By Howard Eaton, Ed.M. – Founder/Director – Eaton Arrowsmith School (www.eatonarrowsmith.com)

There are times in our lives that we wish we could go back in history and apologize for our mistakes either as a parent or as a teacher. The Arrowsmith Program, created by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, often makes me reflect on the students I have worked with in the past and how much they would have benefited from her program. Here is just one example of a brain exercise created by Barbara Arrowsmith Young many years ago and how it relates to new findings from neuroscience.

For the last 35 years Barbara Arrowsmith Young has used the Clocks brain exercise to develop the reasoning abilities of children with learning disabilities. This brain exercise improves various achievement abilities (reading comprehension and math problem solving) and overall school success. I have observed reasoning and intelligence measures improve significantly after the Clocks exercise has been completed within the Arrowsmith Program. Updated psycho-educational assessments show sharp improvements in fluid reasoning and perceptual reasoning abilities of children who have completed the Clocks exercise. Research in neuroscience, as described below, indirectly highlights some of the reasons why this might be happening.

In 1992, I was a first year Special Education teacher in the small town of Truro, Massachusetts. I recall telling parents at Individual Educational Program meetings not to worry if their child could not read a clock face. These parents would come visit my classroom and say, “Sarah can’t tell time and she is in Grade 4. I am really worried about this. She has been trying to learn to tell time for 4 years and can’t get it.” I often said, “don’t worry about it – there are digital watches now.”

I now realize that reading a clock face is an important indicator of a child’s ability to understand multiple concepts and to improve reasoning abilities. A concept is a general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences. The clock face is quite abstract and requires many concepts to be understood (such as a 24-hour day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute and the knowledge that the hands of a clock face signify a placement in time that is constantly moving forward). Of course, there are other concepts, such as before and after, that need to be understood when reading a clock. What is critical for the child is that these concepts need to converge into the ability to look at a clock and tell the time. If the child is struggling to analyze the relationships of all these concepts, it often means they will also struggle with reading comprehension and math problem solving, as these achievement abilities also require the ability to analyze and synthesize many concepts simultaneously.

Back in 1992, I was telling parents that these concepts were not important to learn, as their child could simply wear a digital wrist watch; in other words, a child could bypass this problem by using technology or an accommodation (i.e. someone else could tell them the time). I was also not giving the child the chance to build brain capacities to understand multiple concepts and improving general reasoning ability. I should have been trying to teach the child how to tell time on a clock face with significant repetition and review.

Current research in neuroscience is indirectly linking the ability to draw and/or imagine clock faces to the location in the brain responsible for this activity. It is even more fascinating that this is the same region of the brain that differentiates average reasoners from superior reasoners.

In Germany, at the Departments of Neurology and Neuroradiology at the Klinikum der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universitat, Frankfurt, the areas of the brain used to imagine clocks were identified by researchers. Luigi Trojano and his colleagues were interested in finding out which area of the brain was involved in spatial analysis when no visual stimulus was present. Their findings were published in Cerebral Cortex (May 2000), which is published by Oxford University Press. These researchers studied seven right-handed post-graduate students ages 23 to 32. The subjects were asked to imagine two analogue clock faces based on times presented to them verbally by the examiner. As they were doing this visual imaging, their brains were being scanned. These researchers noted: “The most striking results of our two experiments demonstrated that cortical activation (as measured by an increase of the fMRI BOLD signal) during the mental clock test was the most prominent in the posterior parietal lobes of both hemispheres.” I will get back to why the activation of the posterior parietal cortex is so important in relationship to the Clocks exercise used with the Arrowsmith Program.

In Japan, at the Department of Neurology and Department of Radiology, Rakuwakai-Otowa Hospital in Kyoto, the areas of the brain that are most activated during the drawings of clocks were identified. Dr. Tadashi Ino and his colleagues studied 18 right-handed volunteers as they drew the hands of a clock while undergoing fMRI. Their findings were published in the journal Neuroscience Research in January of 2003. They discovered that the brain utilized numerous neurological pathways for drawing a clock; however, the most strongly activated areas during clock drawing were the posterior parietal cortex and the dorsal premotor area. The evidence from fMRIs points to the posterior parietal cortex as being a primary cortical location for tasks involved in clocks – whether drawing or imagining. 

