The Vancouver Learning Centre is about to celebrate its 40th year of service to children, youth and young adults by telling stories of learning success based on the unique interventions individually designed to produce a personal best outcome for young people with learning challenges.
The stories are unique and true. Each will be told in a different format. The names of the students have been changed to protect their identities, however in each case, the real person has been contacted and has agreed that the story, however told is a true representation of their personal journey.
The stories chosen will vary across ages, gender, ethnicity and circumstance. What they have in common is that each journey began with the application of a neuropsychological lens to the assessment process. Then, based on the assumption of the brain’s ability to change and improve, now called Neuroplasticity an intense and targeted program was designed to produce continuous improvement beyond the expected norm. The specially trained VLC faculty was then assigned to deliver the program. Each story will have a different way of showing the application of the core principles of VLC practice.
Over almost four decades, the Vancouver Learning Centre has served more than 1,000 students. Now, as the mainstream media begins to report on advances in thinking about neuroplasticity, development in imaging technology is beginning to show that intense targeted interventions change and improve brain structures in the targeted areas. Indeed, a new discipline of Educational Neuroscience is now in its early days. While the applications of these findings are now on the drawing boards in university labs, these stories we will tell will provide evidence of three decades of successful experience based on these principles practiced at the Vancouver Learning Centre.
Tom was 8 years old. He had hydrocephalus, an enlarged head, that made him look different. By the system of passing such children to the next grade regardless of achievement, he was in grade 3.
His father, a stevedore on the Vancouver port, had convinced his union to take Tom on as their project. I had just completed the full battery of Neuropsychological and Educational Tests and I sat with his parents at a school meeting which included his teacher and the school principal.
The room was electric with tension. The teacher was hostile. He said Tom was not learning anything. He could not be paired with another student. When the fire drill bell rang, he panicked and ran across the field with the gym teacher and the Vice Principal chasing him. He needed to be sent somewhere, anywhere, but not in his class.
At this point, I entered the discussion to say Tom’s test results do indeed indicate that he is not learning in his classroom, but surprisingly, he showed some real potential in the cognitive tests.
His parents, taking heart, spoke up saying he was a good boy with a good heart and they were willing to do everything they could to support him. They were ready to bring him to the Learning Centre 3 times a week for 2 hours each time after school.
I said, I thought we could teach him to do the primary skills he was missing and to shape out his ‘fleeing’ behavior.
The principal agreed to give him a chance for one semester…
Jacob was 9 when I met him. Diagnosed at a young age with autism, he was home schooled by his mother. Jacob was quiet, almost mute, shy, and clearly depressed. His future was dim.
When I tested him, I could see the gaps and deficits in his learning profile, but I could also see that he was gifted, and, with the right teaching, he could be an asset rather than a drain on his community’s resources in the future…
Edward was 10 and in grade 4 when I met him. He lived with his siblings and parents in a town about an hour’s journey from our Centre. Sent by his grandfather, a university colleague, because he was doing so poorly in school, he was moved to a special class program for grade 5 to a route that did not lead to post-secondary education. This family was devastated…
Tracey is a bilingual 10-year-old and the youngest of 3 sisters. Her mother, a Francophone doctor from Quebec, spoke to her girls in French, and she and her sisters attended Francophone schools. Their father spoke to them in English. By grade 5, Tracey had minimal exposure to English and in spite of the fact that her mother felt she was very bright, her grades in school were mediocre to poor.
When I tested Tracey in English, she showed outstanding scores in 3 out of 4 cognitive indexes above the 99.7th percentile in the highly gifted range. Tracey’s classroom and personal demeanor was quiet and sad. She did not have friends in her Francophone classroom.
These true stories are typical of the hundreds of children and youth who found their way to the Vancouver Learning Centre over the last 3 decades. You will see at the conclusion of this article that the outcome for each of these students is transformative and very different for them, their families, and our community because of their attendance at the VLC.
This is because the Vancouver Learning Centre is unique in that individual programs based on the brain’s potential neuroplasticity are created for each learner, guided by the scientifically based test data that clearly identifies the child’s potential and levels of achievement so far, and allows us to build individual profiles and program designs for each one.
The clinical application of the concept of neuroplasticity is based on the understanding that to achieve improvement in skills, the program must be targeted to deliver the intervention to the specific brain site where performance is expected to emerge.
This means that you can’t achieve improvement in reading by teaching singing or even by programs that might improve the whole brain function and efficiency.
