Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

[UPDATE: CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) broadcast Fixing My Brain, an interview with Barbara Arrowsmith, June 16, 2009. I found out about this piece thanks to a post by Jason Atwood at playthink, which took me back to a post I wrote for SharpBrains reviewing Doidge’s book. A comment on that post included the link to the CBC piece. I love a good trail!]

Barbara Arrowsmith is another one of the amazing people who populate Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Barbara was born with an asymmetrical brain, which means that one side of her brain functioned astonishingly well and the other side functioned retardedly. Even more amazing, though, is her perseverance, which led her to bust her chops and pursue college and graduate school, earning a degree in Education.

Arrowsmith’s keen interest in learning is based upon her own experience which, along with research that crossed her desk while a student, led her to develop methods for teaching students with learning disabilities. And this led to the creation, in 1980, of the Arrowsmith School located in Toronto, Canada. Barbara knew that it was possible to retrain the brain, for that is precisely what she had done for herself as she willed herself through school.

Here is a description of the Arrowsmith methodology from the school’s site:

The Arrowsmith Program is a program of intensive and graduated cognitive exercises that are designed to strengthen the underlying weak cognitive capacities that are the source of the learning disabilities. Each student’s program is based on a careful assessment to identify the specific learning difficulties.

I am a big fan of Mel Levine, a pediatrician, author, speaker, and founder of All Kinds of Minds. In my 26 years of teaching I have heard Levine speak three times, and later this week will be hearing him speak for a fourth time. In 2002 he published the book A Mind at a Time, which crystallized the work being done by All Kinds of Minds. Also in 2002, PBS (Public Broadcasting System) partnered with All Kinds of Minds to create the broadcast Misunderstood Minds, which focused on learning issues related to attention, reading, writing and mathematics.

When reading Doidge’s chapter about Barbara Arrowsmith, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mel Levine would make of her approach. Arrowsmith’s system seems to be a head-on assault of an individual’s learning difficulties by using intensive practice to retrain those parts of the brain that cause the difficulty. Levine, on the other hand, attacks learning difficulties by utilizing the individual’s strengths to tackle specific difficulties. It is not an issue of “fixing” the problem, but rather of finding ways around the problem. Arrowsmith and Levine have the same goal, to make it possible for the individual to learn, but different methods for getting there.


9 thoughts on “Plasticity and Education: Barbara Arrowsmith

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  3. David Reid

    Thank you, Laurie,
    Since I wrote my initial comment, I have done a lot more research. I continue to admire Ms. Young’s personal and pedagogical accomplishments, and am convinced that her program is a good one (that is, for those who can afford the steep costs for the Arrowsmith School or those who are lucky to have their child in the schools that offer the course for free to residents, such as in the Toronto Catholic schools). It is also clear that she was inspired by two of the pioneers in the field, Luria and Rosenzweig, and that she follows the basic concept that brains of the learning disabled can find other pathways to accomplish the same function (which, by the way, is the opposite approach to Levine’s, whose strategies give up on this possibility). Also it is clear that the learning of the students does require the brain’s plasticity. However, and this is the point, I am also convinced that her Program’s connection to research into brain plasticity never went beyond that initial inspiration and the general principles. That is, although the Program’s Brochure did start to use the term “neuroplasticity” in its 2010 Brochure, I can find no evidence that the designers of the Program follow the latest research in this field; there are also several indications that they definitely do not. Therefore, the word neuroplasticity has become something of a catchword for Arrowsmith — not false, as there are connections, but not as close as one might assume. I would like to be proven wrong, but I have been searching for months in vain for any closer connections. This does not disparage the Program, but I conclude that the methods of the Program owe more to Ms. Young’s remarkable intuition rather than any ongoing link to research into neuroplasticity.

  4. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi David,

    I have been mulling over your comments on and off for awhile. I cannot speak for Doidge or others who use “plasticity” to describe Ms Arrowsmith-Young’s experience, and do not have any sources other than his book or anything I may have noted in various blog posts. However, I would suggest that Doidge has pulled together multiple stories under the umbrella of plasticity in order to make the point that our brains are more flexible and resilient than most of us may have otherwise thought.

    Based upon my attending of the Learning and the Brain conference multiple times, and from all that I have read, I think that anytime a learning program is implemented, it is going to have an impact on the brain one way or the other. As to the impact of the Arrowsmith program on “children with certain learning dysfunctions”, if the program is working for the vast majority of these children, then I would conclude it is having an impact on the brains of these children, for all learning implies a change in the brain.

    Thank you for sharing your comment in the first place. If you find sources to add to this conversation, I hope you will comment back and share them, as the discourse is another way for us to learn 🙂


  5. David Reid

    I have been researching the Arrowsmith Program, and I find it interesting that although Doidge and others bring the word “plasticity” in connection not only with Ms. Arrowsmith-Young’s recovery but also with the Arrowsmith Program, neither Ms. Young nor the Arrowsmith School ever uses the word. In fact, one of the articles co-authored by Ms. Young expressly warns against making too many assumptions about the correspondence between the Arrowsmith Program and the brain. Obviously Ms. Young herself benefited from brain plasticity, and it seems clear that her Program has benefited many children with certain learning dysfunctions, but it is a jump to link the two too closely. I would be interested in any comments and sources (beyond the obvious) on this to further my investigations.

  6. synapsesensations Post author

    HI Linda,

    To the best of my knowledge here is the contact information. I hope this helps.

    Arrowsmith School web site:

    list of schools that offer the Arrowsmith program:

    General contact for finding out more about the schools, the program, and implementing it at your school:
    Daina Luszczek, Arrowsmith School Secretary, at 416 963-4962 or by email to


  7. Linda F. Alexander

    I have also read the book, The Brain that Changes itself, and learned about the program begun by Barbara Arrowsmith. I have been attempting to get in touch with the program as i would like to become trained in its use. I live in Washington, DC and am a Special Education teacher. I see students struggle everyday to deal with classroom work that them need to be successful and don’t think they can accomplish. Because they struggle so hard to get just the basic information, many of them give up and become behavioral problems in school. Can you please help me or let me know how to get in touch with the program directors.

  8. synapsesensations Post author

    Hi Mary,

    I have often thought that teachers who either have learning challenges or are parents of children with learning challenges, have a much keener appreciation of what it means to teach to reach all children.

    My guess is you probably want to direct your email to Barbara Arrowsmith or folks at her school. My blog post is about the Arrowsmith School ( but I am not affiliated with it and do not offer any training.

    Another thought is to contact the folks from All Kinds of Minds ( and look in to being trained by them as part of their Schools Attuned program ( If you are currently teaching, perhaps your school would be interested in the program. In any case, you would probably learn as much about yourself as you would about your students.

    Wish I had further resources for you. If you have success with either of the above, or find other programs that specialize in helping adults with understanding their learning, please let me know. I’d be happy to write about them in a blog post, or for that matter, perhaps you’d be interested in writing as a guest author?


  9. Mary


    I am a person who struggles with learning challenges as well. I struggled to receive my ED Degree as an older person, I am keenly interested in increasing my knowledge of how to help people with learning challenges. It would have been so much easier had I had the opportunity to understand my own individual learning differences.

    Is there any way I can do courses or take part in training with your program to improve what I have to offer?


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