Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who thought play was the key to learning, died 72 years before the kindergartners at Powell Elementary School in Northwest Washington drew their first breath.
But his work could change their academic future and the direction of D.C. school reform. As students pair off to “buddy read,” act out chapters from storybooks and sit at their desks to write what they’ve learned, they are reinventing the classroom as Vygotsky saw it.
Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson is placing a large bet on a curriculum called Tools of the Mind that is adapted from Vygotsky’s work. It uses carefully guided play to stimulate what neuroscientists call “executive function”: a combination of memory, impulse control, persistence and flexibility that researchers say may be an even more powerful determinant of educational success than IQ.
“This is a fundamental piece, one of the most significant things we can do,” Henderson said. At a cost of $1.5 million, she has taken Tools this year from a two-school pilot to 28 schools with 157 preschool, pre-K and kindergarten classes targeting disadvantaged students. If funding is available, she wants to add an additional 100 classes next year.
Tools also is crucial in Henderson’s attempt to shift priorities in the 45,000-student system. Her predecessor, Michelle A. Rhee, devoted much energy to school closings, teacher evaluations and revamping the bureaucracy. While such issues remain — another round of closings looms — Henderson said reform now must focus on “the hard, non-sexy work” of what and how children learn.
D.C. schools have rolled out the initial stages of a new curriculum, the city’s first in years, based on the Common Core State Standards. Those standards, adopted by the District and 40 states, provide a blueprint for what students should learn in English and math through 12th grade.
The curriculum, including Tools and other elements, offers a road map to teachers who have lamented a lack of guidance. Officials promise that students will be able to move from school to school without missing material or repeating it. This month, for example, first-graders citywide are — or are supposed to be — learning about dinosaurs.
Henderson hopes Tools of the Mind, compatible with the Common Core, will provide a foundation for changes ahead.
Vygotsky, who studied the role of culture and social interaction in child development, believed that play is the thing. Other early-childhood programs focus on play. But Tools is unique, experts say, because it uses play to build the capacity to “self-regulate,” or resist the impulses and distractions that can hinder academic growth.