Arrowsmith

The Arrowsmith program has been going for about 35 years, and had a research program for about 18 years.

In all that time, not one study has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal providing reliable scientific evidence that it works. Not one.

Perhaps the Australian Education Union didn’t realise this when giving Canada’s Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (AKA The Woman Who Changed Her Brain) a platform to promote her program here last week.

Radio National also interviewed her but failed to ask her hard questions, like whether her program has actually been shown to work.

I’ve already written about my concerns about the Arrowsmith program here and here, so won’t repeat myself, or rehash excellent blog posts on this topic by Head of La Trobe University’s Rural Health School Professor Pamela Snow and Oxford Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology Dorothy Bishop. Just read them here and here if you haven’t already.

Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, Associate Professor Tim Hannan, wondered in Australasian Science magazine in 2015, “…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?” (Vol 36, 9, p41). We are all still scratching our heads.

We now have a new Canadian court decision about whether a government school discriminated against a student by not offering him the Arrowsmith program. It states:

“During this hearing, no scientific basis was demonstrated and among the five experts who testified, no one was able to show empirical evidence supporting the Arrowsmith method.”

Charisma, anecdotes, testimonials. Pay no attention. In fact, if someone offering a program for children with learning difficulties offers you anecdotes and testimonials, run a mile. They are usually a strong indication of a lack of proper evidence for the program.

What matters for children with learning difficulties is whether there is good evidence to support doing what the program does. Science is how we make sure we aren’t just believing what we want to believe.

The best scientific evidence you can get, at the top of the Evidence Pyramid, is a systematic review of all the well-conducted research in an area.

You can click here to read one such systematic review of the research into treatment approaches for children and adolescents with reading disabilities, which says, “The results revealed that phonics instruction is not only the most frequently investigated treatment approach, but also the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed.”

No, that doesn’t make phonics a blanket recommendation for all children who are struggling with reading. Some children have unusual profiles, and the evidence pyramid has several levels.

However, “my personal experience” and “I just know” are simply not part of the evidence pyramid, despite what satirists might say.

May 2018 update: all comments on this post are being removed.

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