2012. Vol.3, No.2, 185-192
Published Online April 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2012.32029
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 185
Teacher Observations on the Implementation of the Tools of the
Mind Curriculum in the Classroom: Analysis of Interviews
Conducted over a One-Year Period
Susan Im hol z 1, Anthony Petrosino2
1Independent Author, West New York, NJ, USA
2College of Education, University of Texas, Austin, USA
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received February 23rd, 2012; revised March 20th, 2012; accepted April 3rd, 2012
The following pilot study reports on teacher observations and reflections of implementing the Tools of the
Mind curriculum in pre-k and kindergarten classrooms in an east coast urban school district in the US.
The study followed five teachers over the course of a school year. Structured interviews were conducted
with each teacher individually shortly after Tools of the Mind teacher training sessions took place. The
analysis reports on themes that emerged in these conversations. Findings address; challenges the teachers
faced in implementing the program, training issues, and the effectiveness of the program in supporting
children’s intellectual and social skills.
Keywords: Curriculum; Preschool Education; Early Childhood Education; Learning; Social Development;
The Tools of the Mind (hereafter Tools) curriculum is rela-
tively new to the US. Its developers, Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr.
Deborah Leong, are based at Metropolitan State College of
Denver, Colorado and have been working together on the Tools
curriculum since 1993 according to their website (www.tool-
softhemind.org). Over the past decade Dr. Bodrova and Dr.
Leong have been successful in enlisting a number of school
districts to adopt the program, as well as provide professional
development training to teachers in those schools (Bodrova &
Leong, 2007). The Tools’ website currently notes that the cur-
riculum is being implemented in Colorado, Florida, Maine,
Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina,
Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington1.
With a little over a decade of use in public schools here in the
US, there are still only a small number of studies that attest to
its effectiveness and outcomes (Diamond & Lee, 2011; Bo-
drova & Leong, 2003, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Barnett, Jung,
Yaroz, Thomas, & Hornbeck, 2008), and none have specifically
addressed the concerns and experience of the teachers who are
in the early phases of implementing the program.
The history of educational curriculum and pedagogy in
American public education is nearing its bicentennial year since
the establishment of public schools outpaced private schools in
the late colonial era, circa 1840, and the publication of the
McGuffey Readers—the first grade-level reading text books
widely used in 19th century America. The evolution of the field
is marked by many mil estones. Creation of a robust educational
publishing industry and the creation of the educational software
industry utilizing multiple pedagogical approaches are two
examples of significant innovations. The portfolio of curricu-
lum content for consumption by K-12 schools continues to
grow. However, only a subset of these educational materials
represent design innovations which embody and reflect our
growing understanding of cognitive and emotional development,
or advances in our understanding of models of mind.
To illustrate this concretely, let’s use the metaphor of the
evolving automobile. If we compare and contrast a 1959 Ford
with today’s smart cars we can agree that both are forms of
transportation which convey passengers from point A to point
B. By design, smart cars are functionally more complex, more
fuel efficient, are engineered to provide navigational direction
and are sensitized to obstacles in their path, as well as being
designed to protect occupants from a crash with special features.
In short, the smarter car embodies collective advances in engi-
neering technologies across disciplines and these are advances
that passengers can see, touch, and feel. Most of us are wit-
nessing and participating in this cultural evolution because
automobiles are ubiquitous. By contrast advances in K-12 edu-
cational curriculum are not as easily understood or appreciated
because the experience of going to school is uniquely that of
the student—parents are onlookers who get to participate in the
choice of curriculum materials only if they are willing to be-
come active members of a parent/teacher association, or School
Board committee. Family members are also observers of cur-
ricular change to the extent that they are actively involved in
monitoring children’s homework (Scott-Jones, 1995; González,
Andrade, Civil, & Moll, 2001; Van Voorhis, 2003).
A brief recap of how changes in our models of mind are re-
flected in major milestones in curriculum materials over the
past century helps to put the Tools of the Mind curriculum into
perspective2. Starting with the late 18th century and early 19th
century view of the child, schooling emphasized the study of
religious texts, but home instruction also included reading,
2See: Michael Fullan (2001). The new meaning of educational change. New
York, NY: Teachers College Press.
1www.toolsofthemind.org accessed 06/06/11.
