Train the Brain
by Jason Cruickshank
One of the remarkable facts about people is that we can all develop amazing talents or skills. One of us can become a skilled and creative painter, while another can develop talents as an accountant. In fact, some of us can develop both the talent of a painter and accountant at the same time, and throw in the ability to play the trombone. That is, if we put enough attention and effort into acquiring these abilities through experience.
You see, experience, repetition and focus drives the ability of our brain to acquire skills. Repetition and practice change the nerve cells, or neurons, in our brains so that we can master most of the experiences we put it through. We call this brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity. Thus, if you are willing to put in 10,000 hours of trombone practice on a consistent basis, you will likely master that instrument. That is roughly three to four straight years of practice, at eight hours a day, with a few long-weekend vacations thrown in for rest.
Most people who become great at what they do have done this type of brain training. Bill Gates did not become talented at computers and software design by simply being born with that ability. He spent hours and hours developing this talent prior to founding Microsoft. Year after year he developed his brain’s ability to master the skills that later revolutionized the world.
The ability of the brain to change itself through experience is a revolutionary concept. I say this because many people in both the general population and the education field still believe that we are born with our natural aptitudes and that’s that. If someone is good at math, then they were born with this ability and lucky them. If you are bad at math, well, that’s just the way your brain works and too bad. You either have the talent or you don’t. This is far from the truth, but thinking otherwise would certainly not be mainstream ideology. The truth is, if you put your mind to it, the door can be wide open in terms of educational and career opportunities. The brain is plastic and can develop abilities or aptitudes throughout a person’s life.
There are many individuals who can benefit from the findings of neuroplasticity. In elementary schools and high schools today children with learning disabilities make up approximately 10 to 15 per cent of the population (though far fewer are actually diagnosed—two per cent to five per cent in any given school district). These children are often struggling with various neurological weaknesses including memory, visual-spatial, processing, language, and reasoning difficulties. For years we have told parents that we need to bypass these brain difficulties by providing accommodations such as extra time on tests, or use of a reader or a laptop for written exams. Sadly, we also grant high school diplomas that do not offer options for children with learning disabilities in schools today.
Now, through the findings of brain science and discoveries of brain plasticity, children with learning disabilities can directly improve the brain weaknesses that result in their academic failures. Instead of bypassing learning problems with accommodations, the child’s specific neurological deficits can be remediated or significantly improved.
Over the last 30 years various brain remediation programs have been developed for children with learning disabilities. In California, Dr. Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist, has developed a brain remediation program to improve language processing and comprehension. These would be considered brain plasticity computer programs that improve the language cortex of the brain. The program is known as FastForward and is meeting with success in schools across North America. In Toronto, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, also over the last 30 years, developed a brain remediation program for children with learning and attention disabilities. Young’s Arrowsmith Program has helped thousands of children and young adults across North America. These two individuals are just being recognized today for their contributions to the study of neuroplasticity through Dr. Norman Doidge’s bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself
, and through the CBC’s Nature of Things coverage of the same book.
In elementary schools today, the focus for learning disabilities intervention is more on improving the achievement weaknesses. As a result, children with these disabilities receive reading, spelling, writing and math remediation classes. As well, parents will hire tutors to try to improve their child’s reading or spelling levels. There are, in fact, hundreds of programs for improving reading and spelling, some effective and some not. These achievement programs are important, and in most cases do help a child with a reading disability.
Here is the problem: That same child likely has numerous brain weaknesses that impact his ability to manage classroom tasks. The child’s failure in school is not just about reading problems. That child could have language processing problems and, as a result, an inability to listen to the teacher and remember what is being said. That child may have a reasoning problem resulting in not being able to see the connections between ideas. Reading comprehension and math problem solving are likely weaknesses for him. That child may struggle to hold numbers in his brain, and thus be unable to do mental math. The list can go on and on.
The problem in schools today is that there are no brain remediation programs in place for improving those neurological weaknesses. Those weaknesses will determine that child’s ability to succeed at high school and have an opportunity at post-secondary education. It is these same neurological weaknesses that will also eliminate specific job opportunities. For example, if you struggle to process language it is going to be very difficult to hold jobs that require you to listen and process oral language.
To improve our educational services for children with learning and attention disabilities, schools need to start adopting brain remediation programs. Classrooms need to be designed to support this intervention. Today, there are few places where this brain intervention takes place, but hopefully one day children with these disabilities will receive the support that neuroscience has shown is available to them.Jason Cruickshank is the principal at Eaton Arrowsmith School, located at 3200 Shelbourne Street. For more information, phone 250-370-0046 or visit www.eatonarrowsmithschool.com.