Neuroplasticity and the Evolving Learner, PART 2

In part 1, we introduced the concept of neuroplasticity and the fact that children’s brains are continuously changing and adapting, making them able to modify the way they learn. Here we will continue our conversation with Jessica Poulin, one of our resident education experts from the Arrowsmith Program.
Traditionally, it was believed that the brain was fixed and unchangeable, incapable of adapting to new styles and techniques. We now know that this is certainly not the case! “Historically, it was believed (that)… We are born with a particular learner capacity and that could not be changed,” Jessica highlights.

Part 2
Jessica also points out that, “The education landscape is continually changing and there are several programs which encourage change within the learner themselves through the principles of neuroplasticity.” She goes on to explain the story behind the Arrowsmith Program and its founder and director, Barbara Arrowsmith Young. Diagnosed in grade one as having a mental block, which today would have been identified as multiple learning disabilities, Barbara herself read and wrote everything backwards, had trouble processing concepts in language, continuously got lost and was physically uncoordinated. Barbara eventually overcame her learning difficulties herself by sheer effort and trial and error, but she continued throughout her educational career to have difficulty with specific aspects of learning. And as a result, the Arrowsmith Program was born! According to the website, the “Arrowsmith Program…challenges that the notion that the brain is fixed and helps educational institutions provide a cognitive program to enhance the learning of their students”  The goal of differentiated programs like this, Jessica explains, is to help students become effective, confident, and self-directed learners.
So what are the consequences of a ‘fixed’ mindset? And why should schools or boards of education try not to subscribe to this limited mentality? A fixed mindset, Jessica explains, “leads to adults who have narrow career paths.” When it comes to deciding on a career, some people “choose the job not because they like it or they think it is particularly challenging or stimulating, but they feel they are limited by their skills and think it is the only thing they can do”. For example, “I am not a math person” or “I am not a fan of reading”.  Have you ever found yourself saying either of these statements? I certainly have, and on more than one occasion! We can sometimes pigeon-hole ourselves into categories based on our past experiences in education. “This is where the importance of neuroplasticity comes in,” points out Jessica. “The learning capacity of an individual can be improved and we can do this in many ways. We can change the way we learn, process information, and perceive and interact with the world around us.”
Jessica goes on to explain that “as parents and educators, we see the impact that learning difficulties have on both learning and behaviour” in our children.  Some students and children struggle to grasp concepts and connect ideas despite having tried everything under the sun! While there are effective cognitive programs like the Arrowsmith Program out there that aim to address the root cause of the learning difficulty rather than putting a strategy in place to allow the student to work around the difficulty, they are not always readily accessible. “What we can do,” Jessica offers “is try and see the world through the cognitive lens of the student”.  According to Ms. Poulin, “having an understanding of a student’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses can allow us to better support the student.” She also points out that learning difficulties can have a tremendous impact on how we learn and behave, as seen in day-to-day behaviour of children both at home and in school.
In education, we can apply the principles of neuroplasticity to learning and create conducive conditions for change by ensuring we meet the expectations of our students. In part 3 of our series on neuroplasticity and the evolving learner, we will look at ways that parents and educators can help their students access the curriculum, despite the limitations of a learning difficulty. We will also look at the work of Carol Dweck and her research on the growth mindset.

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