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Making mayhem: The perils of project-based learning

Wes Terrell directs the science department at Skybridge Academy. You can see and play with some of the cool projects his students have made—despite all of the obstacles Wes discusses below—at the Austin Mini Maker Faire on May 3.


Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating. 

Making stuff is central to who I am as a person. I’m happiest when I’m in the midst of a project. So when I became a public school teacher, I set out to bring making to the masses of bored kids in the hopes that they would all be transformed and realize their inner maker.

In my mind, the opportunity for making was the only thing they were missing. We held a schoolwide junk drive and collected tons of awesome junk. I brought in every tool I owned, since the science department at my school had a $15,000 ventilator hood but didn’t have any $30 cordless drills. Then I told the kids to make something amazing. I showed them a bunch of pictures and videos of cool stuff that other people had made.

What followed was not the maker fantasyland that I had envisioned. Kids destroyed lots of things. They broke my tools. They even stole stuff. And worst of all, no one made anything spectacular. It dawned on me that I had grossly underestimated the energy that was required to maker-ize the public school system.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.As time went on, I got better at developing systems that were more conducive to the outcomes I wanted. In some cases, I simply stopped expecting certain results. Eventually I took a job at Skybridge Academy, where many of the barriers to this kind of work were removed and the administration was in full support of this approach to learning. I thought that I could finally have the maker space of my dreams, but it turned out that there were still some pretty big obstacles to overcome.

I’ve read a lot lately about the value of getting kids to make things. If you’re someone who has been thinking about embarking on such a mission and you’ve read up on the subject, you might have the impression that these maker spaces are whimsical wonderlands of innovation. You hear less about the messy part. What follows is a brief survey of some of the hardest parts of doing this kind of work with kids. I wish I could follow this with a list of solutions. I can’t. But I do think these points are useful to keep in mind for anyone considering how to implement project-based learning activities with kids.

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock 

Kids don’t know how to use tools. This sounds obvious, but I didn’t fully realize it when I started working with kids. Of course not many kids have used a chop saw before, but surely they know how to use a hammer. It turns out most of them don’t. I’ve seen kids use a drill as a hammer, a saw as a drill, and vice versa. If you’re going to use real tools—and most experienced project-based educators agree that you should—then you have to teach these things explicitly. It takes time, and tools will be destroyed in the process.

Kids suck at putting things back where they belong. So you built shelves and got separate bins and even labeled each one. Kids will not put anything back where it belongs. I covered our hammers in plastic wrap, hung them from nails, and painted them with bright red paint to make bright red silhouettes of hammers that would compel a hammer user to put it back where it belongs. If you want to find one of these hammers, you’d be better off looking in the “Screwdrivers” bin. No matter how good your system is, kids will ignore it.

Teenagers are never going to act as excited as you want them to. You’ll think you’ve come up with the most exciting project these kids have ever been exposed to, when, without fail, someone will say, “This is lame.” It can be demoralizing, but you just have to remember that the most vocal opinions usually don’t represent the most popular.

Lots of parents aren’t convinced that making is for their kids. Some people think that “hands-on” learning is synonymous with vocational learning, which is synonymous with my-kid-isn’t-going-to-college. Lots of parents think that their kids will be better prepared for university by memorizing electron configurations and that making stuff is for the less ambitious.

Kids hate failure. Celebrating failure has become a popular mantra lately. At least a dozen presenters at SXSWedu last month mentioned it [and multiple guest contributors to this blog have discussed it]. The idea is that kids learn to embrace the struggle and find the little nuggets of wisdom in each failed attempt at creating something. The truth is that this is way easier said than done. Kids want to celebrate their failure about as much as they want to celebrate their acne. I’ve done prototyping activities with my daughter’s kindergarten class where literally half of the kids are crying. This is definitely not a reason to stop trying to teach kids this valuable lesson; in fact, it’s exactly why you must teach them that failing is okay. But it’s not pretty. I think it’s easier if you point out your own failed attempts at something, but it takes a lot of training before kids start to get this.

