REDMOND, Wash. -- A new school in Redmond might change the way we think about learning disabilities. Instead of teaching kids how to accommodate a difficulty, the school hopes to actually change the brains of students, eliminating the disability altogether.
Daily class work at the Eaton Arrowsmith Academy
is like nothing you've seen before. Students rotate through exercises
like tracing symbols and speed reading time on a clock. They are
intense brain exercises, done 35 minutes at a time before rotating to
the next task. They are meant to translate into better skills in
Ten year old Aidan James said in his public school, he was always the
last one to finish math assignments. "Not very fun. Horrible," he said,
describing the work. "English and math are my favorite subjects now."
Many of the students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia or
dyscalculia. Some are mild, moderate or severe cases, mixed together in
classrooms where each child works on their own program. "Let's look at
the child's neurological, cognitive profile and figure out what kind of
program, what exercises need to be put in place and then implement
them," said Howard Eaton, a founder of the school. "We're not so
interested in the label. We're more interested in the cognitive profile
of the child's brain."
While the Redmond academy is the first in the U.S., the school is well
established in Canada. It got the attention of Microsoft CEO Satya
Nadella and his wife Anu, as they looked for a program for their
daughter. She started at the Vancouver branch of the school and has
grown into a confident learner.
"As parents, we can tell our children, 'you're great and I love you and
you're the best and we know you can do it.' But I think until the child
senses it for themselves, I don't think it makes a difference in their
learning process," Anu Nadella said.
The Nadella's are such strong believers, they invested $100,000 in a research project
at the University of British Columbia, studying the effects of the
program. Several dozen children had baseline brain scans at the
beginning of their schooling. They are being measured again now, three
months in and will have a final MRI after one year. "What we're able to
do is look at how thick or thin parts of the brain are and how that's
changing in response to the intervention," said Dr. Lara Boyd,
neuroscientist at UBC.
Researchers know the brain can change. That's called neuroplasticity.
"I'm absolutely confident we'll find benefit. But is there a profile of a
student who benefits most? I think that's really where we're going to
go," Dr. Boyd said. "If you do really focused behavior and lots of
practice with these certain exercises, do we see both brain plasticity
and then changes in cognition and educational achievement? We don't know
Science might not know, but plenty of people already say the answer is
yes. Barbara Arrowsmith designed the exercises to change her own brain,
after constant struggles in school and social situations. "There just
are some areas in the brain that are a little bit weaker in functioning
and there should be no stigma attached to that," Arrowsmith said.
"There's a piece here we just need to tweak and improve, then that will
be in place and the learning can go forward. The possibility of this
work is, it will open multiple doors and give these individuals a
different trajectory. A lot of these children and myself, we shut our
dreams down at a certain point because we didn't really see a viable
future for ourselves."
It is hard work with brain exercises in class and at home. Most
students spend around three years at the school. When there's a
breakthrough, it's like blinders coming off.
"Amazing, yeah, it's been very life changing," said 15 year old Molly
Langton. "It's been incredible because I've been here a short period of
time and it's changed so much of my life."
Langton and her mother moved to Vancouver from Sydney, Australia so she
could attend the school. Molly could read words, but stories didn't
make sense. Recently, for the first time in her life, she read a
novel. "I used to come home thinking I was dumb. I'm not going to make
it anywhere in life, I'm not going to succeed. Coming here, you change
Does that change in confidence come from a changing brain? Families here
are believers after seeing students who once struggled in school,
daring to dream.
"She, skies the limit for her. Which I think is beautiful," said Nadella of her daughter.