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
writing, the Greek philosophers and mathematics. The corre-
sponding model of mind that directed this choice of materials
assumed the child needed moral guidance to mature as a pro-
ductive member of society (Wishy, 1972). The accepted think-
ing about children’s character was that they were born morally
corrupted, and needed to be civilized through moral education
first and foremost. The first inter-state association of teachers to
rigorously advocate for early childhood education was The
American Institute of Instruction, formed in Boston in 18303.
The Institute published one of the first periodic journals on
teaching—the American Journal of Education. Many articles
were dedicated to the importance of establishing early child-
hood education for all communities, regardless of class and
wealth. Early Journal issues give first-hand accounts of how
teachers struggled with making the transition from a model of
crooked minds to that of the tabula rasa—the impressionable
mind, then the developmental mind—the mind that grows to
maturity in phases4.
The birth of the child study movement in the mid to late 19th
century is often attributed to G. Stanley Hall. In terms of its
impact on curriculum however, John Dewey most notably ex-
emplified its ideas in practice. Dewey promoted experiential
education that would enable children to learn theory and prac-
tice simultaneously. A modern day example of this is the prac-
tice of teaching elementary physics and biology to students
while preparing a meal (Barron et al., 1998). At Dewey’s lab
school at Teachers College at Columbia University in the early
1900’s, children built objects in wood working shops, they
cooked meals, stitched and wove cloth, and generally practiced
skills that adults engaged in as a form of parallel play which
conveyed to children that they were engaging in socially mean-
ingful activities that were more exploratory than exploitive
work chores. Dewey also acknowledged Friedrich Froebel’s
significant contribution to the design of infant and nursery
school toys (aka Froebel gifts)5 and suggested the US model
primary curriculum after Froebel’s kindergarten6. While moral
and ethical teachings were still considered important, defining
age appropriate content and subject matter became the focus of
educators. Moreover, the internal world of psychological de-
velopment was beginning to exert itself as the determining
factor in the design and production of books for public and
As cognitive psychology took root as theory taught in
schools of education, teachers learned about stages and phases
of the child’s mental growth in their training. These ideas were
further refined by Jean Piaget in observations and research7.
The notion that conceptual changes in thinking were closely
allied with physical maturation was another milestone which
influenced curriculum development. Montessori, Waldorf schools
and the Reggio Emilia system all evolved in tandem during the
early to mid 20th century under the prevailing belief that chil-
dren are formed in large part by their early life experiences.
While the philosophy of teaching varied among the three peda-
gogues above, they all shared a special attention to detail in the
design of learning environments and created rich imaginative
play spaces for chi l d ren in the early pri ma ry grades.
During the second half of the 20th century experimental
psychology began to influence academic thinking with cogni-
tive information processing models of mind (Broadbent, 1958;
Newell & Simon, 1972). These theories focused on the atom-
istic analysis of how the brain acquires and processes new in-
formation, and shed light on how short term memory and long
term memory were two different but overlapping activities of
the brain; repetition and reflection being key to remembering
facts and figures long enough to do well on a test. The informa-
tion processing model of mind resulted in a renaissance of
workbooks for every school text book, along with a resurgence
of repetition and drill for K-12 education.
As theories of instruction began to evolve (Bloom & Krath-
wohl, 1956; Bruner, 1960, 1966, 1996; Kalantzis & Cope, 2008)
curriculum choices multiplied, each reflecting different models
of mind with the added dimension of using new media as a
delivery system for instruction. In 1995, Tyak & Cuban wrote
that the idea of steady progressive educational reform had met
its end in the 1970s8. Perhaps another way of saying this is that
the pluralistic choice of curriculum that sprang into existence
over the latter part of the 20th century has made it more diffi-
cult for school administrators to convince parents and their
communities that there is only one way forward in the name of
Historically, we can see schools have vacillated between
pedagogy that offers highly structured, or drill and practice
curriculum emphasizing the mastery of content, with seemingly
less structured constructivist child-centered learning environ-
ments that value community building and social skills as much
as the development of academic skills (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan,
& Chinn, 2007). This tension still lies at the crux of curriculum
choice for school administrators, especially for pre-k and kin-
dergarten classrooms. Setting aside the No Child Left Behind
Act9 as a factor influencing decision making, education leaders
need to analyze and interpret educational research about cur-
riculum design just as medical professionals, legal profession-
als and engineers re-evaluate their practice relative to new data.
