Barbara Arrowsmith, author of the book “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation“, came onto the radar when I read about her her and her program in the book “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. Although the Arrowsmith program is primarily for children with learning disabilities, I was still intrigued about the significance of her work – that we can change the way our brains operate through neuroplasticity.
Fixing My Brain
Fixing My Brain is a documentary created in 2008 featuring Barbara Arrowsmith and her remarkable program for learning disabled children.
In her youth, Barbara Arrowsmith struggled with a severe learning dysfunction—until she designed a self-improvement regimen aimed at strengthening areas of her brain. This film profiles Arrowsmith, takes viewers inside the school she founded, and follows the progress of four cognitively challenged students enrolled there. Psychology and special education experts articulate diverging opinions of Arrowsmith’s methods—including enthusiasm from Dr. Norman Doidge of Columbia University and skepticism from Dr. Linda Siegel of the University of British Columbia. Displaying a wide range of attitudes among students and parents, the film culminates in a graduation ceremony—and measurable cognitive improvements.
The entire documentary can be viewed for free on Films on Demand:
It is 52 minutes long but if you don’t have the time, these are the essential take home points:
4 boys with learning disabilities who take the Arrowsmith program for a year
- Raymond has completed Grade 9 but his Math and Reading are at Grade 3
- Matthew has completed Grade 8 but his handwriting is illegible and his comprehension is at Grade 7
- Jordan has completed Grade 12 but his comprehension and reading speed are at Grade 8
- Alfred has completed Grade 11 but his comprehension is at Grade 6 and he has poor problem solving ability
The boys have low reading and math abilities, illegible handwriting, low reading speed and comprehension, and poor problem solving ability.
The Arrowsmith program uses 19 different brain exercises to train 19 different cognitive areas of the brain following the premise that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise; it runs for 3 years and costs $20000 a year.
Critics are skeptical because there is no scientific evidence to prove the success of the Arrowsmith program at the time of the documentary (research provided have not been peer-reviewed).
After 8 months, all 4 boys have demonstrated improvements
- Matthew’s reading speed has increased from Grade 7 to Grade 9. Comprehension has improved from Grade 7 to Grade 8.
- Raymond’s math has improved from Grade 2 to Grade 4. His reading speed has improved from Grade 3 to Grade 5. On top of that, his confidence has soared.
- Alfred’s comprehension has increased from Grade 6 to Grade 11. His word recognition has increased from Grade 7 to Grade 10.
- Jordan’s reading speed has improved from Grade 8 to Grade 10. His comprehension has improved from Grade 8 to Grade 11. His handwriting has also improved immensely.
Probably the most significant part is that the boys, who thought they had no future because of their learning disabilities, now look forward to achieving more with their lives.
Critics are questioning whether the positive results are due to the Arrowsmith program or whether it is in part because of the high teacher to student ratios, extra attention, and because the tasks the students perform have helped them develop their concentration.
There is mention of research with brain scans at the end of the documentary but I could not find any references. All I have been able to find are more articles reporting the positive results from other students:
- Can a controversial learning program transform brains? (Jan 2013)
- One school’s belief in a fixable brain (Feb 2009)
- Brain school – stories of children with learning disabilities and attention disorders who have changed their lives by improving their cognitive functioning (2011)
Barbara Arrowsmith has also presented her work at a Research Conference on “How the Brain Learns” in August 2013:
Brain Training Programs for Children with Learning Disabilities
- Arrowsmith schools – currently only available in Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand
- BrainRx (available from myBrainLab in Malaysia)
- Brain Fitness Pro Jr – Brain Training for Children – online program from Mindsparke