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.
Some kids won’t ever be makers. A common belief among the maker crowd is that everyone is a maker. I want to believe this is true, and it’s my goal as an educator to try to prove it to all kids. I want every kid to experience that feeling you get when you create something. Some kids just don’t see the value in toiling away to create something that they can buy at the store for $10, especially when their version doesn’t look as nice and doesn’t work as well.

Kids aren’t as creative as everyone makes them out to be. I know this sounds like a terrible thing for a parent or educator to say, but it’s true. We’re told that kids are these magical little creatures that are just brimming with fantastic ideas, and that if we just give them the chance they will shine. The fact is that creativity is a skill that has to be taught, just like any other. Most kids have had their creativity stifled along the way, and so they must relearn this skill. Creativity can be taught and nurtured and refined, and we have to create environments in which this can happen. Just don’t be surprised when a group of kids fails to amaze you with their creativity. This is not to say that I am not often blown away by the ideas that kids come up with; I am. But I’m also frequently not blown away. I don’t find this discouraging; it just reinforces the idea that for me, teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy.

My messy maker classroom.

I am a full-fledged supporter of the maker movement, but I know it’s not all fun and games. It’s messy, frustrating, and even depressing when it’s not going well. We can learn from each other and find out what works and what doesn’t, but there will always be challenges that lead us to question our approach.

Of course, if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. And if we want kids to be motivated by their failed attempts, then we’d better be sure that they see us doing the same. Hats off to all those who fight the good fight.

Wes Terrell


Learner-driven communities: The future has arrived

At a special open house during SXSWedu earlier this month, kids at Acton Academy explained to a crowd of adults—locals and out-of-towners alike—how their unusual school works. Concluding the event, cofounder and guide Jeff Sandefer spoke fervently about his vision for the future of education. Today Jeff joins us as a guest contributor to share some of those thoughts and a few glimpses of daily life at Acton.

I predict that the 21st century will see the rise of learner-driven communities, a disruptive educational force wherein self-directed learners, in a community tightly bound by personal covenants and contracts, use the full power of the Internet to craft a transformative, personalized learning path. Even better, I believe these learner-driven communities will be able to deliver a transformational education for less than $2,000 per student per year.

Sound like a fantasy? It might be, except that I’ve been amazed as I have dug deeply into the research of Sugata Mitra and his Hole-in-the-Wall experiments, where children in some of the poorest villages in Africa and Asia, armed only with an Internet terminal—and no teacher—have outperformed the best privates schools in their countries.

And I have seen it with my own eyes as a middle school guide at Acton Academy, an Austin-based school that uses multiage classrooms, the latest game-based adaptive computer programs for core skills, and questlike adventures for deeper learning in a studio increasingly run by the students themselves.

Our young people at Acton, each believing he or she is on a hero’s journey that will change the world, are learning that courage, grit, and perseverance matter far more than regurgitating facts that easily can be accessed on Google. They are mastering process and technique at a rapid rate, beginning to create personalized courses from expert knowledge, simulations, processes, and challenges that the Internet puts at their fingertips. 

In a learner-driven community, each learner chooses his or her own path and challenges, keeping track of multiple projects as early as age six using SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and time-bound) goals and seeking to earn a series of badges that demonstrate proficiency. The studio is completely governed by the learners, using a series of written covenants and a governance system developed from scratch every year.

There are no grades or homework, though every piece of work is judged or force-ranked by a rigorous peer review, compared to world-class examples, or in a public exhibition. Adults are forbidden from answering a question while in the studio, instead encouraging learners to find the answers on their own or in collaboration with their peers.

By earning badges and collecting work in personalized online portfolios, young heroes in learner-driven communities can prepare to earn apprenticeships at an early age, experimenting with which path might lead to a personal calling in life.

Just as importantly, because these communities are largely self-governing, fewer and fewer adults need to be in the room. This means not only that learning accelerates as it arms our Acton Eagles to become lifelong learners who can tackle real-world challenges, but it may also allow us to deliver a superior education for $2,000 per student per year, as opposed to the $9,000 to $15,000 annual cost per student of a typical traditional school.

Learner-driven communities: an emerging educational force that just might change how we think about learning in the 21st century.