One way of defining progress that informs curriculum choice
is to pay close attention to cross disciplinary research on the
evolving understanding of mind from multiple perspectives:
cultural, psychological, cognitive and neurobiological. The
Tools program is based primarily on Vygotsky’s (1986) ideas
about the use of play as a catalyst for psychological and cogni-
tive growth; however neuroscience research can also be cited
for supporting the approach the Tools has developed. Neuro-
plasticity tells us that individuals are engaged from infancy
onward in a unique experiment in scaffolding meaning making,
one sound, one interaction, one image at a time (Pascual-Leone
et al., 2005; Doidge, 2007; McEwen et al., 2011).
3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Institute_of_Instruction accessed 03/
4Infant Schools, American Journal of Education online, June; 3, 6 (1828);
ducation of Infant Children, American Journal of Education online July; 3
7 (1828); Pestalozzi’s Letter on the Education of Infants, American Journal
of Educatio n online, March; 1, 2 (1830); Education of Infants—
American Journal of Education online, March; 1, 2 (1830);
ddress to the
ational Teachers Association, American Journal of Education online, June
5See http://www.froebel.org.uk for the history of Froebel and his method.
6Dewey, J. (1990) The School and Society & The Child and the Curriculum
Chicago, IL; University of Chicago Press, centennial edition, p.116.
7See http://www.piaget.or g/abou tPiag et.h tml for a fu ll in d ex of h is wr itin gs .
The main distinction of the Tools program from other pre-k
curriculum is that it offers a more complicated model of mind
8Tyak, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward public school reform: A
century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
9No Child Left Behind Act, legislation adopted by the US Congress in 2001
See PL 107-110, www2.ed.gov/lsec/leg/esea02/index.html.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
in addition to addressing classroom organization, management,
and curriculum materials. This is an important aspect of the
program and its successful adoption by schools. It’s also worth
noting because it represents a qualitative change in the design
of classroom curriculum much the way smart cars outclass the
1959 Ford under the hood. It is for this reason that teacher ob-
servations in the implementation of the curriculum is well
worth studying. Our pilot study formally begins a dialogue
about how teachers experience and view the impact of the
Tools program in their classrooms and their professional de-
velopment, in addition to suggesting future directions for re-
The relationship between preschool curriculum and later
school success has been studied by Marcon (2002) with sig-
nificant findings. Over a period of five years, Marcon tracked
the academic progress of more than 300 children from an urban
school district that had been exposed to three different types of
preschool curriculum; child-initiated, academically oriented or
directed, and a combination of the two. The results showed that
preschool curriculum models did have an influence on chil-
dren’s later school achievement; students who had been in-
volved with child-initiated curriculum had higher grades, and
performed consistently better than the two other peer groups on
academic tasks as they aged into and out of the elementary
grades. What this tells us is that developing an internal locus of
control and sense of agency in carrying out academic tasks
matters, and it matters at a very young age. This appears to be
an internal psychological disposition according to many educa-
tors, and very few public schools have adopted pre-k curricu-
lum that address this goal in a serious way.
Enter, the Tools of the Mind curriculum. As me ntioned above,
Bodrova and Leong developed the Tools program in the 1990s
and have been the sole medium of its dissemination; they are
also evaluating the program (2001). Barnett et al. (2008) noted
that “while child-centered, Tools emphasizes the teacher’s role
in guiding and supporting the child’s learning… it does not fit
neatly into frameworks that classify curricula as teacher-di-
rected or child-initiated, child-centered or content-centered, and
academically-focused or socialization focused” (p. 300). The
program is highly structured for teachers, while at the same
time emphasizes active participation in play for young students.
In a recent journal article on educational media Verenikina
(2010) observed that Vygotsky claims the prize as the most
cited author in a review of current research. Although new to
media studies, many in the field of education have long appre-
ciated Vygotsky for the sociohistorical nature of cognitive
growth and language development that he proposed, in contrast
to Jean Piaget’s more stage-stepped model of internal cognitive
growth. Pea (2004) succinctly described the differences this
way: “as Vygotsky would have it, psychological development
progresses from an interpsychological to intrapsychological
plane” (p. 426), i.e., learning precedes new internal categories
to think with. Piaget surmised the opposite; that internalized
construction of new schema forged by the individual makes
new learning possible. The two theorists examine human de-
velopment from different perspectives, Piaget through concep-
tual change, and Vygotsky (1986) through semiotic analysis of
the socio-cultural environment the society provides. Wertsch
(1985) portrays the three themes at the core of Vygotsky’s
theoretical framework as an analytical technique: 1) a reliance
on a genetic or developmental method; 2) the assumption that
higher order mental processes in the individual have their ori-
gins in social processes and activities; 3) the exhortation that
mental processes are only understood through the lens of the
cultural tools and signs that mediate them. Vygotsky’s ideas
have been widely read in academia, and found enthusiastic
reception in the application and design of software environ-
ments for middle, secondary school, and adult populations (Pa-
pert, 1980; Collins & Duguid, 1989; Papert & Harel, 1991;
Lave & Wenger, 1991; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991; Schauble
& Glaser, 1996; Sherin et al., 2004; Brown, 2006).
