A new educational system called “Tools of the Mind” teaches not facts and figures, but rather focuses on cognitive skills in structured play. In the largest and most compelling study yet, exposure to this curriculum in the classroom drastically improves performance on a variety of psychometric and neuropsychological tests.
Vygotskian theory posits that children need to “learn to learn” – by mastering a set of mental tools which bootstrap their mental abilities, the same way that physical tools can extend physical abilities. The consequent “mental exercise” may strengthen the mind just like physical exercise strengthens the body. Thus, maximally-effective education may be explicitly cognitively-focused – i.e., teaching children to use their minds – rather than focused on skills like word learning and multiplication.
The efficacy of a Vygotskian “Tools of the Mind” educational program, developed in 1993 by Drs. Elena Bodrova & Deborah Leong, has now been conclusively demonstrated in Science (by Adele Diamond et al.) Tools of the Mind is targeted at improving executive function (EF), a construct closely related to “fluid intelligence” and hotly debated in the cognitive neurosciences.
The authors randomly assigned 24 teachers and 147 preschoolers to “Tools of the Mind” or a control curriculum for 1 or 2 years (!), with both groups matched for age, ethnicity, parental education, school resources, teacher training, teacher support and taking place in the same urban, low-income (<$25,000 per year) school district. Diamond et al. report that teachers in the "Tools" condition spent 80% of their time training EFs with “regulatory speech,” dramatic play, and props for aiding memory and attention.
Children trained with “Tools of the Mind” showed an EF advantage on nearly every measure tested.
In fact, Diamond et al lost much of their sample when, after year 1, “Tools of the Mind” was so clearly superior to the control curriculum that one school stopped the experiment!
Outcomes were assessed with standard EF tasks involving selective attention and cognitive conflict (a Simon-like “Dots” task and a Flanker task). Critically, these tasks were not part of the Tools curriculum itself, so any cognitive advantages must reflect skill transfer – a perennial issue for trainers, where trainees might be merely “learning-to-the-test” rather than generalizing their learning to multiple contexts.
Interestingly, children in the “Tools” group performed better than control children (even controlling for age and gender) only on those aspects of these tasks which taxed executive function – in other words, the easy “congruent” Flanker and Simon trials showed no group differences. In contrast, the “Tools” group showed drastic improvement on the harder “incongruent” Flanker and Simon trials, and improvement in Simon was linearly related to the time spent in the “Tools” program.
Among children in the Tools group, performance on Simon predicted academic measures analyzed by NIEER, including vocabulary (PPVT), social skills (SRSS), language proficiency (IDEA), problem solving (WCJ applied problems section, developed in part by our friend Kevin McGrew), and other tests (though notably not IQ [peg test of WPPSI] or symbol use [WCJ letter-word scores]).
Diamond et al go on to predict that EF-trained children may show lower EF-related disorders later in life (including ADHD and conduct disorder), and that economic achievement gaps may be caused by a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop between initially poor EFs and social perceptions (e.g., as in the Pygmalion effect).
The authors conclude that, in accord with Vygotskian theory, dramatic play is essential (an interesting conclusion, since they didn’t show that aspect of the curriculum to be any more important than the others). We’ll see if follow-up studies show maintenance of these advantages – there is unfortunately a precedent for lower-income groups to “regress towards their mean” after the conclusion of cognitive interventions, probably due to social stigmas and things like the aforementioned Pygmalion effect.
Is Play “Rational?” Toys and Ambiguous Causal Structure
Symbol Use and Play in Humans, Chimps, and Bonobos
Quick coverage at Education Blog
“Tools of the Mind” website.
Learn more about this program here.
Examples of the Activities in Tools of the Mind
Props for Enhancing Memory and Attention
Diamond et al exemplify this class of activities with a structured role-playing game for dyads centered around reading: one child is the reader (and holds a picture of lips as a reminder) while the other is the listener (and holds an ear). Children transition from both wanting to read and neither wanting to listen, to not needing the physical props, to active listening (where the listener asks questions of the reader about the material), and (theoretically) to a final state where active listening becomes an internalized aspect of the reading process.
Speech as regulator
Diamond et al demonstrate this class of activities by way of an example of public speech, although privately directed speech is also emphasized. For example, dyads collaborate in counting objects where only one child counts aloud, and the other serves as a “checker” – theoretically requiring the checker to inhibit the desire to count and to think metacognitively about whether the required answers are correct.
Diamond et al. suggest that dramatic play is a critical force in the Vygotskian theory of cognitive development. They describe a form of structured dramatic play where role-playing scenarios are planned and agreed upon in advance. This requires the inhibition of role-inappropriate behaviors, as well as working memory for attending to the current role (despite potential interference from other props/toys or roles).