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Cognitive Sciences and Education

Stanislas Dehaene
p. 39
Cet article est une traduction de :
Sciences cognitives et éducation

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Source: La lettre, no. 36, May 2013

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A young reader preparing for a functional MRI brain scan at the NeuroSpin centre, ARR

1How do education and schooling change a child’s brain? Can recent advances in the cognitive sciences on the mechanisms of learning contribute to improving our school system?

2For the past few years, the Direction générale de l’ensei­gnement ccolaire (DGESCO) has been showing a keen interest in these questions. On 20 November 2012 the Ministry of National Education, in partnership with the Collège de France Chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology, organized a symposium on “Cognitive Sciences and Education”. Several hundred national education in­spectors, ­teachers, practitioners­ and researchers came together in the Marguerite de Navarre lecture-theatre to examine jointly the scope of the cognitive sciences and the possibility of transposing some of their results to the field of education.

3Better knowledge of the psychological and cognitive func­tioning of pupils is essential for teachers if they are to adapt their teaching­ and create optimal learning conditions. Professor Dehaene has recorded some of the main principles of learning, determined by the cognitive sciences, which would be immediately applicable in classrooms. Before attending school, children­ have a vast range of early intuition, especially in language and mathematics, which serves as a foundation for subsequent learning. Their brains have a sophisticated learning algorithm, some of the most essential components of which are attention, active engagement, reward, error detection, automatization, and sleep. Each of these resources complies with constraints that teachers do not always adequately recognize.

4Franck Ramus, senior researcher at the CNRS, discussed the learning difficulties of children, as well as their origins. The example of developmental dyslexia shows how the under­standing of pathology can help to modify the teaching of reading­ for all children. Patrick Lemaire, professor at the CNRS Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology (Aix-Marseille), then delivered­ a talk on the mechanisms of memory. He explained how our mnesic system has generic resources in limited quantities (cognitive control, attention, inhibition, strategies, etc.), and is divided into relatively independent components (working memory, long-term memory, and their respective sub­systems). Joëlle Proust, senior researcher at the Institut Jean-Nicod (CNRS/ENS Paris) described a learning skill that is all too often overlooked: metacognition, that is, the ability to self-evaluate. Metacognition sometimes functions in a predictive mode (could I solve this problem? in how much time?) and at other times in a retro­spective mode (have I perceived this correctly? have I not made a mistake?). Liliane Sprenger-Charolles, senior researcher at the CNRS, then presented the reams of scientific knowledge that we now have on learning to read. The next speaker, Michel Fayol, professor at the Laboratory of Social and Cognitive Psychology (Clermont-Ferrand), delivered a paper on the learning of French spelling. He proposed practical methods, some of which have already been tested in classroom settings. Manuela Piazza, researcher at INSERM, then described an essential element of the core of mathematics: “the taste for numbers and how to acquire it”. Her synthesis of recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience showed that, from early childhood, human beings are equipped with a set of calculation skills that enable them to perform complex mental operations intuitively and spon­taneously. Finally, Pascal Huguet, senior researcher at the CNRS (Université Aix-Marseille) discussed a difficulty found primarily in the teaching of mathematics: gender stereotypes. Several stereotypes, whose influence on behaviour can be identified fairly early in the course of cognitive development, are ultimately an impediment to girls’ and women’s pursuance of scientific and technical studies and careers. Research has not only contributed to invalidating the hypothesis of male superiority in the domains considered (mathematics, visual-spatial abil­ities, reasoning) but has also shed new light on the fact that girls and women tend not to opt for science and technology.

5These talks, followed by intense discussions and, the next day, by DGESCO internal synthesis meetings, provided only a partial picture of cognitive sciences’ potential contribution to the reform of teachers’ training.

Videos of papers delivered at the seminar are available on, on the professor’s page.

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Référence électronique

Stanislas Dehaene, « Cognitive Sciences and Education », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 8 | mars 2014, mis en ligne le 11 août 2015, consulté le 22 février 2018. URL :

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Stanislas Dehaene

Experimental Cognitive Psychology

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