Description of Tools of the Mind
The Tools curriculum is designed to promote executive func-
tions and self-regulation as learned behaviors that can be facili-
tated. Applying Vygotsky’s theory through the use of 20th
century media—books, flash cards, puppets, and scripted drama
activities—presents special challenges for teachers who are the
interpreters and facilitators of the child’s experience of the
program and its highest aims. First, as agents of change the
Tools materials themselves do not embody the process oriented
goals of their use. Secondly, fully embracing the Tools curricu-
lum may involve discarding previously held models of mind
and psychological development by teachers. Purposeful play is
at the center of classroom learning—this may appear to be a
step backward for both parents and teachers who have been led
to believe reading and writing readiness are paramount goals
for pre-k and Kindergarten. Daily activities promote self-regu-
latory behaviors in children not as a strategy, but as the primary
goal of education. How this is communicated to inquiring par-
ents may create some awkward moments. The concept of self-
regulation is easily mistaken for behavioral compliance by sea-
soned educators. In the past curriculum did not address self-
regulation directly, this issue was more often considered a
classroom management topic—in other words, it was the
teacher’s responsibility to regulate students. Teachers simply
waited for executive functions to emerge of their own accord
with the arrival of “the age of reason” (Lowenfeld & Brittain,
1975; Piaget, 1957, 1975).
The Tools curricula has shown that when self-monitoring is
practiced, much the way we exercise our other muscles to im-
prove our overall physical health, the child’s ability to take
direction, collaborate, and cooperate with peers is enhanced
(Bodrova & Leong, 2003, 2005a, 2005b, 2006; Barnet et al.,
2008). These are internal attributes that are crucial to the child's
later success in the primary grades, and sense of agency as
Marcon’s and Brown & Campione’s (1994, 1996) research
There is a prescribed method for organizing the Tools class-
room using several different activity centers along with pro-
prietary reading texts. The cost of adapting a well furnished
pre-k or kindergarten class to a Tools classroom is approxi-
mately $1000 - $1500. The greatest hurdle in the transition is
conveying the curriculum to teachers who are, in many in-
stances, taking on the tasks of becoming a Tools teacher by
decree from above and who bring with them a host of their own
ideas about how to teach early childhood education. There are
over 40 activities in the Tools curricula that address literacy and
writing skills, math, science, and drama play. A comprehensive
description cannot be provided here, but the following three
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 187
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
examples of Tools activities are discussed in the data and
analysis sections, so an explanation will be helpful10:
Buddy reading: A main feature of literacy skill building that
incorporates reflective and self-monitoring activities. Children
work in pairs; taking turns reading from a book and listening.
Symbolic mediators: Cue cards, graphic organizers, finger
puppets with special roles and messages, and games designed to
help young children transition from one activity to another, or
assist in enrolling them into play characters.
Play plans: The first writing activity of the day, a kind of
work contract the child creates, serves as plan that will guide
drama play activities that the child will engage in for the day.
The student and teacher conference once a week to review the
The current study adds to the literature on the Tools of the
Mind program by focusing on the teacher’s experience of
learning and teaching the curriculum. Just as multiple opportu-
nities for children to reflect on their work and play in the class-
room are built into the Tools activities as a means of stimulat-
ing critical thinking, inviting teachers to reflect upon their own
appropriation of the Tools curriculum as instructors might har-
bor insights and indicators of the success of the program in its
implementation. With this in mind, the researchers followed 5
teachers through the 2009-2010 school year to listen closely to
the struggles, issues, and triumphs that were arising in their
A structured interview with teachers was chosen as the data
collection method most appropriate to appraising the new cur-
riculum roll-out. Information was solicited from teachers th-
rough a directed line of questioning or Socratic dialogue, with
the goal of drawing out the teacher’s thoughts and feelings,
dispelling the notion that there are right and wrong answers.
