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Tools of the Mind. The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education

In Bookshelf Child Development


This unique text provides in-depth information about major concepts and principles of the cultural-historical theory developed by Lev Vygotsky, his students and colleagues, as well as three generations of neo-Vygotskian scholars in Russia and in the West. Tools of the Mind enables teachers to arm young children with the mental tools necessary for learning.

Concrete explanations and strategies on how to scaffold young children’s learning and development are provided throughout the text.  These are a product of 15 years of collaboration between the authors and early childhood teachers from diverse programs across the United States, most of which serve children from at-risk populations.

Key changes to this expanded edition include:

Separate chapters on developmental accomplishments of infants and toddlers, preschoolers/kindergartners, and primary grade children, each followed by a chapter on supporting those accomplishments

Additional strategies for supporting children with special needs

A new chapter on dynamic assessment as an application of the zone of proximal development 

Research findings and practical applications from the neo-Vygotskian approach


I found this book fascinating and extremely thought provoking. As a teacher who ‘gets’ the basic premise of Vygotsky’s theories, I really enjoyed the challenge of understanding how we give children the skills they need to become confident learners and effective self- regulators.

The authors explain that the teacher’s role is to provide the path to independence. As teachers, we all strive to help them reach their potential, academically, physically and emotionally. The Prime Areas in early years include Communication and Language, Physical development and Personal, Social and Emotional Development, and so these key attributes are marked for their importance right at the beginning of every child’s learning journey.

In ‘Tools of the Mind’ this concept is pushed further, we are reminded that

 ‘a child does not just become a thinker and a problem solver, she becomes a special kind of thinker, rememberer, listener and communicator which reflects the social context. One generation passes knowledge and skills onto the next. Each generation adds new things and thus the cumulative experience and information of the culture are passed onto succeeding generations. Vygotsky assumed that children do not invent all of their knowledge and understanding but instead appropriate the rich body of knowledge accumulated in their culture. Individual minds formed by individual history … a child’s mind is the result of his interactions with others within a specific social context.

Thus, we can see how children with limited social interactions and limited experiences struggle to become the complex thinkers, knowledge seekers and social participants that we all aspire for them to be. Early Years policy decisions about increasing the availability of high quality early years experiences could be viewed as an attempt to tackle this. The financial wrangling associated with early years policy is another debate, but here it is about planting seeds for the future. Without experience, stimulation and challenge, children will not do as well as they should do.

This development within the social context is critical for the acquisition of mental processes. Mental process is not only internal, but also is the result of sharing and exchanging. Once you have learnt it, it can become internalised and used independently. Hence the often heard ‘I don’t know how I did it, I just did’.

For sharing and exchanging to be successful you need to have a grasp of language. If children and adults don’t verbalise their internal thought processes neither can learn the other’s point of view or method. How many of us as adults working with children speak aloud our ‘working out’? This ‘modelling’ technique is key to the scaffolding approach propounded by followers of Vygotsky.

In the book, we are shown the example of a child playing with Cuisinaire rods:

A child is playing with x2 white blocks = x1 red block

The child needs language for the adult to be able to ascertain if a child thinks 1+1 = 2 or if they think that white+white = red? Without language, it is hard to tell if the child is working with the colours or the numbers.

Clearly there is a need for language for us to enable us to share experiences and thought processes. The authors explain to us that additionally, mental ‘tools’, such as language, help humans to master their own behaviour. For example, when a toddler touches buttons on a kitchen machine, their mother says to them “No! no touch”, repeatedly. In time, the child may feel that they want to touch the buttons, but then says “No! no, touch” aloud to themselves. Once child has internalised ‘No, no touch’ the behaviour is controlled and the child has learnt to self-regulate in this circumstance. Working with young children we have all seen them going towards something shaking their head saying ‘no’ to themselves. Eventually, they just ‘think’ the ‘No!’ and just thinking it becomes enough to modify the behaviour.

We also internalise language when learning new skills. For example, when rolling dough, an adult, working alongside children, might say “roll to … and away” – with each rolling motion their continuous repetition helps the children remember the movement.

The authors tell us that ‘Vygotsky argued that play was a central activity to preschool and that without it children did not develop the creativity, self-regulation and other underlying skills necessary for later development.’ He also believed that ‘teaching should always be aimed at the child’s emerging skills, not the existing ones.’ He said in 1987:

“What a child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow”

For teachers, this translates to ‘(planning) activities just beyond what the child can do on his own, but within what the child can do with assistance. Children need to practise what they can do independently and be exposed to that for which they require support. When children require support, teachers must be as active within the process as the children.’

The book raises interesting questions. For example, Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) has implications for us as teachers when we are considering how we assess children [What is reasonable for us to expect a child to do / to know?]

Having explored external and internalised language as a mental ‘tool’ the authors go on to examine how external mediators act as mental tools. For example, we use our fingers for counting, when we buy a new appliance we rely on diagrams on cooker knobs and the drivers amongst us will know that gear sticks can be different. However, once you have learnt it (the particular configuration of gears in your new car), you don’t need the mediator, you can still drive your car even after the gear stick diagram has rubbed off. However, when you get a new car you need the diagram to help you find reverse! The authors describe the mediator in this case as acting as the go between from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’.

In our society, we use mediators to modify our social and emotional behaviour. Such modifications enable us to ‘fit in’ to whichever social context we find ourselves in. What is acceptable for children to do and say in front of their friends is different to what is acceptable in front of family – the social context is different and children learn the ‘rules’ as they grow up and modify (hopefully!) their behaviour accordingly. When we meet someone whose understanding of the social ‘rules’ for a particular context differ from our own we feel very awkward. Simple mediators which help us to be more ‘sociable’ might be such things as children using counting games to choose whose turn it is in games or adults counting to 10 and taking deep breaths before losing their temper. Things like calendars, timers and alarms are also mediators that we use to manage time and stay on task / target. The mediators act as scaffolding for us in the absence of others to help us.

Further on in the book the authors help us to understand how mediators can be used to good effect in the classroom. They explain the difference between managing behaviour for children and children managing behaviour for their own sakes. For example, stickers for good behaviour are not mediators because they come from outside (from the teacher). To be effective (thereby aiding learning), the mediator has to come from inside the child. The child who is learning to self-regulate has to learn to stop themselves for them not because there is a sticker or reward at the end. Similarly, if the teacher gives some children an egg timer to help them manage sharing together it is not a mediator (because the teacher has provided it). However, if the children get it themselves then it is a mediator because the children have initiated it themselves.

In the classroom, we can help children develop mental tools to help their emotional development. For example, the authors explain to us that children have 3 different kinds of speech:

·         Private speech – to self, this speech clarifies and supports the child’s thoughts and actions

·         Public speech – to others, this speech explains and shares the child’s thoughts and actions

·         Inner speech – ‘thinking aloud’ internalising private speech

Writing, like speaking aloud, helps children to put things in order – because you can only say or write one thing at a time. You can think many things at once but when you speak or write you have to do it one by one. Writing helps you clarify and structure new ideas. In a classroom situation, a shared understanding of this can be very helpful when supporting children to work though issues, be they emotional or academic.

Throughout the book, the clear examples and explanations helped me to imagine the different scenarios being described. I re-evaluated some of the things I do as a matter of course when teaching, such as modelling my thought process (externalising my mental tools) and consequently I think the authors have helped me become a better teacher. What more can they hope to do?

Edited by Rebecca

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