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Education and the social brain: linking language, thinking, teaching and learning

Reaction to Prof. Mercer’s paper: Education and the social brain: linking language, thinking, teaching and learning

Jean-Charles Chabanne
p. 35-47

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Education and the Social Brain
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1Let’s begin by thanking Prof. Mercer for his inspiring presentation at the International Seminary at the French Institute of Education (ENS de Lyon), which we are now to discuss. Discussion is not exactly what I’ll be able to do, as far as Prof. Mercer’s work is far ahead from my own mastering of the field. In this contribution, I’d try to re-situate the issue of the interlinking of language and learning (and even language and education at large) in a French context, from the restricted point of view of ‘didactique du français’ (theory and practice of French language and literature teaching). I’d like to make Prof. Mercer feel the way a French scholar, in that peculiar field, would read his work and assumptions.

“The social brain”: an image that sounds familiar to French academic audience, at least in educational research related to language learning and language analysis

“Several fields of investigation, including developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, educational research and neuroscience have begun to recognize the essentially social quality of human cognition, as represented by the concept of the ‘social brain’” (Mercer, this issue).

2I’d like to take in turn all the fields listed here, and some more, in order to organize my own reading of the paper. My intention is to show how far Prof. Mercer’s arguments could sound familiar to French academic ears, as far as they have been made sensitive to the very idea of the relationships of brain, language and social groups at work, especially but not exclusively in educational contexts.

Developmental psychology and linguistic development models

3In the last 30 years, the dissemination of Vygotsky’s model and concepts are (supposed to be) familiar to any French speaking student in educational research, since the rapid spreading of the first translation and comments of his work by Swiss colleagues (Vygotsky, 1934, translated 1985; Bronckart & Schneuwly, 1985). But this large success has a counterpart: a risk of reduction of the original theory to a bunch of terminological automatisms (loose uses of ‘socioconstructivism’ for instance, or the rather slippery ‘zone of proximal development’, which is spoiled by so many loose uses) and to a reduced number of the same quotations. Prof. Mercer offers us the opportunity to go back to the original model.

4This theoretical spreading seemed to be the same in other domains, like cognitive sciences in the early 90s (Forest & Siksou, 1994).

“This view is of course at odds with some other influential views on language and cognition, notably of those who remain committed to a view of language as a discrete cognitive ‘module’ or capacity, designed for a transmissional kind of communication” (e.g. Pinker, 1994, 2007)

5For a French researcher in the field crossing sciences of language and education, this view of language refers more or less to the Chomskyan model (formal syntax, performance/competence, inner linguistic device, etc.), conceived as an internal self-developing device, and more broadly, refers to a time when sciences of language in their formal and structuralist paradigm held the upper hand in the human sciences. The influence of such a paradigm is still strong on a researcher like Piaget. But references have changed in the French context.

6For instance, an author like Henri Wallon seems to have played his part to raise concerns for the social dimension of psychological development, regarding education of the young especially. What does Prof. Mercer think of a possible link from Henri Wallon’s work (1941, 1942, 1993) to his own conception of the “social brain” concept?

7Another important reference in the history of French educational research is, of course, Piaget, though the mediation of scholars introducing a social preoccupation like Perret-Clermont (orig. French Ed. 1979, translation 1980). Those authors are classical references in the field of Early Child education, and of course in the development of research in language acquisition (Florin, 1999).

8For pre-elementary teachers’ education, the balance between spontaneous development of language and directed and organized language instruction is an important professional issue. This can be found in Frédéric François’s work (1990, 1999), who has been very influential on a lot of French scholars and has developed an original model to describe parent/child or teacher/student interaction, crossing Vygotsky and Bakhtine (François, 1989).

