The three-story Dutch colonial house to which 8-year-old Jerry goes twice weekly for help with reading problems looks no different from other Bethesda residences.
No signs identify the Human Development Clinic, which does no advertising and has until recently made little effort to expand beyond a simple Mom and Pop operation: a therapy center to which word-of-mouth recommendations bring a steady stream of children and adults who come here to learn how to learn.
Jerry's father brought him here two years ago because he couldn't recognize the letters of the alphabet. "Each flower blossoms in its own time," Jerry's first-grade teacher had said, but Jerry's father, who had recently gone through a bitter divorce, doubted the boy was just a late bloomer.
Jerry's reading problem became a vehicle for both learning therapy and psychotherapy -- dministered respectively by Faith and Cecil Clark, directors of the clinic, and their small staff of professionals, who are "bright enough to take the training and flexible enough to change," as Faith Clark puts it. The plan is to expand the center's nonprofit arm, the National Learning Laboratory, into a national training facility in 1986, when the clinic will move to larger facilities.
Once married and now separated, the Clarks, who began working together in 1972, have maintained an amicable working relationship. He has a PhD in psychology and is a licensed psychologist; she has a PhD in education and psychology. Together, they have developed a form of learning therapy that combines traditional psychotherapy with a thorough diagnosis of individual learning styles. This helps them decide which blend of learning techniques -- many of them untraditional -- will be appropriate for a particular client.
Some of their advice to Jerry's father was fairly predictable: Restrict television and start reading aloud to him at night.
Some was less obvious.
"I would say, 'You know, Faith, when I read to him he can't sit still, and I tell him to sit still, dammit, because it's important,' " says the father. "And she tells me, 'If he wants to jump up and down, let him jump and down. What's the purpose of the episode, to teach him to read and listen? Or to do your own 19th-century idea of what's right?' "
Jerry did learn to read, not simply by jumping up and down, but because his kinesthetic style of learning was acknowledged, an important first step in his therapy.
"Sometimes a little activity adjacent to a critical brain area stimulates the area," says Cecil Clark, 52. "Jumping up and down might seem to be a contrary action, but with someone like Jerry it's not. It stimulates general neural activity in the brain, facilitating the appropriate response -- reading."
Rather than chastise Jerry for not sitting still, the Clarks taught him and his non-kinesthetic father that movement helps kinesthetic learners remember.
"First, we acknowledged his style of learning," says Faith Clark, 40. "Then we presented chunks of material of a size he could handle, in the modality he needed, with the amount of reinforcement he needed. He loved computers, for example, so we did a lot of computer work.
"We also used a lot of gaming processes. Jerry loved competition and as an only child he never got it. So he worked on his reading cards in competition with an imaginary child."
"The proof of the pudding is in the eating," says Jerry's father. "Can he read? Yes. Above grade level. And does he like to read? Yes -- and that thrills me."
During an initial testing period, the clinic staff focuses on diagnosing a client's learning ability -- always with less of a focus on learning problems than on learning style. In this they have been influenced partly by neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a relatively recent body of techniques that involves interpreting nonverbal cues like eye movements to determine how a person gains access to unconscious thoughts and memories.
If you ask a right-handed person what their first memory is, for example, and their eyes look up as they think about it, chances are they are primarily visual learners, according to NLP theory. If their eyes look sideways, they may well learn auditorily, and if their eyes look down and sideways, they probably tend to learn kinesthetically -- through movement and body feelings.
Although a simplification, this is the kind of information the Clarks share even with their youngest clients. Their focus is less on content and more on process -- on learning how to learn -- and specifically on how a particular individual learns best.
Some learning styles, unfortunately, are less well-suited to standard school curricula than others. The artistic, kinesthetically oriented child whose thinking is also predominantly right-brained (intuitive, imaginative and more spatially oriented) will tend to do less well in a traditional classroom than a visually oriented child whose thinking is chiefly left-brained (linear, logical and analytical). The clinic's job, then, is to show that child a different way to learn the same kind of material.
The staff also works with the child's teachers and parents; both are invited to free Monday-night seminars.
"One thing we've learned is that nothing works," says Faith Clark. "No one thing works. Any child will prove that any single method doesn't work."
