Early Childhood

Study Suggests Ways to Sharpen ‘Tools of the Mind’

By Holly Kurtz — April 16, 2014 4 min read
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Randomized controlled trials have produced disappointing findings about the long-term outcomes of a popular early-education curriculum called Tools of the Mind. But while these studies are obviously important, one problem with them is that they focus on results without necessarily telling us how or why different components of the program might succeed or fail, especially when it comes to specific populations like English-learners.

A small-scale study presented earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia helped address this problem by peering inside the black box of Tools of the Mind. The study, led by associate professor Lynn E. Cohen of Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus, found that outcomes improved for English-learners when teachers modified the Tools of the Mind approach by reading fairy tales in both English and in Spanish, then asking children to play with toys like puppets that were related to the stories. An article about the study also appears in the current issue International Journal of Play, a peer-refereed publication.

The study took place over a two-month period in a universal preschool program at La Francis Hardiman School, which is located in the 2,000-student Wyandanch Union Free School District in New York. (Long Island University has a school partnership with the district.) All the preschool classrooms in the school use Tools of the Mind, so this study was not comparing Tools of the Mind to a different program. Instead, researchers were trying to figure out how to make the program more effective, especially for children learning English.

Tools of the Mind is not a new approach. Metropolitan State University of Denver researchers designed this curriculum in the 1990s based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The curriculum aims to help children develop non-cognitive skills such as self control by asking them to follow plans in which they role-play with their classmates. For example, they might plan to operate a pretend doctor’s office or grocery store.

Another aspect of Tools of the Mind is the “Story Lab.” With Story Lab, the teacher introduces a new book related to the monthly play theme, which might be something like the moon, restaurants, mummies, or dinosaurs. The goal is to practice oral language and comprehension while also improving vocabulary and memory. The teacher uses activity cards that help children learn things like how to empathize with a character or connect the new story to a tale they have already heard.

Teacher Marina Andreou reads a story to her preschool class at La Francis Hardiman School in Wyandanch, New York. Photo by Cindy Gomez.

The study unfolded during Story Lab time in three different classrooms. In classroom 1, the teacher read fairy tales in English twice a week to 24 children. Examples included The Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears and The Gingerbread Man. In classroom 2, the teacher read the same fairy tales twice a week to 27 children, but she read them in both English and in Spanish. And in classroom 3, the teacher read the fairy tales in English and Spanish twice weekly and also had the 28 children play with props like a dollhouse and a wolf figurine that were related to the stories. While children in all three classrooms played after the teacher read the story, only classroom 3 had props related to the stories’ plots. The purpose of these props was “to familiarize the children with vocabulary and support story comprehension.”

Examples of fairy tale-related prop toys that children participating in the study played with after listening to stories read in English and in Spanish. Photo by Lynn E. Cohen.

Most of the study’s participants (65 percent) spoke both Spanish and English. Their English did not improve in the classroom in which fairy tales were only read in English. By contrast, proficiency rates improved in both bilingual fairy tale classrooms. But skills improved the most in the classroom in which teachers read the fairy tales in both languages and also used the story props for playtime. The students in the bilingual/story prop classroom also made the biggest gains on a measure of their ability to re-tell stories.

Like any single study, this one should not be interpreted as a final verdict. The number of children involved was small (79). And, although the researchers did account for the fact that different children started with different rates of English proficiency and story re-telling skills, the study participants were not randomly assigned to classrooms. So it is certainly possible that the classrooms were different in important but unmeasured ways. Finally, the researchers did not study what would have happened if children had also played with story-related props in the classroom in which the teacher read the fairy tales in English, but not in Spanish.

However, the study does suggest some simple and concrete methods teachers might try in order to do a better job of reaching children in general and English-learners in particular with a curriculum whose popularity has persisted in the face of less-than-stellar outcomes found by much bigger studies.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.