9Another key reference for French teachers’ educators is Jerome Bruner, and I’d like to ask Prof. Mercer what kind of link (if he thinks that is relevant) he could make with him (Olson, 2007)? Bruner appears to have played a great part in the spreading of the interest for close verbal interaction observation, and his books have been translated and well read by French educators (Bruner, 1983, 1990). Another contribution of J. S. Bruner is the connection he contributed to establish between Piaget and Vygotsky, and this is of some importance in the French context, for in France nowadays, the dialogue Piaget/Vygotsky has been reconsidered in the occasion of some important symposia in Bordeaux (Brossard, 2005; Bernié & Brossard, 2013; Brossard & Fijalkow, 1998; Brossard & Fijalkow, 2008). Prof. Mercer might precise if the dialogue between Piaget and Vygotsky is specific to the European context (where it could be related to the fact that Piaget was working in Geneva, or if this kind of theoretical confrontation is, from his point of view, no longer relevant today. Piaget’s model has been of a great importance in France in the development of first disciplinary ‘didactics’, especially French trends in didactics of mathematics (the source of many Brousseau’s concepts (1998), then Chevallard’s (1999) and then even central ones in TACD (Sensevy, 2011: “milieu,” “genèse,” etc.). A renewed concept of “schemes” is central in such fields as French “didactique professionnelle,” see Vergnaud’s (Vergnaud, 1996) of “schemes,” “concept-in-act” and “theorem-in-act,” useful for his analysis of hands-on learning (Pastré et al., 2006; Pastré, 2011) or “didactics of practice” (Billett, 2011; Billett & Choy, 2013).


“Reviews of research by Whitebread and Pino Pasternak (2010) and Dignath, Buettner and Langfeldt (2008) have shown that many interventional studies based on the principles making metacognitive and learning strategies explicit and encouraging participants to reflect and talk about their learning have obtained significant effects. Examples include Forman and Cazden’s (1985) co-operative group work study; Siegler’s (2002) intervention that required children to describe scientific phenomena and then explain their understanding; and Black and Wiliam’s (1998) research in which children were encouraged to reflect upon and assess their own learning. The important role of classroom talk for enabling the development of children’s metacognition and reflection is now becoming more widely recognized (Whitebread, Mercer, Howe & Tolmie, 2013).” (Mercer, this issue)

10Another important issue raised by Prof. Mercer’s work is the concept of metacognition, even if this one became also a rather fuzzy concept while disseminating in second hand works. Notably as far as teacher education is concerned, beginners are often struggling with a pragmatic definition of ‘metacognition’ and there is a real difficulty to precise what happens really in metacognitive verbalizations: what does exactly mean to “make explicit learning strategies” or to “reflect about one’s learning”? Precisely, if language is a tool, what kind of vocabulary, for instance, is used to express something which is very abstract and labile and evanescent, when a student tries to re-seize his/her own “thinking.” And a great deal of professional mastery is required from the teacher to bring students to find words and verbal forms to designate/refer to their internal phenomenon. Again, this is another interesting field of interrogation but rather marginal in the Prof. Mercer’s paper.

Evolutionary psychology and related questions

"Through using spoken language, people are able to think creatively and productively together. This ability to 'interthink' is an important product of our evolutionary history that is just as important for our survival today.” (abstract of Littleton & Mercer, 2013)

11Prof. Mercer’s recalls the recent developments in the field of evolutionary psychology, who tries to explain language and intelligence development as the result of selection pressure. This paradigm is taking a greater importance in cognitive sciences, for instance to explain the anthropologic history of such paroxical behaviours as art pratices, that evolutionary psychology presents as remains of now useless abilities to perceive and modelize the environment (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2014; Dutton, 2003, 2009; Shimamura & Palmer, 2012; Finger et al., 2013; Morizot, 2009).

