Innovations in Education Conference

by Siegfried Othmer | June 16th, 2004

I was invited to give a talk and workshop at the Innovations in Education Conference in Salt Lake City last week, and that gave me an opportunity to hear about other ways to break the barriers to learning. The moving force behind this conference is Ed Fila and Mike Phillips. Dr. Ed Fila was drawn to this field because of his own learning disabled daughter, the odd duck among a bunch of very successful children, whereas Mike Phillips had spent his first career in the juvenile justice system. One of his last official duties before his retirement was to check up on a cohort of kids to see what happened to them over the five years since they were released from custody in the juvenile justice system. Some 200 of these kids had cost the State close to $20 Million in continuing services, more than $100K apiece, for >20K per year. This is just the tangible public cost, and does not include the impact on other lives and on the private economy. Two-thirds of the kids were in prison by the end of the survey period—a resounding history of failure of the juvenile justice program. Less than 40% of the males, and less than 10% of the females had achieved high school graduation. What if such failed lives could be intercepted early on and set on a different course?

So Ed Fila and Mike Phillips have been gathering the best of available educational and remedial technologies for insertion into the Utah educational system. I have had the opportunity to present at each of their conferences over the years. I am told that my talk was always voted the best of the conference, but neurofeedback has never made the cut of being included in their proposed program. This is quite possibly because of the dearth of a documented track record of positive outcome for a within-school application. But it may also just be too difficult to get neurofeedback through the legislature at this point. The organization received $1M in funding from the legislature, but the disbursement has been held up by the current governor.

The first speaker, Richard Maxfield, pointed out that social expenditures—Health, Corrections, Social Services—now matched the total expenditures in Utah for primary and secondary education, and were poised for continued growth in the future, thus constraining future budgetary latitude. For example, some 12 % of the Utah state budget is spent just on shoveling up after substance and alcohol abuse. Maxfield also spoke of an increasing mismatch between job requirements in the future in the face of prevailing academic performance of the educational system. Both of these point to the high cost of educational failure in our society.

“In no industry or item of commerce would we tolerate the failure rate that we tolerate in education.” As I was taking this in, I realized that there is one “industry” that comes close: Our own field of health. Health services delivery is so fragmented that an assessment of the elements of successful treatment is difficult, and hence not usually attempted. The field is focused on delivery, on process, rather than outcome. We know well that it takes a long time to get a new idea accepted. That being the case, we know that a variety of new technologies are in various stages of gestation around the world. No systematic attempt is being made from within either the health or education field to seek out such successful strategies and insert them into the conventional process. Maxfield presented a “Learning Support System” as a partial remedy, but this was presented in an afternoon breakout session I did not have a chance to cover.

The most intriguing talk with respect to learning technologies was on “Physio-Neuro” Training Program called Intercept, and developed by the company “Learning Technics.” The focus here is on training of brain function, but doing so with almost conventional tools and methods. The ability to learn is itself a learned skill, and one that can be explicitly taught. Some ten areas of functioning are identified, and specifically targeted with exercises and intellectual or physical games. Intriguingly, the first item on the list is the ability to focus. Other targets are figure-ground discrimination, tracking ability, forming mental images, cross-patterning, conceptualization and pattern matching, spatial reasoning and positioning, etc. The program involves no more than a half hour of one-on-one training four times a week for several months.

The results are quite astounding. In an early test of the method, back in 1991, some sixty students who were in the bottom 20th percentile, and at risk of academic failure, were inserted into the program. SAT scores increased by an average of 43 percentile points. Two years later (during which there was no further involvement with the program), these “at-risk” students scored within the top one-third on their SATs. On another measure, learning rate increased from nominally 0.6 years of progress per academic year to 1.6 years per year. As a result of such progress, a 95% success was achieved in returning children to a normal academic environment (versus the more typical <30%). In yet another assessment, a cohort was followed for eight years after the Intercept program, and group percentile rating continued to increase out to the eighth year: Here are the rankings: Pre-study: mean of 18th percentile One-year post: 54th percentile Three-year post: 63rd percentile Eight-year post: 69th percentile What strikes me is that the greatest improvements are achieved by those programs that get closest to the building blocks of brain function. This is also the emphasis of the very successful Lindamood-Bell Language Learning Program. Learning Technics is the kind of program one might be inclined to do if one did not know about neurofeedback. But it might also complement our work nicely. We don't do well with a whole host of learning disabilities, and a technique such as this could fill in the holes that we leave behind. If we follow the logic, one would want to attend to the most basic failures first, and that should place neurofeedback at the head of the line. For example, if brain function is disrupted by temporal instabilities, thalamocortical dysrhythmias, or disconnect syndromes, one would surely want to deal with that first. Then one can assess for more specific shortcomings that can then be addressed by a variety of techniques. It is satisfying that such significant gains can be achieved by techniques that should not startle or offend any educational professional. This is perhaps the means by which most of them will come to take brain-based learning more seriously. What I find remarkable is not only the mean gains that are achievable but the small residual of children who are not substantially helped. It is in our interest to make common cause as much as we can with other people oriented toward brain-based learning. See

More to follow next week.

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