Jeff Sandefer


More Making at the Thinkery

Guest contributor Emily Weerts is the Innovators’ Workshop Manager at the Thinkery, the new Austin Children’s Museum. Emily grew up in Northern California and is the daughter of an avid crafter and a handy model maker. A “Maker” before there was a “Movement,” Emily attended the first Maker Faire in California in 2006 before moving that summer to Austin, where she subsequently attended the 2007 and 2008 Austin Maker Faires. Emily dabbles in many Maker pursuits including screen printing, traditional and e-textiles, glass arts, paper crafts, robotics, and kitchen concoctions.

If you’ve been to the Thinkery, you may have noticed the two-story climbing structure or the drenching water exhibit, but before you got to the Light Lab, did you stop by a project table? Maybe you chatted with a resident artist working on a sculpture made from recycled materials. Or perhaps you spent some time tinkering with some LED lights, batteries, and conductive play dough. Did you pop into Kitchen Lab and create something out of corn starch plastic?

Making is a fundamental experience that the Thinkery wants to encourage and share with visitors of all ages.

In 2007 when Maker Faire came to Austin, staff at the Austin Children’s Museum recognized a shared value of learning through Making. In 2008, the Museum partnered to bring an extensive Maker Kids area to the Faire, and in the summer of 2009, the Museum developed and presented a Maker Kids feature exhibit to bring the Maker experience to many more visitors.

In designing the new museum, opportunities for Making and hands-on creative problem solving were at the heart of the planning process. Since the Thinkery opened in late 2013, Making has taken many forms. Visitors stopping in for an hour or two are most likely to encounter Making at the project tables in the Innovators’ Workshop, Spark Shop, and Kitchen Lab.

Here at the Thinkery we define Making broadly and encourage all people to think of themselves as Makers. At its simplest, Making is the act of creating something; from a quilt to a batch of cookies, there are learning opportunities at every step of the way. Making emphasizes skill development, like learning how to properly use a power drill or how to stitch a seam.

When presented in the context of a project, difficult concepts become more manageable. Multiplying fractions makes a bit more sense when done in the service of quadrupling a recipe. Suddenly, while designing a quilt, finding the hypotenuse of a triangle really is as easy as a2 + b2 = c2.

In developing Maker activities and programs at the Thinkery, there are a few guidelines we like to follow. We hope these tips and principles ring true and prove useful for educators everywhere:

  • Use real tools. Toys are lots of fun, but there are also many safe ways to introduce real tools to novice learners. Use a wooden mallet instead of a hollow plastic toy hammer. Introduce a three-year-old to stitching by using a yarn needle and plastic canvas.
  • It’s okay to fail. No great Maker gets perfect results every time. Far from it! Often the best learning happens during the process of making something and learning from mistakes. Take (calculated) risks, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Making takes practice. Learning a new skill can be intimidating, but remember that the best Makers didn’t start out as experts; they had years of practice. With lots of practice, you can be great at anything.
  • When people are encouraged and equipped to make things themselves, they gain a strong ownership over their learning.  Let the Maker and the project guide the learning process.
  • Forget “Do-it-Yourself.” Making is most fun and productive when it’s done with others. Pair novice Makers with Maker Mentors to see how much everyone learns from each other. Let’s start a “Make-it-Together” movement!
  • Embrace your own “I don’t know” moments. It’s okay that you don’t know how to solder or use a sewing machine. You can still help learners by colearning, finding resources, or connecting them with Maker Mentors.
  • Resist the urge to “do it for them.” Keep your hands off the tools and materials as much as possible. Show learners how to do something and let them try it themselves.

If you aren’t sure where to get started, consider coming up with a Maker Resolution. At the Thinkery, we had all our staff set Maker Resolutions for 2014. Our diverse and creative team came up with a huge spectrum of projects for the new year, from creating a stop-motion animation music video to baking and decorating a three-tiered cake. One of our staff members resolved to learn how to make a website, and one of our Teen Volunteers plans to make her own prom dress.

May this year and all the years to come be filled with creativity, innovation, tinkering, and Making!

Emily Weerts

Join Emily and other Thinkery staff and volunteers on May 3 for some all-ages Making at this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire!


Spring Break camp openings!