So, what is the big deal? Here is the connection between using clocks for a brain exercise and the development of reasoning. In 2005, the journal Neuroimage published a research article on intelligence and which specific neural pathways may be involved in reasoning. The research had been conducted in South Korea at the Seoul National University. Various departments were involved, including the School of Biological Sciences, Department of Biology Education. Additionally, the Korea Institute of Brain Science and Department of Psychiatry at the Catholic University in Seoul were also involved. Finally, Yale University and the Department of Psychology were also a part of the study. The lead researcher was Dr. Kun Ho Lee from the School of Biological Sciences at the Seoul National University. 

Dr. Lee noted in his study that the parietal, and later prefrontal, cortices have been noted by other researchers as playing a role in fluid reasoning, the control of attention, and working memory. Dr. Lee and his colleagues wanted to discover the brain location for fluid reasoning of intellectually gifted adolescent students. Could they discover the brain region or pathway that was responsible for general intelligence? Dr. Lee studied 36 gifted adolescents from Busan, Korea. Busan is the largest port city in South Korea and is located at the south eastern most tip of the country. It has a population of over 3.6 million and is known as the capital of baseball in South Korea. The 36 gifted adolescent students were from the National Academy of Gifted Adolescents. The students were given the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Revised (Korean version) and the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM), which is a standard test for general fluid intelligence. The control group were students from a local high school.

The experimental and control groups were then given fMRI tasks related to reasoning. The students would be placed in the fMRI machine and asked to perform these specific tasks that had increasing levels of reasoning complexity. As they were performing these tasks, the fMRI showed their brain activity, which was being recorded by the researchers. What was their main finding? Dr. Lee and his colleagues wrote: “The main finding of the current study emphasized the role of the posterior parietal region (specifically, bilateral SPL and right IPS (BA 7/40) among the entire network components of g [general intelligence].” The students with the higher levels of intelligence showed greater activation of the posterior parietal regions as the complexity of the reasoning tasks increased. They continued, restating, “In addition, our results demonstrated that the posterior parietal regions including bilateral SPL and right IPS could be the neural correlates for superior general intelligence. These findings would be the early step toward the development of biological measures of g [general intelligence] which leads to new perspectives for behaviour interventions improving general cognitive ability”.

It is important to note that the prefrontal lobes of these students were also activated. There is a specific frontal-parietal relationship, since the brain has to think, which is a prefrontal or executive function task. Interestingly, as students become more adept at the various levels of reasoning, the prefrontal activity decreased.

This research, and the findings from the implementation of the Arrowsmith Program at the Eaton Arrowsmith School, highlight how important it is not to ignore the importance of teaching children how to read a clock face. The ability to read a clock face is one of the first indicators of a child’s reasoning capacities and can predict whether long-term educational frustrations might be developing. We have also learned that reasoning can improve dramatically in children with learning disabilities. Children’s reasoning abilities are not fixed, they can change.

Trojan, L., Grossi, Dario., Linden, E.J., Formisano, E., Hacker, H., Zanella, E.F., Goebel, R., Di Salle, D., 2000. Matching Two Imagined Clocks: the Functional Anatomy of Spatial Analysis in the Absence of Visual Stimulation. Cerebral Cortex. 10, 473-481.

Ino, T., Asada, T., Ito, J., Kimura, T., Fukuyama, H., 2002. Parieto-frontal networks for clock drawing revealed with fMRI. Neuroscience Research. 45, 71-77.

Lee, K.H., Choi, Y.Y., Gray, J.R., Cho, S.H., Chae, J., Lee, S., Kim, K., 2005. Neural correlates of superior intelligence: Stronger recruitment of posterior parietal cortex. Neuroimage 29: 578-586.

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