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On June, 22, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading hosted “Tools of the Mind: Key Steps in Creating a Culture of Learning.” The Bezos Family Foundation’s Chief Science Officer Ellen Galinsky began the webinar by citing Woody Paik’s data visualization of learning loss during the pandemic. Paik, executive vice president of Curriculum Associates, forecasts the challenges of an aggregate fall 2021 classroom of 25 pupils with four on grade level, 11 slightly behind and 10 greatly behind.
Galinsky sits on the board of Tools of the Mind, a nonprofit organization dedicated to evidence-based teaching methods. She introduced Deborah Leong, Ph.D. (Co-Founder and President) and Barbara Wilder-Smith (Executive Director and Co-Developer) as well as two public school teachers who have implemented the program—Michelle Beekman of Neptune Township, New Jersey, and Priscilla Hopkins of Denver.
Here are our takeaways from the webinar outlining the philosophy and methods of Tools of the Mind.
1. Get to know the prefrontal cortex. Tools of the Mind addresses the whole child, blending academics with executive functioning. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, Dr. Leong explained, houses executive functions that affect cognition and our social and emotion behavior. “Self-regulation is the result of executive function,” she said, adding that the region undergoes growth spurts in early childhood and adolescence. We use it when we’re doing something intentional or doing something new. “And isn’t that the definition of going to school?” she asked.
2. Tools of the Mind works in kindergarten, but the lessons apply to the earlier years. Leong cited a 2019 study by Adele Diamond et al. showing that the program improves executive functions in the classroom. The authors write, “Children in a kindergarten curriculum that emphasized play, improving self-regulation, working together and helping one another, and hands-on learning, performed better academically, showed less bullying and peer ostracism and more kindness and helping behavior than students in more traditional classes, and teacher enthusiasm for teaching soared.” (Read the study.)
3. Peer scaffolding works. And teachers love it. Grouping students by ability is standard in most classrooms, but some say this traditional paradigm reinforces hierarchies and even institutional racism. Instead, Tools of the Mind trains teachers to pair students so that they learn from each other. Over time, every student learns from every other student. “There are only two adults in the room,” said Beekman, the New Jersey teacher. “The paraprofessional and I can’t be everywhere, so having ‘study buddies’ keeps everyone going.” Hopkins, the Executive Director of Early Childhood Education in Denver Public Schools, said she’s learned to let her kids struggle with concepts. “When they need help, they’ll ask for it.”
Tools of the Mind: Five Core Concepts
1. How we teach is as important as what we teach
2. Metacognition matters
3. The power of peer scaffolding
4. How we group children matters
5. How educators partner with parents matters
4. Metacognition matters. One of Tools of the Mind’s five core concepts (see sidebar) is that learning involves awareness of one’s own thought processes. “Teaching children about learning establishes habits,” stated Wilder-Smith. She emphasized the importance of practicing a skill “until you know you know it.” This invisible work repurposes areas of the brain. It’s about the process (the figuring out), not the product (the right answer). In this world, students don’t use erasers. They cross their mistakes out and notice what they’ve learned.
5. Everyone should know about Lev Vygotsky. When Dr. Leong founded Tools of the Mind with Dr. Elena Bodrova in 1993, they were inspired by Vygotsky (1896-1934) and sought to adapt his instructional strategies to U.S. classrooms. The Russian psychologist viewed children as active participants in their education, writing, “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” Read more about Vygotsky.
The Tools of the Mind model brings about shifts that Galinsky said might entail rethinking assumptions about what a classroom looks like—for example, desks in rows. Wilder-Smith stressed that a central premise, the culture of helping each other, endures beyond the school day and school year.
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.