“Many kinds of work activity depend on the success of groups or teams finding joint solutions to problems. Creative achievement is rarely the product of solitary endeavour, but of people working within a collective enterprise. […] Challenging purely individualistic accounts of human evolution and cognition, its internationally acclaimed authors provide analyses of real-life examples of collective thinking in everyday settings including workplaces, schools, rehearsal spaces and online environments. The authors use socio-cultural psychology to explain the processes involved in interthinking, to explore its creative power, but also to understand why collective thinking isn't always productive or successful.” (abstract of Littleton & Mercer, 2013)

12But Prof. Mercer underline a very interesting distinction between two paradigms inside evolution theory’s applications to (socio)psychology. On one hand, the “competition” paradigm reduces brain evolution to the selection of those abilities useful in individual success only, each individual against all the others (the famous Dawkins’ assumption, 1976). On the other, Prof. Mercer argues that survival in aggressive environments is definitively depending on a strong social co-operation and co-organization, and that brain development is related and even determined by its social environment, so that we could talk of a ‘bio-social’ brain.

13Thus even if we just give to the “social brain” metaphor a lesser neurobiological meaning, we still remain interested in the very concept of “interthinking,” as much as for its social and ethical implications than for its psychogenetic implications: I’ll be personally interested in more information about the basic process of such a “distributed brain stimulation”: how deeply necessary are the effects of inter-thinking on thinking itself? In other words, is interthinking only one possible form of the process of internalization of cognitive development (as I understand Wygotski’s most known argument) or is it the way we are usually and basically thinking in human communities (we couldn’t do differently)?

Neurosciences and neurobiological foundations of shared cognition

14Another outcome of neurosciences which is now well known in the general public (even if not well understood) is the “mirror neurons” model (Rizzolati & Sinigaglia, 2008, French trans. 2007, original 2006).

“Through the automatic activation of mirror systems when observing the movements of others, we tend to become aligned with them in terms of goals and actions. This suggests that our evolutionary success, as a species, was strongly assisted by the emergence of abilities not only coordinate our actions with others (as many other animals can also do, par excellence), but to infer their mental states and intentions” (based on an intuitive ‘theory of mind’: Premack and Woodruff, 1978).” (Mercer, this issue)

15To scholars like me who are involved in research on the relationship between semiotic activity and esthetic experience in producing and/or producing artworks, this concept is linked with two others of the same importance to build a theory of art education from an anthropological point of view: the concept of “theory of mind” and the concept of “empathy,” which could be very useful to explain why humans are so sensitive to images of others humans (in painted genres like portraits, but even in abstract art) (Jeffers, 2009). Furthermore, the mirror neurons model may appear of a great importance in the field of education, especially when attitudes, dispositions, education of sensitivity and education of sensibility, etc., are at stake (Shimamura & Palmer, 2012; Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2014).

“Social brain” and cognitive linguistics

16In the European and especially French history of the sciences of language, there is a recurrent philosophical question: the relationship and even the continuity between Language and Thought. We could just begin from the 17th century “Logique de Port Royal” (Arnaud & Nicole, 1664), but the issue could be tracked back through Middle Ages philosophy up to Aristoteles (Rastier, 1991). To mention another landmark in this history, I think for the middle of the 20th century to Gustave Guillaume’s work (1929, rediscovered by searchers like Hirtle, 2007 or Lowe, 2007) or to the original linguistic theory of Culioli, linking actual settings and cognitive activity to linguistic description (Culioli, 1990; Robert, 1995).

17This could explain why Vygotsky’s attempt to renew this issue would sound more familiar and more stimulating among French linguists and semanticists. This old issue was temporarily put aside during the supremacy of formal language models (Chomsky) but resurfaced with the increasing demand for automatic treatment of natural language (and thought), automatic translation, A.I., etc. and generally with the demand for modelizations of thinking processes through linguistic indexes (Rastier et al., 1994).

18This a again an odd question, but I take my chance as a reactor: does Prof. Mercer find interesting or challenging to explore a possible relationship between the “social brain” model of natural language, natural logic, and langue-thought relationship and the way Cognitive linguistics address the same issues (Langacker, 1987/1991; Fuchs, 2004)?

19Incidentally, but it’s another peripheric issue raised by Prof. Mercer’s reading be possible to refer to another field launching bridges between language and thought: I point here the theory of “logique naturelle” and the relationship between natural language and natural logic (Grize’s works in Lausanne: 1996, 1997).