Consequently, she uses a wide variety of techniques, including superlearning (trance memory), mind-mapping, webbing, story-boarding, de Bono's lateral thinking, cross-lateral rebounding, touch drawing, centering techniques, whole-brain computer experiences, her own reading techniques, associative learning and chanting.
"We don't teach all of the techniques to everyone who comes in," she says. "We apply them as the need arises." Above all, the center encourages clients to engage all of their senses, both sides of the brain and body as well as the mind.
The Clarks, who charge $65 an hour, see from 60 to 90 children and adults a week. Some clients come to work on specific learning disabilities; others are simply not achieving up to potential. Probably the most typical problem is uneven development.
"Many people do excellently in one area, but not that well in another," says Faith Clark. "So there are discrepancies in their functioning -- often, because they're cut off from early experiences.
"When you are gifted in one area, for example, people tend to let you go with your giftedness, so you don't develop all of your abilities."
One young seminary student with a degree in economics, whose religious order has sent him to the clinic to deal with serious reading-comprehension problems, is "mind-mapping," as he listens to a tape on the art of negotiating. (A mind map, essentially an elaborate, giant doodle with words, is a nonlinear, "right-brain" way of visually organizing thoughts and associations.)
In the center of the room, a hearing-impaired, learning-disabled child is doing cross-lateral exercises on the rebounder (a small trampoline).
"At one level, these exercises are designed to wake up your brain," says Faith Clark. "At another level, the purpose is to integrate mind and body and the right and left sides of the brain."
At the far end of the room, trainee Lis Kohalmy is working on the computers with a 7-year-old who despises multiplication tables and has got her feelings out of the way first with a beautifully executed, staff-endorsed temper tantrum.
In the evening, Faith will work with 40-year-old Harold, one of several Washington-area high-school graduates who have come to the center to learn how to read. Harold, who supports himself as an air-conditioning technician and was reading below first-grade level when Faith Clark met him, initially attended classes with retarded children. "Clearly," she says, "he was misplaced."
Because Harold is super-intuitive and has a high-auditory learning style, the clinic's first step was to get him books on tape from the Library of Congress' Library of the Blind. (The tapes are available not only to the blind, but to anyone with a certified reading disability.)
While he drove to jobs, Harold listened to hours of what Faith calls "rah rah" lectures on the psychology of winning. "He needed that information because his self-concept was so low; there was no way to teach him anything."
Because many of the self-improvement tapes are sequential (10 steps to a better memory, five ways to improve relationships with your boss), they also gave Harold a timed structure he didn't have before. "Reading is a sequential activity. He needed to learn about sequences," says Cecil Clark.
Faith Clark also taught him to improve his memory -- including how to remember words visually -- and helped him overcome his confusion when he recalled past problems with reading. As a result of these efforts, Harold now reads on a high-school level.
The walls of the clinic are lined with a variety of materials: books, workbooks, films, videotapes and audiotapes and a basket of tennis balls for juggling during breaks. ("We like to increase the neurological connections, " says Faith Clark.) On a shelf near the center's much-used computers is a large, carefully selected row of computer programs.
"As we take you through these materials, using a variety of techniques and processes, you can have a set of crystallizing -- 'aha!' -- experiences that give you insight into your own learning," says Faith Clark. "And then you begin a process that is lifelong.
"What we are teaching is a psychotherapy of learning. We encourage clients to become aware of themselves as learning machines. We don't try to teach; we try to catch them learning and point out and frame the learning experiences as they happen. And we also make them happen -- provide them, extend them."
Watching a 5-year-old boy jumping on the rebounder during a learning break, Cecil Clark draws a parallel between that small rectangle and a bed of hot coals:
"People in other parts of the world walk barefoot on coals hot enough to melt an aluminum can, on a daily basis. They can do so because they have the right mental state, and they have someone's physical explanations why people can walk on hot coals without burning their feet -- moisture in the feet and so forth -- but you don't have to know this to be able to walk on the coals.
"You need the trust in your mentor, and then the next time you can do it alone. In some ways that is what we do.
"For some people the process of learning is like walking on coals. It's very scary. We've had children who are afraid to jump on that rebounder. You wonder if they are going to fall off, they're so stiff-legged. Sometimes they'll do it because they like you -- and it's a breakthrough for them. They do it because they like you, and then they like it.
"And then they go on to try the next thing, which is probably more useful to them than jumping on a rebounder. And then they are willing to try a new technique in learning."