We’ve had several requests for information on recommended Spring Break camps that still have spaces, so here’s a short list with links. Note that these camps are filling quickly, so we can’t guarantee that there will be a spot for your kid. We’ll keep updating as we hear of more openings. Good luck! (And when you’re ready to turn your attention to the summer break, be sure to check out our extensive and detailed directory of summer camps.)


Austin Creative Art Center Spring Break Art Camp
Central Austin

Austin Tinkering School Spring Break Challenge Camp
North Austin

Badgerdog Spring Break Writing Workshops
The Griffin School (Central Austin)

Contagious Harmony Spring Break Music & Sports Camp
Steiner Ranch (West Austin)

Fantastic Magic Camp
Central Austin

GenAustin’s We Are Girls Spring Break Camp
Central Austin

Thinkery Pre-K–K Spring Break Camps
Mueller Neighborhood (Central East Austin)



A place at the table for failure

Educational psychologist Breana Sylvester, PhD, is leading her family on a journey through the alternative education landscape, observing and chronicling for others what she learns about noncoercive, interest-based learning communities. Here she shares an essay on failure adapted from her own blog, Dandelion Adventures.

Ashton Kutcher made a surprise appearance at TEDYouth and decided to talk not about his successes but rather about his failures. Since then my corner of the internet has been atwitter with people sharing fun ideas, and I have seen a terrific number of illustrations of the utility and beauty of failure. Here’s an anonymous one currently making the rounds on social media:

What an incredibly important message to give to learners, child and adult! Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. Sometimes it also helps us choose direction. Rarely will failure ruin all our plans for the future; usually it tells us we need to find new ways to approach our goals, and sometimes it even gives us hints as to how. In fact, not allowing children to fail can be impairing.

Yet our culture attaches a great deal of shame to failure. What do we lose, though, if failure is not an option? How does fear of failure influence how we treat one another and ourselves?

The above comic triggered some connections that I would like to share from what I have learned from educational psychology. In particular, Goal Orientation Theory and self-compassion came to mind.

Goal Orientation Theory, also known as Achievement Goal Theory, posits that our reasons for working toward goals can vary greatly and that our orientations toward our goals have implications for how well we learn new things and how we deal with failure in the process of learning. When we learn things because we enjoy the process of learning, we are more likely to remember what we learned and also more likely to see failure as a natural part of the learning process. This is known as adopting a mastery orientation.

Another orientation posited in earlier work on goals was called performance orientation, wherein the learner’s motivation behind work toward a goal was primarily that of success at that goal, whether it be making a good grade or obtaining recognition (or avoiding failure). It is possible to have a mix of more than one orientation toward a goal. Psychologists have done a great deal of research on these goal orientations and over time have modified the theories. (You can find updated information and research findings here.)

It seems clear to me that high pressure to succeed in the form of high-stakes assessments and competition for recognition such as we find in most, if not all, traditional school settings could only contribute to the performance orientation. I find myself wondering, then, what would a learning environment that supports a mastery orientation look like? What if failure and success weren’t so dichotomized?

The second concept that sprang to mind was that of self-compassion. I used to teach a college course on applied learning and motivation theory, and we would talk about inner voice and its influence on motivation. When we got to the part about the influences of our inner voice on our motivation and emotion, students would tell me how cheesy the idea of positive self-talk seemed to them. So at the beginning of the next class I would ask them to write down what they would say to a friend who was failing two classes and was afraid of losing his financial aid at the end of the semester. Once they were done, I’d ask them to turn over the card and write what they would say to themselves in the same situation. It wasn’t uncommon to hear nervous giggling and even gasps at the realization that their words to themselves were far harsher, and frequently unhelpful.

I was fortunate in my graduate school experience to learn a good bit about the psychological concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion from Kristin Neff, an expert on the study of the latter as a psychological construct. Of course, both mindfulness and compassion are appropriated from Buddhist philosophical concepts, but there is a lot of promising research on how they are currently being used in counseling settings.

It’s true that we rarely afford ourselves the same understanding, patience, and acceptance in our failures as we do those we care about; it takes practice and even hard work to learn to see failure as a necessary part of the human condition, but by freeing ourselves from the judgment of failure, we can more clearly see the path forward and enjoy the journey!

