Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Slings and Arrowsmiths

By Tim Hannan

A well-promoted intervention for children with learning disorders lacks reliable evidence for its efficacy.

The recent visit to Australia by Barbara Arrowsmith Young elicited a flurry of media interest in the Arrowsmith Program, with expressions of enthusiasm for its objectives, praise for its uptake by Australian schools, and the gratitude of parents of children with learning disorders. Yet amid the anecdotes offered by its practitioners and the testimonials of parents, little attention was paid to the striking lack of quality evidence for the efficacy of the Arrowsmith Program.

Young, the founder of an independent school in Toronto, claims that traditional interventions merely attempt to compensate for children’s difficulties by modifying the curriculum, while the Arrowsmith Program is designed to strengthen the cognitive skills that underlie these difficulties. Full details of the program are not available to external agencies or researchers, but it’s stated that the program addresses the “nineteen specific areas of learning dysfunction” that Young believes give rise to learning disorders.

Offered at a number of independent schools in Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, the program was introduced into several Catholic schools in NSW in recent years. It claims to treat difficulties in remarkably diverse areas of cognitive functioning, including reading, writing, arithmetic, auditory processing, visual processing, attention, non-verbal functioning, organisation, problem-solving, communication, memory and independence.

Participants first undergo the Arrowsmith Program Assessment, which indicates the area or areas that are causing a child’s learning difficulties, enabling the program to be targeted towards these specific deficits. The cognitive exercises employed in an individualised program are drawn from a suite of “over 12,000 discrete levels of computerized, auditory and pencil and paper exercises”. It is intended that students typically undertake their cognitive exercises for four periods per day, five days per week, over a period of 3–4 years.

Given the laudable aim of assisting children with difficulties, the faith of parents evidenced by their financial commitment of around $8000 per year above their regular school fees, and the enthusiastic uptake by schools it may seem almost impolite to ask the obvious question: does it actually work?

The Arrowsmith Research Initiatives Report, dated March 2014, declared that “Beginning in 1997, Barbara Arrowsmith Young in collaboration with research colleagues, engaged in conducting research looking at the outcomes of the Arrowsmith Program and some of the theoretical constructs of the program”. This report describes a range of investigations, including conference presentations, pilot studies, unpublished reports and research in progress.

Despite the stated commitment to evaluating the efficacy of the program, so far no studies have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. This understandably creates concern for those seeking an objective assessment of the program, independent of the publicity material and its accompanying anecdotes and testimonials.

Prominent in the publicity material is the assertion that the Arrowsmith Program is founded on two broad areas of research, the 1940s work of Alexander Luria on the contribution of various brain regions to the performance of specific cognitive tasks, and more recent investigations into neuroplasticity, a term that encompasses all of the neural changes that result from experience.

The emphasis on possible neural mechanisms underlying change is irrelevant to the question of the efficacy of an intervention: whether or not the Arrowsmith Program is of benefit to children with learning disorders is to be determined by investigating improvement in cognitive skills through well-controlled peer-reviewed studies.

It is important to emphasise this point, as the field of learning disorders has a troubling history of neuroscientific concepts being used to market ineffective programs, and it is well-known that parents and teachers can be dazzled by complex neuro­psychological terms when considering the suitability of an educational intervention for a child.

Some 35 years since the introduction of the Arrowsmith Program, and 18 years after the declaration of intent to research its effectiveness, not one single study has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. This observation suggests another important question: why has the Catholic Education Office in Sydney, in company with a dozen other schools in Australia and New Zealand, decided to embrace a program with no reliable scientific evidence of its efficacy?

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.