This is because each skill, regardless of kind, is specifically built on a particular site in the brain by exposure in a systematic way to the specific details required to build the skill.
For example, to learn to read, one must first learn to say the alphabet, then to differentiate each letter from the others (for example, LMNOP to L..M…N, etc.). Then, to attach sound to each symbol and finally to blend to make words using each of the 44 English phonemes. This creates the platform on which the ability to decode (read) is built. No step can be missed, and full mastery of each step must be achieved. Each skill, in every domain regardless of how simple or complex, requires the same process.
Two specific cognitive skills are central to all specific learning. These include:
Attention and Memory
The ability to focus intently long enough to create a cell assembly, a connected group of neurons in the brain strong enough to send their signal to the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for making a long-term memory.
This is critical in all learning and to skill development in every domain, since each step or level of achievement to mastery, creates the platform on which the next, more complex, or larger amount of learned memories must be placed, if the skill is to be usefully applied.
Thus, at the VLC, applying a neuropsychological lens to using the cognitive and academic test data from scientifically based psychoeducational standardized testing, an individual program is built around each learner's strengths. These are targeted for enhancement and the gaps and weak areas are directly addressed to build the skill platforms to grade level, so the students can take advantage of new learning in classroom instruction, along with their classmates. Thus, at the VLC, every program is unique and the specific tools that are embedded in their programs vary widely.
However, there is one exception in that every VLC student is taught Tony Buzan’s Method of Mind Mapping.
This is because when the human brain engages in processing color, many more areas of the brain are involved compared to the processing of black and white text. Creating a visual display with place and shape image, and even humor, engages much more brain power as it creates a memory trace for what is being learned.
But there is even a more important reason that mind mapping is such a powerful tool for learning and creativity in that, as the mind map creator chooses a key word to represent a concept or idea, this creates a ‘cell assembly’ or connection between brain cells. The ideas represented by that keyword are then released to front of mind when thinking by that single signal.
The very brightest people among us can manipulate many ideas at the same time, remember relevant inputs from the past, and connect them in new and creative ways as all are sitting there in front of mind for their use. Mind Mapping is a tool that allows this ability of the geniuses among us to be used by the ordinary learner, and of course, enhances this power even for the most gifted learner.
Can you imagine the advantage for schoolchildren in getting good grades on tests in any subject if such a powerful memory system is in play on tests basically built to evaluate what the learners remember from their lessons?
Thus, because the skills in the brain are built from specific details learned and remembered and because problems can only be solved when these details are in place for use, the reader can readily see why a memory system like mind mapping is such a powerful tool for learning.
But I would be remiss in not including the fact that our students tell us that Mind Maps are also fun and interesting in that they free the mind to innovate and to see the big picture. This is especially so for natural visual learners who can see the mind map that they create in their mind’s eye, to, for example, deliver a credible presentation without text or lists or notes, allowing them to focus on engaging the audience.
As testimony, I have personally been using mind mapping for all my presentations since I met Tony more than three decades ago.
For me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, that is, in the clinical setting, doing a systematic study of outcomes when each program is individual is not possible, but the cases I reviewed in this article are typical of the hundreds of VLC stories we see for ourselves and hear from parents and graduates every day.
So, let’s continue the true stories we started with at the beginning of the article with Tom, Jacob, Edward, and Tracey.
Tom remained at the Learning Centre until he graduated in grade 12 from the regular stream. While I (with tears in my eyes) watched him walk across the stage at graduation to receive his High School Leaving Diploma.
The principal, after presenting awards diplomas and scholarships, walked to center stage and said he had 2 more very special awards to present to those students who had overcome the most exceptional challenges and succeeded.
Tom was one of them. His classmates gave him a standing ovation.
Tom went to work at our local large grocer in their warehouse and eventually became a full-time union employee (like his Dad). This was one of Tom’s goals.
He kept in touch with me, sending his Special Achievement certificates for our ‘Wall of Fame.’ He initiated a massive recycling project and used the proceeds, some $7000, to support a dog charity he started. He wrote little books for children about his life and his dogs.
One day, I received an invitation to attend his parents’ surprise 40th anniversary. Tom was in charge.