Transcripts of interviews were analyzed for themes and issues.
The questions were also use d as a heuristic schema in the a nal y-
sis of the qualitative data. Additionally, the study structure gave
the teachers an opportunity to reflect on what they were seeing
and doing over and above what was required of them in the
training program. Three of Knowles (1980) andragogical ten-
ants are inherent in the design framework. They are: 1) adults
learn best when they are involved in the planning and evalua-
tion of their instruction; 2) experiences, good and bad, provide
the basis for learning activities; 3) adult learning is problem-
centered rather than content-oriented. There were approxi-
mately 20 - 25 teachers involved in implementing the Tools of
the Mind curriculum in pre-k and Kindergarten classrooms in
the school district; 5 of these teachers were chosen to partici-
pate in the study. Three interview questions were asked of the
teachers at each of the three interview sessions scheduled in the
fall, spring, and early summer. The interviews took place within
1 - 3 weeks after Tools of the Mind training sessions had been
conducted, so that this experience would be fresh at hand. The
interviews lasted approximately 45 - 50 minutes. The three
interview questions asked were:
1) What are the challenges of implementing the Tools of the
Mind program in your classroom, and what are your sugges-
tions for improving training?
2) What is the program contributing to your own professional
development as a teacher?
3) What behavioral and cognitive/academic changes are you
seeing in your students over the academic school year?
Adoption of Tools of th e Mind by School
The adoption of the Tools of the Mind program in the New
Jersey school district where the study took place was under-
taken by the administration and school board in 2008, and
launched during the 2008-2009 school year with the expecta-
tion of doing three things:
1) Standardizing the experience of pre-k and kindergarten for
all students across the district, and enhancing kindergarten in-
struc tion by going from a 1/2 day to full teaching day.
2) Acknowledging the development of social skills and self-
regulation as a primary (versus secondary) goal of the pre-k and
kindergarten experience, on par with the learning of academic
3) Increasing the school readiness and self-regulatory behav-
iors of young children so that they would be better prepared to
excel academica lly in the early prim ary grades.
The School Environment
Description of the city and school district: The study was
conducted in an eastern seaboard city of approximately 50,000
according to the 2010 census, located near the New York City
metropolitan area. The school district serves approximately
2000 students. The following profile presented is taken from
2010 census data: The racial makeup of the city is 83% White,
3.1% African American, 0.16% Native American, 4.9% Asian,
and 6.3% Hispanic. The median income for a household in the
city as of the 2010 census was $105,710 while the median in-
come for a family was $130,068. A growing population of the
city is affluent; however, 32.5% of housing in the city is
owner-occupied, while 67% is renter-occupied. Over the past
six years, four new K-6 private schools have opened to compete
with the local public school system.
Choice of Subjects
Convenience sampling was used for the selection of the 5
teachers in this study. Selection was assisted by the district
Superintendent’s office and Director of Child Development,
who were overseeing the implementation of the new curriculum
project. The subjects in this study were interviewed three times
over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. Of the five
teachers, three were pre-k instructors, and two were kindergar-
ten teachers. All were in their second year of teaching the Tools
The subject group, all women, represented a varied spectrum
of backgrounds and skill level. Of the five the teachers the
range of years in the profession was; 33, 13, 7, 7 and 4 years of
teaching in pre-k, kindergarten, and early primary grades. All
had been exposed to other curriculum programs (Creative Cur-
riculum, and arts based pre-k and kindergarten curriculum) at
some point in their careers. All five teachers had college de-
grees, and their first choice of a profession was teaching. They
were all certified to teach pre-k and early childhood education
according to New Jersey state standards.
10See the manual: Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2007). Tools of the Mind:
The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
Thematic Analysis of Interview Data
Structured interview transcripts were analyzed for themes
and issues. The themes that emerged were categorized in ac-
cordance with the three questions asked. Three main subcate-
gories of issues emerged in this analysis for each question (See
Question 1—What Are the Challenges of
Implementing the Tools of the Mind Program in
Your Classroom, and What Are Your Suggestions
for Improving Training?
The training sessions themselves were given high praise by
most of the teachers. There was a notable tendency for teachers
to complement the trainers and support staff about preparation
of materials needed for the training sessions, and the amount of
thought and effort that was being expended. The teachers uni-
formly agreed that active participation in the training sessions
(where activities were assigned for teams of teachers to work
on and then present findings/activities) was preferable to lecture
delivery of subject matter. Modeling how to conduct and struc-
ture new curriculum being introduced, and having the chance to
model activities themselves with feedback was also a preferred
method of conducting training activities.
