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Tools of the Mind Shows Lackluster Results in Experimental Trials

Tools of the Mind, an early- childhood education curriculum, has drawn a lot of attention in recent years for its potential to increase young students' ability to self-regulate. Yet new research suggests the play-based program may be no better than traditional early education at improving self-control or later school readiness.

Thursday's Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness panel on Tools of the Mind drew a packed audience—including Institute of Education Sciences Director John Easton and James Griffin, director of the early learning and school readiness program of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Tools is certainly an intriguing concept: Children role play in different scenarios based on their own written "play plans," to increase their patience, focus and self-control.

Ultimately, the experimental studies found few to no benefits for the program.

Vanderbilt University's Peabody Research Institute found, in a study of 30 rural preschool classes in Tennessee and North Carolina, that there were "clear, observable differences" between Tools of the Mind classrooms and others; for example, the teachers in the control group were less likely to know what literacy curriculum they were using, and the teachers in Tools classes rated their students higher in interpersonal skills. Yet researchers found no significant differences in the students' literacy, language or math skills, based on tests at the beginning and the end of a year of preschool, and moreover, no significant differences in self-regulation, self-control or working memory. The study will follow students into kindergarten this year to look for any later effects.

Study co-author Sandra Jo Wilson said the group did not start out thinking Tools would simply meet par with other preschool programs. "We were really surprised with what we found," she said.

Christopher J. Lonigan, associate director of the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University, pitted Tools and standard preschool programs against the Literacy Express Comprehensive Preschool program, a more teacher-directed, skills-based curriculum developed at the center. In a randomized, controlled trial of 118 preschools in New Mexico and Massachusetts, Lonigan found mixed results. Literacy Express outperformed Tools in expressive vocabulary and phoneme awareness, but Tools had improved results in its second year of implementation, and none of the programs provided children an edge in self-regulation.

It could be that Tools does exactly what it was intended to do—encourage students toward deeper, more mature play—but that the play doesn't automatically transfer to academic achievement and self-control as educators have hoped. 

In a University of Buffalo study of three urban school districts in California, researcher Douglas Clements found that students in the Tools classes did score significantly higher than other students in using so-called "mature play," e.g. using props and role play, as well as being able to talk about their play. Yet, Clements noted, "There was no evidence that the increase in mature play led to any increases in self-regulation."

I was a bit disappointed at the lackluster results for Tools (a fourth study, on the use of Tools with English-language learners, is still at a preliminary stage but so far also seems to show middling benefits.) Yet I found the discussion refreshing. The authors themselves noted that they will be unlikely to have the chance to publish their studies beyond the conference because there were such limited positive results, but this sort of housecleaning is needed in education research. While studying what works and where, it's also important to show people what doesn't work in a given situation, and start figuring out why.

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