The concept of “tools of the mind” comes from the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. He believed that just as physical tools extend our physical abilities, mental tools extend our mental abilities, enabling us to solve problems and create solutions in the modern world. When applied to children, this means that to successfully function in school and beyond, children need to learn more than a set of facts and skills. They need to master a set of mental tools—tools of the mind.
According to Vygotsky, until children learn to use mental tools, their learning is largely controlled by the environment; they attend only to the things that are brightest or loudest, and they can remember something only if has been repeated many times. AFTER children master mental tools, they become in charge of their own learning, by attending and remembering in an intentional and purposeful way. In the same way that using certain mental tools can transform children’s cognitive behaviors, using other mental tools can transform their physical, social, and emotional behaviors. From being “slaves to the environment,” children become “masters of their own behavior.” As children are taught and practice an increasing number of mental tools, they transform not only their external behaviors, but also their minds, leading to the emergence of higher mental functions.
One of Vygotsky’s contemporaries, psychologist Kurt Lewin, was known to have said, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” We credit the successes in Tools of the Mind classrooms to the fact that instruction in these classrooms is based on a comprehensive theory of learning and development—the Vygotskian approach.
At the core of Vygotsky’s theory (also known as Cultural-Historical theory) is the idea that child development is the result of interactions between children and their social environment. These interactions involve people—parents and teachers, playmates and schoolmates, brothers and sisters. They also involve cultural artifacts, such as books or toys, as well as culturally specific practices in which a child engages in the classroom, at home, or on the playground. Children are active partners in all of these interactions, constructing knowledge, skills, and attitudes, not just mirroring the world around them. Essentially, the history and the culture of the society in which a child grows up and the events making up a child’s personal history determine much more than what that child knows or likes—it also determines which mental tools the child will learn and how these tools will shape the child’s mind.
For Vygotsky, the most effective learning happens when the new skills and concepts being taught are just on the edge of emergence—in the Zone of Proximal Development. When this happens, the child does not simply acquire new knowledge but actually makes progress in his or her development—in Vygotsky’s words, “learning leads development.” Vygotsky recognized that the assistance or scaffolding needed to bring about new skills and concepts within a child’s ZPD may take different forms for children of different ages. For instance, mature make-believe play supports the development of pre-school children similar to the way formal instruction supports the development of older students. According to Vygotsky, “A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action.” The features of play that support development includes imaginary situations, the roles children act out, and the rules children follow while acting out their pretend scenarios.
With his colleagues and students, Vygotsky developed multiple applications of his theory to general and special education. New applications were and continue to be developed by later generations of Vygotskians in Vygotsky’s native Russia as well as in the West, where Vygotsky’s legacy can be found in contemporary interpretations of social constructivism and sociocultural theory. The major emphasis in the Vygotskian approach is on helping children acquire the tools of their culture. The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education focuses on the activities and interactions that are most beneficial to young children in learning their first “tools of the mind.”