The event took place in a Legion Hall basement full to the brim with friends and relatives of every age. The meal was party sandwiches and cake from his grocery store. My husband and I were given pride of place in the front of the room, so we could see what was going on. His parents, brought in by an uncle, were truly surprised. Then, Tom got up to speak, mind map in hand, and proceeded to talk for half an hour about how grateful he was for his parents’ support and especially for supporting him at the Learning Centre. He then had me stand up to be recognized and then he presented his parents with the gift of a 10-day cruise to an exotic location all with money he had saved from his job.
The room broke out in spontaneous applause and I assure you I was not the only one with a tear stained face.
At the end of grade 10, after 6 years at the VLC, Jacob’s family was moving to another city where, as luck would have it, one of my friends had started a new school with interesting flexible programs. I thought Jacob would do well there and he did.
Last Spring, Jacob graduated from grade 12 with a 97% average and a 4-year scholarship at that city’s university. The outcome for him will be nothing like what could have been expected when he started at the Vancouver Learning Centre. He is interested in science, physics, and computers. It will be a different future for Jacob and one that could not even be imagined when we met.
Edward’s family brought him to the Learning Centre every Friday for 2 hours of instruction. After the first year, progress was so strong, he was allowed to return to the regular class stream for grade 6. From his town one hour away, in the traffic, this was a 5-hour project every week for 3 years.
Edward attended high school in the regular stream.
This June, Edward graduated with such a strong result that he received entrance and a scholarship to a prestigious university in Eastern Canada.
After trying for grade 5 to engage her French speaking school to provide opportunities for Tracey to excel, it was clear that this was not a success. I suggested that her language skills in French were solidly established and that she would benefit from the International Baccalaureate program in English at a local private school.
But Tracey had not been to school in English. In grades 6 and 7 at the VLC, we helped her catch up. In these 2 years, Tracey thrived. She had friends, she became a student leader and even in this challenging school environment, she was able to excel. She recently enrolled in an online program in French Literature, so that by grade 12, she could do her post-secondary education in either French or English. Tracey is happy and engaged, she is achieving high grades, and her parents are thrilled.
Finally, a recent story is a favorite:
Some months ago, a young man made an appointment to see me. This beautiful young man walked in and said:
‘Do you remember me?’
Of course, I had to admit, I didn’t.
‘My parents brought me to the VLC when I was 8. I couldn’t read or write or spell or do math. I was a complete failure in school. You taught me to read.’
‘I was here for a long time.’
Aaron spent many years at the VLC. He graduated from high school. He then did an undergraduate, and Master’s degree at a prominent Canadian university, and he is now enrolled in a prestigious PhD program at a local university.
Last year, he had a gap year before starting his PhD. He spent it in Uganda and he could see that poverty and lack of wells in their local villages were preventing young children from learning to read. Instead, they spent hours walking to distant sites to collect water.
Aaron knew from personal experience what not being able to read meant, but he knew in the age of digital communications, being unable to read could prevent these young children from successfully accessing the opportunities of their time, so…
He set up a program called “The Walking School Bus.” He purchased old shipping containers and found old computers he could use to set up his app. He set about gathering young students from Vancouver schools to read children’s books into his app, and at the same time, the print appeared on the screen so that children could read it.
This project was such a success that he received The Next Young Einstein Award and $10,000 from CNN’s Anderson Cooper for his project. This year, his project has moved to India (https://thewalkingschoolbus.com). Aaron received a Visioneers International Network – Web of Good Work Youth Award in 2017.
He told me at the end of our meeting:
‘You taught me to read and now I’m teaching young children to read.’
This young man, now only in his early 20’s, has a great contribution to make. I can only imagine how a successful PhD and a career that follows will enhance his ability to make his mark in the world.
by Geraldine Schwartz
It was 3:30 on a bright October afternoon. We sat on child size chairs around a small table in a Grade Three classroom to discuss Tom. The air was thick with the tension of both hope and despair. The teacher’s voice crackling with emotion fairly hissed his objections into the room.
“What is this boy doing in my class? He can’t read or spell or do Arithmetic…I can’t understand him when he talks…. He drools continuously on the desk… Nobody wants to play with him…Yesterday when the fire bell rang for drill he bolted out of his seat and ran across the field with the Gym teacher and the Vice Principal after him….”
Mrs. B. sat crushed in her seat, tears burning behind her eyes but bravely in control.
Mr. B., not used to this kind of meeting, sat in stony silence.
The Principal was about to make the usual alternate suggestions of special school… special class…special something – anything – to appease the teacher.
The room was pregnant with despair. I entered the life crushing silence.
The teacher looked at me expecting the confirmation usually received from psychologists when the test results so dismally confirmed his observation.
