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Lifting the fog: Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's journey from learning disabled to education innovator

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's father was a physicist and engineer who held more than 30 patents. Her mother was an award-winning educator. So despite being born with severe learning disabilities, Arrowsmith-Young was taught that she should never be limited by what already existed in the world.
"If something didn't exist, there was always the possibility of going out and creating it and making it exist. The creative inventor bent was definitely alive and well in my family," says Arrowsmith-Young, who was born in Toronto and raised in Peterborough.
Faced with an array of learning disabilities—she had difficulty reading, struggled to tie her shoes, frequently got lost and tripped over things, and generally felt she lived in a fog—Arrowsmith-Young decided in her mid-twenties to see what she could do about remedying them. She spent huge chunks of time reading about developments in neuroscience, most of it going over her head until, finally, it didn't. Discovering the work of the late Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, she decided to put his theories about brain plasticity to work. In her new memoir The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, published this week by Free Press, Arrowsmith-Young writes about how she overcame her disabilities and developed a cognitive development system that's now used in 35 schools in North America, including her own private schools in Toronto and Peterborough, and sister schools in Victoria and Vancouver.
Rather than employing the work-arounds used by conventional education methods to deal with learning disabilities, the Arrowsmith program takes advantage of advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity to "fix" the specific parts of the brain that are underperforming. With 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, she had become a leader in bringing research in neuroscience to the world of education. She launched her first school in 1980, relying on purchases from the Salvation Army to furnish a 1,000-square-foot space on Yorkville Avenue. Her first students found out about the school through word of mouth. Over the years, wooing educators has been the biggest challenge.
"The traditional approach in education is, if the child is struggling with, for example, reading, you break down the task, you make simpler components of the reading process. But you're still fundamentally dealing with the content or the skill you need to teach," Arrowsmith-Young tells me in an interview. "What I'm saying is, we're not looking at the skill level or the content level. We're going underneath that to find out what parts of the brain aren't working and what cognitive exercises we need the student to engage in to get those areas working. We're not teaching skills, we're changing the brain."
Prospective students must go through an evaluation process that can take days to determine which parts of their brain need targeting. Then a program is created using a repertoire of 19 exercises Arrowsmith-Young has been developing since the 1970s.
"I created the first exercise using clocks, having no idea if it would work," she says. "I worked through it, made it more complex, mastered that level and made it more complex. By the time I mastered the four-handed clock, I knew my brain had fundamentally changed. I could listen to conversations and understand them immediately. I now can tell time, but to this day, I don't wear a watch. Old habits die hard."
In 40-minute sessions, students work on computers or with pen and paper to perform cognitive tasks like focusing attention and memorization. Though the enrollees at her schools are mostly kids—she has about 75 students enrolled in her Toronto school, 35 in Peterborough—Arrowsmith-Young argues that people can fix their brains at any age; she's had 70-year-olds in the program. The process is not easy, but her book chronicles many success stories. Arrowsmith-Young is now working to make the program more accessible by getting it into more schools.
"One of the things I looked at before I took this program out into the world is different delivery models," she says. "I talked to a lot of people who had created educational programs about their concerns and the big thing I heard over and over again is that the programs were developed, they would train teachers and send them out into the schools and there was no follow up. There was no support system put in place. There was no follow up. The teachers would modify things and they wouldn't get the results. So I thought to maintain the integrity of the delivery of the program, I would create a service structure."
Teachers can call one of three program coordinators with any questions. Students are monitored to see how they're doing and their results are put in a database. Algorithms track student performance to see if the individual programs need to be adjusted.  With her own schools, plus servicing the programs that have been integrated in conventional school systems, Arrowsmith-Young has about 25 staff in total, most of them based in the Toronto headquarters on St. Clair West.
Arrowsmith-Young says her approach could have wider applications beyond those with the most extreme learning disabilities.
"If everybody starting in grade one did half-day cognitive exercises, it would significantly change the face of education and open different doors for people," she says. One example she gives is a mature student who wanted to be an architect whose mechanical ability was merely average. After going through the program, he dramatically improved his mechanical ability and became an architect. "If he had learned that in grade one, he would have had it for the rest of his life, not when he was in his twenties. If everybody was doing it and it was just normal, people wouldn't be identified as having learning disabilities. It would be normal to go to school to exercise your brain and to learn things. That would be my real vision," says Arrowsmith-Young.

Paul Gallant is Yonge Street's managing editor.

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