An Example: My own fear of failure

Recently Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), asked me what my goals were in regard to our family’s adventure in learning about alternatives to traditional educational settings. Up to that point, I’d felt that I had a somewhat clear idea of the things I knew I wanted to learn and those that I could pick up along the way. Even so, his question initially felt scrutinizing, given the early stage of our adventure planning. On reflection I realized that the reason the question made me feel uncomfortable was that I am afraid of failing, afraid of letting down the people who devote their lives to the learning environments I am just beginning to explore.

Just the tiniest shift in mindset—allowing myself to acknowledge my fear of failure and approaching his question as a learning opportunity—led me to experience a much deeper and more thought-out conceptualization of our adventures, which will, in all probability help me convey my goals to those I hope to work with. Yes, there’s a chance I may still fail at my ultimate goal of encouraging a large number of people to think more critically about how we educate students and teachers, but once my fears have been acknowledged, I can see past them, and I can see that what we gain by trying will be an experience of great value for me, for my family, and hopefully for others!

Here’s wishing you all wonderful opportunities to face your fears!

Breana Sylvester


Reversing dyslexia? A response from Dr. Books

In guest contributor Shari Holland’s review of the recent book Reversing Dyslexia, she voices several common concerns about author Phyllis Books’s unusual claims. Upon Alt Ed Austin’s invitation, Dr. Books has responded to Ms. Holland’s critique. We encourage you to join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Dr. Phyllis BooksThank you so much for the opportunity to address the comments from Shari Holland regarding my first book. There are points on which Shari and I agree. For example, I think it is fair to say we both agree that dyslexia, as well as many other learning challenges, and indeed our overall health and well-being, respond well to good lifestyle habits, which include adequate sleep, healthy eating, and a good balance of work and play. It is easy to take these natural methods for granted or even dismiss their importance.

The Hawthorne Effect, which she discusses, is another area of agreement. Positive psychology, placebo studies, even studies on plants, all point out the importance of a positive framework to seed a positive outcome. Before I work with children, I have parents agree with me about who is responsible for what during our time together. One tenet is for the parent to keep an open mind and to hold the space for the child to change. There are many factors (such as getting decent nutrition, sufficient exercise, and enough sleep) that I have no control over but ultimately affect the long-term success of Books Neural TherapyTM (BNT).

Shari writes, “Dr. Books seems to contradict herself about whether dyslexia is reversible. At one point, she writes that dyslexia may not be permanent.” The very fact that I have no control over variables mentioned above is reason for me to not make 100 percent guarantees. I willingly affirm that I have an 85 percent success rate, which, as my brochures and other literature say, is based on questionnaires gathered from clients six to ten years after treatment.

There are, however, several points I would like to correct or on which I would like to offer another view:

Shari states that she “found the organization of the book confusing and the logic muddled.” And “[I use] ‘dyslexia’ interchangeably with so many words describing learning challenges it’s hard to understand why [I] used dyslexia in the title.”

I have a degree in English and a master’s degree in communication, and my first thought was to find her comment disconcerting were it not for the fact that my publisher, who has been very successful over the past thirty years in publishing books written by professionals, chose to develop the chapters in a formula that works for most readers.

Upon further reflection, I wonder if some of the uncertainty she experienced about the title might not be caused by what the publisher left out of the contents of my book as originally submitted. My original book, before the publisher put the editing crew on it, was more of a “how to” guide for parents. The subtitle “Improving Learning and Behavior without Drugs” still reflects my original intention with the book; however, much of the content morphed into a different kind of book.  The publisher thought it best that my first book help establish me as a neutral expert in the field of dyslexia by explaining the whole playing field of dyslexia—describing the larger context of dyslexia, its many facets, and ways dyslexia can affect someone’s life—and offering insight and suggestions for addressing the various forms of dyslexia and issues the family member might be dealing with at any particular age. In the published content, I can see how she might mix up the definition of dyslexia, the definition of the various other diagnoses that may or may not accompany dyslexia, and the various ways children handle the emotional issues that so often accompany dyslexia.

