capable of changing.
Sharon O’Neill: When she was in her 20s, she came across significant neurological research that led to the development of a number of cognitive exercises, a precursor to the ones which now form the basis of a school program for learning disabled children.
Barbara Arrowsmith: If they're sort of more self-aware and, I mean, again, you need to use that judgment with the students that you have, but...
Sharon O’Neill: In November, 2012, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young came to Sydney to help the Catholic Education Office establish the first Australian Arrowsmith class.
Teacher: I was excited that there could be a program that could change cognitive structure, that could actually work with the brain and the neuroplasticity concerning the brain and change that structure.
Siena (Student 3): I just wanted to, like, be able to understand what was going in the classroom and have a better understanding what's going... what goes on in the world.
Sharon O’Neill: The cognitive exercises these students undertake repetitively each day are specially designed to change the brain.
Teacher: All our exercises are built on the premise of building new neurons and strengthening the brain. So the clocks exercise is all about cause and effect. The students look at the hands of the clock and they have to read the times, but in doing that, they have to look at the relationship, for example, between the hour hand and the minute hand. Then we introduce a third hand, the second hand. So they look at the relationships between each of those hands. So all these exercises depend on or thrive on the idea of raising the bar. So once they achieve their mastery, we make it a little bit harder, and they work hard to achieve that next level.
Sharon O’Neill: Has it changed the way you think, do you think?
Siena (Student 3): After the training, everything in my entire life, I see life in a whole new perspective and everything. I can like... I can do things more independently now. I'm not so anxious and scared of doing things that are different and everything.
Teacher: What this exercise helps is recognizing symbols. And it directly affects reading. So when she's reading, she's able to identify letters and decode, blend those letters into sounds and it helps with her reading.
Stephanie (Student 2): My friends, my family, my teachers, my old teachers from my old school have told me that I have changed dramatically in speaking, writing, spelling, everything.
Teacher: Some students are one to two years, but mostly it's three to four years.
Sharon O’Neill: So, we're not talking about a quick fix here?
Teacher: No. No. To change the brain requires hard work, the same as exercise to become a top athlete requires hard work. To change the brain requires, you know, very hard work.
Sharon O’Neill: So what sort of things is it helping you with?
Joe (Student 3): Well, hopefully my memory so I can understand maybe math problems better or just maybe remember things so that I don't forget everything when I am doing exams or something.
Quentin (Student 4): When I joined, I was working on my auditory processing for oral instructions. Because when I was in class, I wasn't following the whole paragraph the teacher was reading out. I'd only comprehend and remember only one or two sentences, which was a big deal.
Dr. Kate O'Brien: Each time I go to Casimir College and see those students, my heart skips with joy.
Sharon O’Neill: Dr. Kate O'Brien is the director of teaching and learning at the Catholic Education Office in Sydney.
Dr. O'Brien: It was a calculated risk. We did do an extensive risk assessment. And looked at a lot of the research that was available. And believe that this is a particular group of students who are average to above average in intelligence who, for some reason, have blockages to their learning and we weren't able to support them in ways that we possibly could. So yes, it was a risk. And I think that now that you look back and you see the changes for these particularly young people, that it's been a risk that's been very well measured and one that is exciting about their possibilities for the future.
Sharon O’Neill: For these students, it's a future that's certainly a lot brighter.
Elisa (Parent 1): I had the feeling she's always felt like she's somebody sitting in a foreign country and not understanding what's being spoken around her. So she'll sometimes sit there at the table and say, "I'm actually starting to understand things now. And I am starting to be able to join in conversations."
Kathy (Parent 2): We've just realized after a few months that the fog was lifting, this haze that he was living in. And we'd be constantly repeating things or he'd look at us bewildered that we'd never said it before, became a lot clearer. And now we can have lots of conversations and he's aware of what's going on a lot more.
Barbara Arrowsmith: I say to some of my students in Toronto, "It's like you've got a Lamborghini engine and maybe the spark plugs need to be tuned."
Parent 3: I really hope that it will bring her confidence up and everything will be good, yeah.
Sharon O’Neill: We met you two years ago when you were making a decision about whether to be part of this program. Two years on, did you make the right decision?
Parent 3: Yes, we did. We made the right decision. She's improved quite dramatically. We're very proud.