The Tools of the Mind website, its teacher resources, and its
accessibility 24/7 also got high praise from two of the five
All five teachers struggled with balancing their need for
mastery of the new program content, with reflecting on the
program’s impact on their students—in the researchers’ opinion,
this was in part a linguistic problem. In other words, their Tools
training did not address their own internal experience of con-
ceptual change brought about by the adoption of the new cur-
ricula sufficiently for them to be able to articulate their dis-
comforts in terms of epistemological change. Another way of
viewing this issue is that the Tools program training may be
overly centered on the child’s experience, rather than the teach-
ers’ experience of learning the method. Framing the teachers’
disorientation and worries as a natural result of their own
Interview questions and dominant themes.
What are the challenges of implementing the Tools program?
What is the program contributing to your own professional development ?
Enhancing classroom management skills
Enhancing classroom instruction skill s
Program addresses multiple learning styles
What behavioral and cognitive changes are you seeing in your students?
Fewer classroom beha vioral problems
More collaborative behaviors
Higher level of verbalization and communicat i on among children
learning process as they move toward a more complex model of
mind would have helped them to consider their issues as
value-added contributions to the process, and would in turn
consign higher value to their own learning.
Finally, the lack of ongoing scheduled opportunities for
sharing ideas and to talk with other teachers within the school
system who were also involved in the project was an issue
raised by four of the five teachers in many contexts over the
course of the year, many times.
An ethical dilemma relative to integrating old teaching me-
thods with the new curriculum presented itself for one of the
five teachers in particular. The point of contention was resolv-
ing the readiness level needed or expected of children in first
grade, with the level of content knowledge about reading and
writing that the new Tools curriculum was providing for kin-
dergarteners. Struggling with this issue resulted in sleepless
nights. “This has real consequences for kids”, the teacher stated,
“some parents have approached me and said ‘I feel like my kid
isn’t getting what they need and isn’t going to be ready for first
By the end of the year the issue had resolved itself; this
teacher began recognizing that the more process oriented class-
room activities that the Tools program provides had in fact
resulted in an increase of functional skill levels across the board
in all of her students, and, even though the students did not all
share the same uniform level of content information (which her
old teaching method provided) she was satisfied that the chil-
dren as a group were ready for first grade.
The Tools of the Mind curriculum does require that teachers
learn a new way of documenting student progress. Keeping up
with the amount of new note taking required was a challenge
for all of the teachers, and some readily admitted that they were
falling behind. Two teachers questioned the purpose of constant
documentation of student activities, with the complaint that
taking notes was interfering with their ability to interact with
students. Fitting all of the daily activities suggested into the
school day posed scheduling problems for at least 2 of the 5
teachers. By year end, this issue was less pressing as the teach-
ers’ mastered new learning activities that had been introduced
during the year.
There was also resistance to becoming fully involved with
drama play by two of the five teachers. Reasons given were that
the play scenarios offered in training were too complicated for
the children to act out, and, drama play was the activity viewed
as most expendable in order to fit in another activity center.
From the researchers’ perspective, this appeared to be an issue
of not fully understanding the theoretical bridge between per-
sonal and formal knowledge that the Tools program strives to
build through drama play. These are training issues. In this
particular instance, one’s model of mind clearly determines
how you set priorities in the classroom, and how teachers inte-
grate new information with old.
Question 2—What Is the Program Contributing to
Your Own Pr of ess ional D evelopment as a Teacher?
Enhancing Classroom Management Skills
Four out of the five teachers agreed that the Tools program
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 189
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
was enhancing their professional development by giving them a
more structured approach to classroom management (their
terms). One of the interesting revelations expressed by one
teacher was a growing awareness of how much she had been
doing for her students, as opposed to allowing them to do
things for themselves without her hovering assistance. With this
new insight, she planned on backing off from being an aggres-
sive interventionist. In her own words, “I realized how much I
was doing for them—I think I was unaware of how independent
they could be”.
