Tools of the Mind

by NDFAuthors

  • Aug 16, 2013

Following on from last week’s examination of Montessori education, this week I am going to consider the Vygotsian Tools of the Mind approach.   Less well known than Montessori, it is becoming increasingly popular especially in America, and it seems to tap into a real need amongst young people today to learn focus and concentration. In this fast paced and changing world, never before have children had access to so much stimulation. Never before have they had so much instant access to whatever they desire, and whilst children today are presented with opportunities galore, what if they can’t take advantage of them because they don’t have the ability to focus amongst so many distractions? Tools of the mind varietyIn the 1960’s Walter Mischel conducted an experiment commonly known today as ‘The Marshmallow Test’ in which he invited 653 pre-schoolers into a small room, one at a time, and offered them a treat (marshmallows featured in the choice). The children were then told that if they waited until the attending adult returned, they could have a second, otherwise they could eat the treat straight away but only get the one. At the time, about 30% of the children were able to delay gratification and wait for their second treat. Out of the other 70%, many tried their very hardest to stop themselves eating the treat in a variety of ways, but ultimately caved before the requisite 15 minutes was up. Nearly twenty years later, follow up questionnaires were sent to the children in the study requesting huge amounts of information from SAT scores to how the now adults rated themselves on their ability to deal with problems and get along with others. The results were illuminating.marshmallows That 30% who had been able to wait for 15 minutes had higher SAT scores and lower instances of behavioural problems at home and at school. They were better in stressful situations and had better results in maintaining friendships. This result was especially marked between those who had waited the full 15 minutes and those who were unable to wait even 30 seconds. Surely this ability to delay gratification is one to foster in our children? This is the core thinking behind the Tools of the Mind approach. If focuses on developing the skill of ‘self-regulation’. Motivation comes from within and it is the ability to control impulses, either to stop doing something one shouldn’t be, or to start doing something perhaps that one doesn’t want to do. This sounds like the perfect discipline required for any child who will be driven from within to succeed, especially if their chosen life path requires great dedication. There is a key difference between self-regulation and obedience because a child who is truly self-regulated will behave the same whether or not a teacher is watching. The teacher’s role is to aid a child to progress from assisted to independent learning through prompts, cues, modelling and play.

Surely there can’t be any disadvantages?

Trials and studies testing the efficacy of the Tools of the Mind approach have not found hugely consistent or encouraging results to show that children have better scores in language and maths skills after a year, or even better self-control. I think that it is still early days as far as calculating the benefits are concerned and more research may provide more information in the coming years. It may also be that the testing periods need to be extended to see the results in children, over the course of several years or even their whole childhoods, rather than looking at results at the end of a year. But what can you do if you want to boost your child’s self-regulation? Here are some tips to encourage children to delay gratification, become more patient and focused:

  • Make predictions which require considering the future.
  • Solve a variety of types of problems in a variety of ways.
  • Pursue inquiries and consider what information or skills they need.
  • Consider how to acquire any skills or knowledge that they lack to reach their goals.
  • Reflect on what they have done and reset goals to reflect this.
  • Practise prioritising.
  • Practise using critical judgment of the information children are presented with.

Whilst the jury may be out for the time being on the Tools of the Mind approach from a pre-school perspective, it is worth considering the role of self-regulation in children’s lives today. It is ok to say “no” or “later” to children, done in the right way, in order to teach them the power of patience and working towards a reward. Impatient child waiting for reward For filmed footage of children trying to resist the allure of the marshmallow, check out this You Tube clip