Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tools of the Mind- NY Times

The following is an article about TOOLS OF THE MIND, the new curriculum that is being used in all of the Hoboken Public School District's Pre-K classes and will be used by all District Kindergarten classes beginning in the 2009-2010 school year:

A group of educational and cognitive scientists now say that mental exercises of a certain kind can teach children to become more self-possessed at earlier ages, reducing stress levels at home and improving their experience in school. Researchers can test this ability, which they call executive function, and they say it is more strongly associated with school success than I.Q.“We know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20s, and some people will ask, ‘Why are you trying to improve prefrontal abilities when the biological substrate is not there yet?’ ” said Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “I tell them that 2-year-olds have legs, too, which will not reach full length for 10 years or more — but they can still walk and run and benefit from exercise.”

Executive function involves three important skills: 1) the ability to resist distractions or delay gratification to finish a job (i.e. to finish the book report before turning on the television), 2) the second is working memory, the capacity to hold multiple numbers or ideas in the mind, — for example, to do simple addition or subtraction without pencil and paper, 3) the third is cognitive flexibility, the presence of mind to adapt when demands change (i.e. when recess is canceled, say, and there’s a pop quiz in math)

Researchers can rate these abilities with some precision by giving young children several straightforward mental tests. In one, youngsters sit in front of a computer and when a red heart appears on the left side of the screen, they strike a key on the left, and when it appears on the right screen they strike a key on the right. Most of them do well on this. But when scientists change the rules, and have the children strike a key on the right when the symbol appears on the left, and vice versa, the test gets harder. The number of errors they commit, and the time it takes the children to answer, are considered measures of their ability to regulate themselves. Other similar kinds of tests can track improvements in working memory and intellectual flexibility. Researchers have designed school-based curriculums intended to improve each of these abilities. In a study published in 2007, researchers compared one of these programs — called Tools of the Mind — to a standard literacy curriculum, in several preschools in the Northeast. The Tools program features a variety of exercises, including a counting activity in which children pair off.

“The activities are specifically designed to promote self-regulation, and they are embedded in the teaching,” said Deborah J. Leong, an educational psychologist and professor emerita at Metropolitan State College of Denver, who designed the Tools program with Elena Bodrova, principal researcher at McREL, an educational research group in Denver. The program also focuses on pretend play with a purpose, namely dramatic role-playing in which children decide beforehand what their roles are and must stay in character — an exercise that draws on all aspects of self-regulation. The 2007 preschool study tracked 85 preschoolers in the Tools program and 62 in the basic literacy curriculum. After one year, teachers in one school judged that the children in the special program were doing so well that all students were moved into it. After two years, and factoring out the effects of gender and age, the researchers found that the students in the Tools of the Mind (self regulation) program scored about 20 percent higher on all of the demanding measures of executive function. “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential,” the study authors concluded.