Enhancing Classroom Instruction Skills
Four of the five teachers also agreed that the Tools program
was providing them with new activities for their arsenal of
teaching techniques. One teacher felt as if she had already ac-
quired many of the Tools program activities in principle, for
example, use of mediator cards as behavioral prompts and
puppet plays as a way of transitioning from one activity to an-
other. On the other hand she did recognize that the Tools cur-
riculum was exerting its influence on the children’s social be-
havior in very positive ways.
A perceptive observation from the most senior teacher was
that the Tools curriculum had succeeded in blurring the bound-
ary between what the children considered play and work in her
classroom. In her own words, “I’m not hearing—‘Mrs. G—I’m
done with my work, can I go play?’—anymore”.
Program Addresses Multiple Learning Styles
It was noted by two of the five teachers in the interviews that
the Tools curriculum truly provides for multiple learning styles,
the visual learner, the auditory learner and the haptic11 learner
in a way that previous curriculum materials used did not. The
visual learner gets to draw and symbolize, the auditory learner
is engaged through buddy reading and role play, and the haptic
learner gets to act out his or her ideas in dramatic play.
Question 3—What Beh a vi o ral and C ogni ti ve Ch anges
Are You Seeing in Your Students?
All five teachers reported fewer classroom behavior prob-
lems during the third and last interview of the school year.
Reasons given included the following:
“The kids show more patience with one another… there
aren’t as many classroom squabbles”.
“They have respect for one another”.
“I do not have to raise my voice to get [the classes] atten-
“Kids are using language more to resolve conflicts… where
they use to resort to hitting or shoving each other”.
“They follow rules better”.
“There is calmness to the classroom now”.
It is interesting to note that many of the improvements cited
by the teachers are functional proficiencies describing the
young students taking on greater responsibility for their learn-
ing, as well as showing a heightened level of engagement in
classroom activities. These behaviors definitely fall under the
category of self-regulation and greater self-reflection.
Cognitive and Academic Change
Teachers’ observations suggested that the teachers did see
cognitive changes in students’ abilities, but not all of the teach-
ers were able to articulate the relation between the Tools cur-
riculum activities and the emergence of new skills and abilities
on the part of the students:
“[The children] can be self-monitoring in terms of moving
from activity to activity center over the course of the day”.
“Best group of students ever in [my] seven years of teach-
ing… by far my most independent and brightest group, but I
don’t know if it has anything to do with the Tools program”.
“They follow rules better”.
Here again, training sessions that set forth a clear framework
for thinking about conceptual changes in one’s developmental
model of mind may be the missing link in making these con-
nections for teachers.
Cognitive and Academic Change
Overall, teachers reported a higher level of verbalization and
communication among students:
“[The children] express their feelings when interacting with
one another now… [for example] ‘you are making me feel
sad’ which I’ve never heard before”.
“Their atten t ion span is greater”.
“They are writing three or four sentences—all their own
ideas. They may be spelling words phonetically, so it’s not
perfect writing, but they’ve got the idea that what they say
and think matters”.
“They are more comfortable explaining and talking about
what they are doing in the classroom—in drama play and in
The observed increase in the student’s verbalization skills
and communication with each other goes hand in hand with the
perceived increase in collaborative behaviors among children.
What is implied here is that academic achievement may follow
from these behaviors.
Discussion and Analysis
Teacher Observations Confirm Empirical Findings
The interviews suggest that the implementation of the Tools
of the Mind program is demanding according to teachers’ self-
report. Even so, all five subjects in the study report achieving a
level competence and mastery of the curriculum that is provid-
ing them with a sense of accomplishment. At the conclusion of
the school year, two of the five teachers mentioned that they
were thinking about applying to the Tools of the Mind En-
dorsed Teacher Program which would give them certification
status. One cannot discount the bias, or halo effect of the re-
searchers in this small study. As interested observers appearing
on a regular basis throughout the year, we were repeatedly re-
inforcing the idea that what teachers have to say is important
and worth documenting. Yet, what they observed as cognitive
and social benefits, i.e., fewer classroom behavioral problems,
more collaborative behaviors, a higher level of verbalization
and communication, dove-tails with the empirical research
findings of Barnett et al. (2008). This 2008 study compared
Tools classrooms and a control group on a number of parame-
ters. ECERS scores (the Early Childhood Environmental Rating
Scale) and SELA scores (Support for Early Literacy Assess-
ment) were among the tests used for assessing differences be-
11The term haptic was authored by Victor Lowenfeld in his observations o
how children approach artistic and creative problem solving. See: Lowenfeld,
V. and Brittain, W. (1975) Creative and Mental Growth. New York, NY:
MacMillan , 8th edition.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
S. IMHOLZ ET AL.
tween the classes. Results showed the Tools classrooms at-
tained higher overall levels of quality: “the [higher] ECERS
scores were particularly evident on the Language and Reason-
ing Activities, and [classroom] Interactions subscales” (p. 310).
