Deborah Leong, PhD: Helping Children Use Tools of the Mind - Early Learning Nation

Deborah Leong, PhD: Helping Children Use Tools of the Mind

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

What are the skills – the tools – children should learn to make it easier to learn to their personal ability, remember on purpose and pay attention? Deborah Leong, Co-founder & President of Tools of the Mind, explains the “Vygotskian tradition” and how young learners can extend their mental capacities the same way physical tools extend one’s physical capacities.


Chris Riback:                 Deb, welcome to the studio.

Deborah Leong:            Thank you.

Chris Riback:                 What is and are tools of the mind and how do mental tools extend our mental abilities?

Deborah Leong:            We’re a comprehensive early childhood program for preschool and kindergarten, and our goal is to empower teachers with the skills that they need, the tools they need to help children develop tools of the mind. It’s the ability to learn on purpose, to be self-regulated, to have good social skills, so all the developmental things. But I think what distinguishes us is the use of the Vygotskian approach and its ideas about scaffolding and the zone of proximal development, which is sort of aiming at each individual child’s level of challenge, as well as helping them become independent.

Chris Riback:                 And is it a flexible approach that can be accommodated for different children, different abilities, different stages?

Deborah Leong:            Yes, exactly. So that’s exactly the crux of it all and that is all the activities are multilevel. But what each child gets within that activity, so you can have children of different ages working on the same thing, but each child is challenged and supported by the teacher at their own level. So the teacher’s kind of dynamically scaffolding as the children go along. If you ever use the word scaffold-

Chris Riback:                 Yes.

Deborah Leong:            … that comes from the Vygotskian tradition. Your question about the tools of the mind, so Vygotsky believes that-

Chris Riback:                 And Vygotsky was the Russian born, maybe not founder, but one of the main drivers of early education in the world.

Deborah Leong:            Right. So he was a developmental psychologist and educational psychologist, and he was born a month apart from Jean Piaget. So it’s interesting that-

Chris Riback:                 Quite a year.

Deborah Leong:            … and I think Montessori is born at around… I don’t remember the exact year, but that two giants of developmental psychology born at the same time. The idea of a tool is, like you were saying, it extends your mental capacities the same way physical tools extend our physical capacities. A hammer allows you to hammer in a nail and you couldn’t do that with your hands.

Chris Riback:                 Sure.

Deborah Leong:            So the same in the same way, mental tools extend our ability, they make it easier to learn your ability to remember on purpose, pay attention, all of those involve the use of mental tools.

Chris Riback:                 Through the teaching, through the scaffolding, are those tools something that become second nature to the child? The child isn’t thinking about, “Where’s my hammer, I got to pull up my hammer because I see a nail.” It just becomes part of who that child is?

Deborah Leong:            Right, in the way they think. So it’s totally internalized. The idea is that mental tools, like language is a mental tool that helps you remember. Writing is a tool that helps you remember.

Chris Riback:                 Second concept, related I know and you will relate them, what is the pedagogy of poverty?

Deborah Leong:            So pedagogy of poverty is an idea that was brought up by a researcher named Martin Haberman in the 1990s. What he pointed out is that the way we teach children who are at-risk or in poverty is different than the way we teach middle-class children. It’s a very deficit oriented model.

Chris Riback:                 Yes.

Deborah Leong:            So we’re looking at what children are missing, emphasizes a lot the content of what they don’t know, a lot of very early ability grouping, and then the use of drill as the main method of teaching these small facts. In fact, we know that that is really not the answer. Current neuroscience actually emphasizes the development of something called, executive functions. These are skills associated with the prefrontal cortex like your forehead. It’s your ability to inhibit one reaction. So it’s inhibitory control, working memory, your ability to remember things, keep two things in your mind at the same time, and then cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to move back and forth between skills and to pay attention harder at different times. So we know now that actually, executive functions are more highly correlated with achievement than IQ, social class, the child’s entry level literacy skills. I think that’s one of the things that our approach really emphasizes. We’re a child curriculum in the sense that we have activities, but our main goal is through those activities to teach teachers how to teach.

Chris Riback:                 The point that you were just making, I took the liberty of reading some of your writing and the tough aspect of what you’re characterizing really came across, there was a line, “Many schools serving children in poverty approach teaching and learning differently than schools serving more privileged children.”

Deborah Leong:            Right.

Chris Riback:                 Doesn’t that just go to the heart of one of the major challenges we face?

Deborah Leong:            I think it goes to the heart of the issue of equity. What happens is, when you put children in different ability groups, even though we’re doing it because we’re trying to individualize, what you end up doing is you bake in inequality because the children in the lower reading group don’t read books that are as interesting or have the same vocabulary. So what we’ve tried to do is to develop ways of supporting children so that children all learn the same thing, but they actually have individualized supports. We’ve actually developed a new app to support reading instruction in the classroom called, Power Tools-

Chris Riback:                 Those might be the “Power Tool solutions?”

Deborah Leong:            Yes. What that does is children read in pairs and they can read in heterogeneous pairs, like a higher level reader and a lower level reader. So it makes reading much more social and gives children a chance to practice together before they’re actually asked questions by the teacher.

Chris Riback:                 Am I wrong? There’s also a way for the parents to be involved and for the parents to either be aware of what’s the reading, which has to add another layer of support?

Deborah Leong:            Yes, so it’s really important that children learn world knowledge and the vocabulary so that they can really participate in the outer world. We’ve created parent materials to help parents help their children do that. This whole idea of creating equity in the classroom where children help each other and they know the same thing so they feel, even though they’re a lower reader, their ideas are just as important and worthy as the ideas of a child who’s a higher reader.

Chris Riback:                 And making the opportunity available for all children and really working to close that opportunity gap.

Deborah Leong:            Right.

Chris Riback:                 Deb, thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio, and thank you for the work that you do.

Deborah Leong:            Thank you.

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