‘Tools of the Mind’ and Other Popular Topics in Education Research in 2013

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 30, 2013 4 min read
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The jury is still out on the early-education curriculum Tools of the Mind, but the program, which aims to improve young students’ self control, has obviously caught the imagination of educators, and 2014 may bring a final ruling on its effectiveness.

A 2012 blog item I wrote on some lackluster early results in the first cluster of federally funded evaluations of the curriculum has remained in the top 10 most-read entries for Inside School Research every year since. The approach—designed in the late 1990s by Metropolitan State University of Denver researchers based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky—calls for students to develop and follow written “play plans” and use them to role-play scenarios with other children, such as operating a make-believe doctor’s office or grocery store.

Two years ago, evaluations by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute, the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University, and the University of Buffalo all suggested the curriculum was fine, but no better than more traditional teacher-directed preschool approaches at boosting students’ cognitive skills or self-control. None of the studies budged the What Works Clearinghouse’s 2008 review finding that the program had “no discernible effects on oral language, print knowledge, cognition, and math.”

Researchers at a 2012 panel on Tools hoped that follow-ups of the children in later grades would show more benefits, but additional studies so far haven’t shown much improvement. This spring, the Vanderbilt researchers complete their final assessments of a second group of students using the curriculum who had more intensive coaching on the process—but they still performed the same or even slightly worse than students in a comparison group. Moreover, a separate analysis found few of the behaviors which Tools developers hoped would become more commonplace in participating classrooms—that preschool students would be more likely to talk and listen to each other, or that teachers would talk less, for example.

A separate dissertation study by education researcher Patricia Mackay of the University of Massachusetts Amherst also found the curriculum led to no improvements and some decreases in Massachusetts students’ performance on state math or reading tests. Of particular note, teachers in the study reported they had difficulty providing the complex materials for each lesson, and noted that the time taken for the Tools activities meant there was less or no time for more direct reading interventions for students who seemed to be struggling with early literacy skills.

Carol Scheffner Hammer, chair of the communications sciences and disorders at Temple University, in Philadelphia, is wrapping up a longitudinal randomized control trial of the effects of Tools on bilingual students, but there are no results yet.

These mediocre results didn’t stop the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, from including Tools in its 2013 “Guide to Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs.” based on a separate study finding fewer conduct problems among urban Hispanic students who participated in the curriculum. While both the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Child Health and Human Development have invested in evaluating the curriculum, it remains to be seen how much weight the resulting research will be given by administrators looking for early-childhood programs.

Math and Social-Emotional Research Still Trending

While my coverage of Tools of the Mind was the only entry to show up among the most-read for more than one year, it was far from the only popular study to focus on students’ social and emotional development. The most widely read blog of 2013 highlighted a rare positive research review from the federal What Works Clearinghouse which suggested social skills training in early childhood can boost the social and emotional development of special needs children. Yet a separate popular study found that what works to improve students’ behavior only sometimes engages them emotionally and cognitively.

Readers also continue to be fascinated by the sharpening picture of how mathematic disabilities develop. One longitudinal mathematics study found a child’s ability to understand and manipulate sets of numbers in 1st grade predicts how well he or she will succeed in the math required both in secondary school and for day-to-day living. Other new research found high school students who struggle on college-readiness tests solve the simplest arithmetic problems as quickly as higher-achieving students, but they use very different brain processes to do so. Also, in a warning for educators starting to use more charts in response to common-core-curriculum requirements, another study found increasing charts’ artistic appeal can interfere with students’ ability to comprehend the information they represent.

The following constitute the complete list of Inside School Research’s 10 most-read entries of 2013:

1. Social Skills Lessons Boost Special Needs Students’ Emotional Development, Review Finds

2. Report Focuses on Closing Achievement Gap

3. Number Sense, Not Counting Skills, Predicts Math Ability, Says Study

4. ‘Active’ Student Engagement Goes Beyond Class Behavior, Study Finds

5. Study: Prettier Charts Can Be Harder for Students to Read

6. Little Numbers Add Up to Big Differences in High School Math Tests

7. Tools of the Mind Shows Lackluster Results in Experimental Trials

8. Can We See Reading Comprehension in the Brain?

9. Study: 3rd Grade Reading Predicts Later High School Graduation

10. ‘A-Plus’ Countries Falter on International Math Study

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