Instead I said, beginning quietly, “The test results are mixed. While it’s true Tom has not flourished so far, considering his disabilities what he can do is rather amazing. He also has a spirit of willingness to try. He struggles to do every task without complaint. Sending him away from the public school at this time will be a life lasting decision that will extinguish any spark we now still see.
“I propose a different course to see what can be done. Tom will attend the Vancouver Learning Centre three times each week for two hours. Using his strengths and different methods we will teach him the basics one to one…Reading, Spelling, Writing and Arithmetic. Once he begins learning we will teach him the curriculum a week ahead of time so he understands his class lessons better. We will work on speech clarity so you understand him better. We will phase out the drooling and we are prepared to work with you on the bolting during fire drill. We are prepared to work long term to see if Tom can adjust to and benefit from a mainstream education. We ask you to help us.”
Tom’s parents, gathering courage, weigh in, each vowing support and asking that Tom be given a chance. Both indicate that he is smart…that they believe in him.
The Principal seeks for compromise, suggesting a trial period. The teacher, outnumbered and unsupported, reluctantly agrees to a trial period.
The gauntlet has been thrown and we are on……
Mr. B., a longshoreman, enlists his union’s support. Tom becomes the Stevedores’ project in a nine-year experiment….
Tom, now 14, is 6 years into his program. He is a high school student in Grade 9 where he is involved in a mixed curriculum of regular and modified courses. He has learned to read, write and calculate to a competent level.
He is a very hard worker and a respectful and polite, decent school citizen. His teachers like and respect him. He continues to be supported by his VLC intensive program after school. Of course, he remains challenged by profound learning disabilities, and psychological measures continue to reflect this. On the other hand, academic skills such as reading, writing, spelling and calculating, where he has been extensively tutored, are developed well beyond both early and current expectations. Progress reviews and school reports show school performance, when combined with extensive one-to-one support teaching and the “week-ahead” program, are much closer to age appropriate skill levels than one would expect based on standardized measures of psychological tests. The combination of a mediated teaching process suited to his needs and his own special determination to succeed, have kept Tom in the mainstream and en route to entry as a full member of the workforce, against all odds….
The meeting of an international gathering of mental health workers is underway at UBC. The room is packed with psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers from all over the world. Tom and his family sit in the front row watching as I present the data on his progress and describe the intervention procedures. Tom gets up to address the audience to tell his own story of his school experience. Members of the audience, who have just seen the entry data on his file, are amazed at his articulation and his presence. One “famous” psychologist from Great Britain asks him: “And what do you like about Dr. S?” “Oh,” Tom replies, “I like her because she’s very stubborn – like a bulldog….”
Tom, now 18, is attending his high school graduation. I sit very emotionally witnessing this event with his parents. The names are called and he along with the others has his proud moment as he shakes the Principal’s hand and receives his diploma. Later, the Principal, having given out all the scholarships, has something else to say: “Of all the deserving students who have received awards today, two deserve their diplomas and this award for outstanding achievement beyond all others.” He then calls two boys to the stage, and one of them is Tom! His classmates rise to give them a standing ovation. Tears fall freely from the eyes of the observers and especially from me. The outstanding courage, determination to succeed, the passion and enthusiasm for life, and saying “Yes” to learning are the qualities that brought us to this moment. Today these are called emotionally intelligent character traits, the ones that produce success; sometimes-even when cognitive abilities are challenged….
Tom, now in his 20s and a full member of the workforce, has orchestrated a surprise 40th anniversary celebration for his parents. More than 100 guests fill the room with quiet anticipation. The honoured guests arrive amid calls of congratulations. Tom stands up to speak of the gratitude he feels for his parents’ lifelong support. He uses no notes. His heartfelt tone and respect are palpable. The guests are very quiet. My own heart is full of awe and admiration for the sheer courage and boldness of this journey.
The ‘Brain Friendly’ tools, like Mind Mapping, and the many others I and my colleagues have designed over the years based on the understanding of neuroplasticity and the brain’s response to targeted uniquely designed interventions, allow our students to empower their own contributions wherever their life journeys take them.
It is a special pleasure to be involved in a life’s work that allows one to leverage one’s skills into the minds and hearts of young people and, in so doing, enhance the contributions we all make to the generations that follow us.
Geraldine Schwartz PhD
Principal and Senior Psychologist
The Vancouver Learning Centre
Vancouver, BC, Canada