Dyslexia is not a one-dimensional issue, which is one of the main points of the book. As Dr. Fred Pescatore, a New York–based integrative physician and author of several books on children’s health, states in the foreword to my book, “Dyslexia is not simply having difficulty with reading and writing. It is a disorder that permeates a person’s entire life, promoting all sorts of unwanted symptoms, from poor organizational skills to behavior and attitude problems.”

Shari writes, “If dyslexia is reversible, why talk to parents about choosing a tutor or a college that caters to dyslexic students?”

Actually, that was also my first response when my publisher insisted on adding a chapter on schooling, tutoring, and extracurricular activities. His response was wise: “You don’t know when people are going to pick up your book. Their child may be about to enter college when they first see your book. You need to meet people where they are. And since you aren’t there in person, you have to consider all possible situations, not just if their children have access to you at an early age.”

Shari wonders why I wrote the book if it wasn’t to promote my own therapy.

The preface says: “I wrote this book to dispel the myth that dyslexia is permanent. The idea that learning disorders are unchangeable is simply untrue, and it harms children. . . . I also wrote this book to open minds to a new way of looking at dyslexia, to create empowered advocates for dyslexic kids, and to make sure individuals get the help they need to dismantle the problem of dyslexia for good. Most of all, I wrote this book to help free the human spirit—the spirit that still lies inside every dyslexic person and begs to be unchained.”

Final thoughts: I’m passionate about my work with children, and I love my life. My life is geared around helping children become healthy, happy, and self-reliant—and to be free enough to usher their dreams into reality.

It takes a new mindset to believe there is hope for your dyslexic child, especially when “the experts” have ingrained the idea that it is permanent. My book may not be accepted well by people who want to hold onto their old beliefs. Even Einstein said, “I have all the new facts about quantum mechanics. I just don’t want to believe it.”

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right” is a statement very apropos with regard to dyslexia. If you believe and choose to hold onto your belief that dyslexia isn’t reversible, it won’t be. Not because that belief is true, but because your child will pick up on your belief—the belief of traditional education and the medical model which are embedded with the concept that dyslexia is permanent.

“We should never wait for science to give us permission to do the uncommon; if we do, then we are turning science into another religion. We should be brave enough to contemplate our lives and move ‘outside the box’ and do it repeatedly” (Dr. Joe Dispenza in Evolve Your Brain). I encourage all parents to be brave enough to follow their own internal compass. You know your child better than any expert. Scientific studies don’t trump your own truth, and no two dyslexics are alike. Seek help wherever you can. Believe in your own ability to choose wisely. Keep looking for ways to bring out your child’s highest potential. Believe in your child. The world needs you both.

Dr. Phyllis Books


Reversing dyslexia?

Alt Ed Austin is pleased to present two differing perspectives on the recent book Reversing Dyslexia by Phyllis Books, a chiropractor, nutritionist, and author based in Austin. The first is in the form of a thoughtful review (below) by Shari Holland, an Austin consultant and parent of a child diagnosed with dyslexia. The second (posted here) is Dr. Books’s response to Ms. Holland’s specific criticisms of the book. What do you think? We encourage you to make respectful use of the comments section below to continue the discussion.

Guest contributor Shari HollandHaving watched my ten-year-old son struggle with dyslexia, I visualize his challenge as a very tall wall, like the kind in a military obstacle course, one that you have to haul yourself up and over, maybe with the aid of ropes, maybe with help from others. This wall of words is very tall for some kids yet hardly present for those of us who easily and eagerly learned to read. Information—science, geography, fiction, even jokes and comics—is on the other side of the wall. The effort it takes to get to the information he craves is significant for my son.

When a friend passed along Phyllis Books’s recent book Reversing Dyslexia, I was intrigued. I had previously visited her website because I had heard about a technique she uses with dyslexic kids. This book only mentions her technique by name once in a brief paragraph among a list of alternative methods that presumably may prove useful in reversing dyslexia. If her book were simply a tool for marketing her technique, I could understand her purpose in writing it. But since it doesn’t do that, the book is all the more puzzling.