The concept of blurring work and play which the Tools pro-
gram fosters—noted by one teacher—maybe key to the forma-
tion of an internal locus of control and self-regulation. The
melding of personal knowledge and formal knowledge could be
the lynch-pin to keeping children engaged in their own learning
process as they move through elementary school. It is the sense
of separateness, the self-imposed distinction that academic
study is for someone else, which forms the crack in the armor
of identity marking the beginning of the end of a successful
Sharing Good News
Teachers report overall quality of the training was good, but
inter-school communication was poor. A gulf still appears to
exist between the theoretical understanding of Vygotsky’s work,
his model of mind, and how it relates to academic achievement
and the growth of self-regulatory behaviors in children. Impor-
tant individual differences in the teachers’ ability to articulate
the impacts and benefits of the program existed among the five
subjects. Therefore, providing an ongoing forum for all pre-k
and kindergarten teachers across the district to share their ex-
periences on a regular basis together, and opportunities for
peer-to-peer mentoring could be very beneficial to achieving
superior mastery of the Tools curriculum allowing best insights
to be shared. If a distinguishing characteristic of the Tools pro-
gram is its model of mind, our study suggests that there were
lost opportunities to discuss and use that model as a touchstone
for understanding the “how” and “why” of day to day curricu-
lum activities for instructors. This can be easily addressed, but
first needs to be recognized as a problem. Ultimately, it is
teachers and not curriculum materials that are the transmitters
of pedagogical culture.
The two kindergarten teachers in the study also expressed the
desire to reach out to first grade teachers and communicate
what they were doing to facilitate a smooth transition for the
children from the Tools of the Mind curriculum program to the
new first-grade curriculum. If this were to become a formalized
activity that occurred at the beginning of the school year, it
would be a way to share the good news about the goals and
objectives of the Tools program across grade levels. Any aca-
demic benefits that have accrued to young students in the Tools
pre-k program may be diluted or lost if the elementary-grade
teaching-staff is left in the dark about the curriculum. For ex-
ample, the unique hieroglyphs used in Tools’ writing tasks may
appear as gibberish to the uninitiated elementary instructor—is
it fair to young students to be put in the position of being their
own advocates in regard to building upon previous learning
The Tools of the Mind program is still relatively young and
its benefits are still being measured and assessed as children
advance from pre-k and kindergarten through the primary
grades. One could argue that the program’s true value is to be
found in what children accomplish academically in second,
third, and fourth grade. The teacher observations and reflections
in this study give us new insights into how the ongoing integra-
tion of the Tools program can be enhanced at this site, thereby
improving the educational experience for students. The scale,
scope, and method used in this work does not allow for gener-
alizing its findings. Nonetheless, lasting education changes in
teaching practice have to be anchored in good administrative
practices and supportive work environments. What we have
brought to light can best be categorized as lapses in planning
and professional development activities—and these are easily
More importantly, we introduced the teacher as collaborator
whose learning process constitutes a dynamic form of parallel
play in the appropriation of the Tools curriculum with their
students. We know from extensive research (Goe & Stickler,
2008; Hanusek et al., 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2000) that
teacher quality is the primary factor in whether a child advances
academically in almost any classroom. Extending to teachers
the same attributes of mind that are highly valued for young
students—i.e., the primacy of the social construction of knowl-
edge—is central to the evolution of the education ecosystem.
Regardless of research methodology, a systems approach to the
study of education change and innovation enhances the applica-
tion and usefulness of academic research by acknowledging
that true knowledge is not gained from simple observation and
measurement of things alone, but in finding the connections
between things that lead to a more in-depth understanding of
Suggestions for continued research include: 1) comparing a
problem-centered vs content-oriented approach to Tools teacher
training in the second year of the program implementation, with
student academic outcomes; 2) knowing that adults learn best
when they are involved in the planning and evaluation of their
instruction, incorporating ongoing discussions of epistemo-
logical change among Tools teachers in future research evalua-
tion rubrics to better assess conceptual transformation.
We thank the teachers and principals who generously gave
time and effort to this project freely.
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