The Arrowsmith Program of cognitive exercises was first offered to students with learning disabilities in 1978 and Arrowsmith School was established in 1980 and has operated continuously in Toronto since then.
In 1997, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) began to offer the Arrowsmith Program which is now available in four elementary schools in the TCDSB across Toronto. Several independent schools in Ontario and British Columbia began to offer the Arrowsmith Program beginning in 2002.
In 2005, Howard Eaton established Eaton Arrowsmith School in Vancouver. In 2008, the Eaton Brain Improvement Centre became the first site to offer the Arrowsmith Program exclusively to adults. In 2009 Eaton Arrowsmith School in Victoria was established.
The Learning Disabilities Association of Saskatchewan became the first Learning Disabilities Association in Canada to offer the Arrowsmith Program which became available at its centre in Saskatoon in September, 2008.
The Arrowsmith Program first became available in the United States in 2005 and there are now a number of schools offering our program in several states.
A list of all the schools that offer the Arrowsmith Program may be found at Participating Schools.
Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program have over 35 years of experience demonstrating that it is possible for students to strengthen the weak cognitive capacities underlying their learning dysfunctions through a program of specific cognitive exercises.
The genesis of the Arrowsmith methodology lies in its’ founder’s, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her own severe learning disabilities, a detailed description of which appears in her book, “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.”
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’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (O.I.S.E.). 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.
It was during this time while completing her graduate work at O.I.S.E. that she became aware of the two lines of research that led her to the development of the Arrowsmith Program methodology: that of Russian neuropsychologist, A.R. Luria and that of an American psychologist, Mark Rosenzweig.
A. R. Luria started his main investigations into the functioning of the brain during World War II and continued until his death in 1978. The work of A.R. Luria established that different areas of the brain working together are responsible for complex mental activities, such as reading or writing or numeracy, and that each brain area has a very specific and critical role to play in the learning process and that a weakness in one area can affect a number of different learning processes.
In 1978 an article published in Scientific American using brain scan technology confirmed that higher mental processes involve specific functional systems comprised of particular groups of brain areas working together. This fact was confirmed by measuring the changes in blood flow to specific brain areas when a person was engaged in different tasks. An increase in blood flow directly relates to an increase in cortical activity. These researchers stated, "The analysis of cortical activation during reading illustrates that a complex task is carried out by several circumscribed cortical regions brought into action in a specific pattern. .... In general our results confirm a conclusion reached by the late A. R. Luria of Moscow State University on the basis of his neuropsychological analyses of patients with brain damage: 'Complex behavioral processes are in fact not localized but are distributed in the brain, and the contribution of each cortical zone to the entire functional system is very specific'" (p. 70; Lassen, N. A., Ingvar, D.H. & Skinhoj, E. (1978). Brain function and blood flow. Scientific American, 239 (4), 62 – 71).
The above noted research led to the Arrowsmith Program’s definition of a learning dysfunction which is as follows:
A learning dysfunction is a specific brain area that is weaker in functioning than the person's other brain areas such that it significantly impairs the learning activities of the functional systems in which it is involved. The specific nature of the learning dysfunction is dependent upon the characteristic mental activities or operations of the particular brain area that is impaired and will be manifested in all the functional systems of which it is a component. For example, a problem in the area responsible for motor planning in learning symbol sequences will impact learning motor plans in writing, reading, speaking and spelling.
The article Definition of a Learning Dysfunction (1987, revised January 1996) provides a detailed explanation of how the Arrowsmith Program defines a learning dysfunction.
The Description of Learning Dysfunctions Addressed describes the cognitive areas addressed by the Arrowsmith Program and how they impact learning. The Chart of Learning Outcomes describes the most common learning dysfunctions addressed and several of the learning outcomes attained.
The second line of research which is one of the foundations of the Arrowsmith Program is that of Mark Rosenzwieg. He began his investigations into the effects of environmental complexity on learning and the physiology of the brain in the 1960s.
Rosenzwieg investigated the principle of neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to physically change in response to stimulus and activity, to develop new neuronal/synaptic interconnections believed to be the physical substrate underlying learning.
Neuroplasticity refers to structural and functional changes in the brain that are brought about by training and experience. Rosenzweig’s research found that the brain, originally believed to be a rigid and fixed organ, is actually pliable and elastic demonstrating the brain’s neuroplasticity and ability to change as a result of specific stimulation.
Luria’s work led to the identification and understanding of the function of very specific cognitive areas critical to the learning process which became the basis of the Arrowsmith Program’s cognitive exercises. Rosenzweig’s contribution was that specific targeted cognitive programs could exercise/stimulate and improve the functioning of these cognitive areas.
The premise of the Arrowsmith Program is that the affected cognitive areas that contribute to learning disabilities can be improved through targeted strenuous cognitive exercises, resulting in increased mental capacities and strengthened learning abilities. When the deficient area is improved, the individual’s ability to perform complex tasks such as reading or writing or mathematics or comprehension of conceptual material will also be improved.
Recent research in neuroscience is leading to new insights into the ways in which the brain changes in response to experience and demonstrates that the brain is not static, but rather is dynamically changing and undergoes such changes throughout one's entire life. The Arrowsmith Program has proven successful with students in elementary and secondary school through to post-secondary school and with adults, evidence that there is neuroplasticity over an individual’s life-span.
The philosophy that the learner is not fixed, but can be modified through the application of the principles of neuroplasticity sets the Arrowsmith Program apart from the majority of other programs used with students having learning disabilities. The Arrowsmith Program does not teach students how to compensate for their specific learning dysfunctions. Instead, the Arrowsmith Program focuses on strengthening the underlying weak cognitive area, thereby improving the ability of that area to contribute to the learning activity. It addresses the root cause of the learning disability rather than managing its symptoms.
Students with learning disabilities traditionally have been treated with programs designed to compensate for their difficulties - students who have difficulty with handwriting, for example, would be taught to use a keyboard or voice recognition software or accommodated with more time to write exams. In addition to compensatory programs, students with learning disabilities are often presented with modified curriculum, an example of which is breaking the task(s) to be learnt into smaller components, often with more repetition.
The goal of the Arrowsmith Program, by contrast, is to help students strengthen the weak cognitive capacities underlying their learning dysfunctions so that they no longer require compensations or modifications such as those mentioned above.
The Arrowsmith Program is capacity based in that it changes the capacity of the individual to learn, rather than compensatory which tries to work around the problem. Strengthening these weaker capacities increases the overall functioning of these specific cognitive areas allowing them to be used more effectively for learning.
The goal of the Arrowsmith Program is for students to become effective, confident and self-directed learners for life and to enable them to achieve their goals of academic and career success.
Upon completion of the Arrowsmith Program which is tailored to the unique requirements of each individual student, and with the attendant improved cognitive capacities, students are then able to participate in a full academic curriculum at their appropriate grade level without the need for resource support or curriculum modification.