The flaws are numerous and significant. Reversing Dyslexia is long on opinion and anecdotes (most have nothing to do with dyslexia) and short on research. While Dr. Books has footnotes unevenly scattered throughout the book, many of the sources she cites are dated. She acknowledges that there is little research to support her claim that dyslexia is reversible, saying that case studies have to be sufficient proof until funds are available to study alternative therapies, including her own. She uses “dyslexia” interchangeably with so many words describing learning challenges (such as ADHD) that it’s hard to understand why she used “dyslexia” in the title. In the chapter titled “Determining Dyslexia” she bizarrely claims that self-mutilation (“cutting”) and drug and alcohol abuse may be clues that your child has dyslexia (or another learning disorder). And although I am not aware that there are currently any pharmaceuticals on the market for dyslexia, the subtitle of her book is “Improving Learning and Behavior without Drugs.” In the chapter called “Rewiring the Brain,” she writes that “dyslexics may be able to adjust their learning processes without using . . . pharmaceuticals.” I found the organization of the book confusing, and the research and logic muddled.  

Dr. Books’s website is as perplexing as her book. The details about her technique, called Books Neural Therapy, are vague, presumably because it is proprietary. The price of her services is also not disclosed. In an email exchange with her a year ago, she quoted her online course at around $1,000, with an unspecified higher cost if you work directly with her in her office. Her website claims that she has an 85 percent success rate in reversing dyslexia, but she provides no information about how this percentage is calculated and over what period.

Another organization, the Brain Balance Achievement Centers (BBAC), makes claims very similar to Dr. Books’s about the ability to ameliorate a whole host of learning and social disorders. The BBAC (there is one in Austin) offers a similar package of proprietary techniques that are designed to create new neural pathways based on the concept of brain plasticity. BBAC also does not disclose its pricing, but a number of blogs and message boards suggest that the cost is upwards of $5,000 for a three-month round of therapy – and since more time might be needed to see improvements in your child, the payout could be significant. Criticisms of the BBAC are easy to find on the internet (search:  “brain balance criticism”).

None of the educators, researchers, neurologists, psychologists, and chiropractors that I have consulted in the last few years has ever suggested that dyslexia can be eliminated. Moreover, even Dr. Books seems to contradict herself about whether dyslexia is reversible. At one point, she writes that dyslexia “may not . . . be permanent.” The chapter on “Schooling, Tutoring, and Extracurricular Activities” inexplicably discusses the academic supports that will be helpful to dyslexics. But if dyslexia is reversible, why talk to parents about choosing a tutor or a college that caters to dyslexic students?

While her argument is just not convincing, I do not think that it is necessary to “prove” that dyslexia is reversible. The point is that children with dyslexia will be profoundly affected by it—academically, socially, and emotionally—and it is our responsibility as parents to mitigate the effects as best we can.

I agree with Dr. Books that stress can impact learning, nutrition and creative play are very important to a child’s brain development, and dyslexia is multifaceted and varied; for those reasons, an integrated approach to addressing a dyslexic child’s needs makes sense. But before spending thousands of dollars on a vaguely defined program, I’d suggest starting with getting your family’s emotional house in order, making improvements in your family’s healthy food intake, and reading up on what you can do at home or within your child’s school to address your child’s needs.

I have no doubt that Dr. Books has helped many of her clients overcome obstacles and make improvements in their lives. I’m no stranger to alternative therapies, and over the years my son and I have seen acupuncturists, chiropractors, a cranial-sacral therapist, counselors, and tutors and tried herbal, homeopathic, and other types of home remedies, with many positive outcomes. While he still struggles with dyslexia, he has experienced great improvements.

The Hawthorne Effect cannot be overlooked when it comes to alternative therapies or any intervention. To paraphrase: a child to whom positive intention is directed will improve. This may explain positive results as much as anything in some situations. As parents, we are called to summon our best efforts to address the needs of our children. Our job is to help our children understand how their dyslexic brains make them special and how to make the wall separating them from knowledge and information less daunting to scale. You may choose to engage a village of mainstream and alternative teachers, therapists, and practitioners to work with you and your child, which may involve parting with some hard-earned cash; some will be beneficial and some will not be. The only certainty is that there is no silver bullet (yet), and all we can do is search for what works for our own families, within our means.

Shari Holland