“Social brain” and sociological, anthropological, ethnological research fields, and sociolinguistics

20As far as ‘language’, on one side, and ‘society’, on the other, are considered together, a researcher can not help thinking of sociolinguistics, or even more broadly language-related approaches to social phenomena: I think mainly of ethnomethodology, ethnolinguistics, and those trends in micro-sociology whose methodologies are closely depending on very precise and detailed analyses of verbal/semiotic interactions in ordinary settings. Authors like Garfinkel (1967), Hymes (1972, 1974, French trans. 1991), Gee (2008) are interested in the social side of verbal communication and the building of social inter-actions, often guided by communication patterns like “social genres” or “ethnomethods.” Of course, they are not directly considering the cognitive dimension, but rather the dynamics of social communities through collaborative action. This sounds very close to “social brain” approaches, and I like to ask Prof. Mercer if he has considered a possible relationship with this academic domain, as soon as he refers to such concepts like “shared knowledge” and “communities of practice” (Lave & Wenger). This point is of some importance in French context, as far as some scholars have stressed the importance and the effect on subsequent learning of “micro-society where learning happens in language”, so called “communautés discursives” (discourse communities) (Bernié, 2001, 2003; Mottiez-Lopez & Allal, 2004)

Sociology of education and sociology of learning

21In the field crossing sciences of language and educational sciences, this is all the more important than those micro-sociological and ethnomethodological works have been of a great use for the micro-analysis of language role in educational processes at a very small scale. Many French speaking searchers study language in classroom or more generally in workplaces (Filliettaz & Bronckart, 2005), where they analyze the dynamics of dialogs where hands-on learning is at stake. So a great deal of research in the field of conversation analysis, discourse analysis has been dedicated to that issue (Nonnon, 1999; Mondada, 2000).

22These approaches are mainly descriptive, but one important point is that they are of a great need for teacher’s education and professional practices analysis in the context of initial or continuing education.

23Regarding the social sciences in another trend, here are other questions to Prof. Mercer: how does he consider, from his peculiar point of view, the relations of “social brain theory”:

  • with the domain of the sociology of education in the legacy of Bernstein (1975), for instance the influence of ideology and socially rooted misunderstandings in school processes (Gee, 2008, “ideology in discourses”; Charlot, 1997; Charlot, Bautier, & Rochex, 1993);

  • and, more precisely, with the sub-domain of sociology of learning (French “sociodidactique”: Bautier, 1989, 1995; Bautier & Rochex, 2004);

  • with what is called Social semiotics (Hodge, R., & Kress, G. 1988);

  • with the sociology of knowledge (Berger & Luckman, 1966), if the question to be simply relevant?

Educational research: language and learning from the teachers’ point of view and as a specific professional skill

24Here we are coming to one fundamental issue as far as we envisage educational research from the point of view of teacher education and training. This could drive us to consider this field as belonging not only to the classical paradigm of pure fundamental academic research, but to a paradigm of research trying to launch a bridge between fundamental and practical/engineering oriented research (we could borrow here the concept of “translational research” from Health sciences; Bréchot, 2004; Woolf, 2008). Translational or implicated research is not the simple concatenation of ‘applied research’ at the end of the process of knowledge production, but it considers that ‘application’ and ‘actors concerns’ are rooted in the whole process of research from beginning to end, which leads to redefine the epistemological nature of knowledge, methodology and outcomes.

25We share (Chabanne & Bucheton, 2002) the same interest than Prof. Mercer for the educational functions of talk in the classroom: talk to think, talk to learn, talk to grow and talk to “live together” (a translation of our French education ministry motto: “vivre ensemble,” an echo of one of the free basic values of Republic: “liberté, égalité, fraternité”). As teachers educators and trainers, we are gathering academic outcomes relative to talk, learning, and social dynamics in the classroom, in order to help beginning teachers and educators to understand what is happening when students are talking with the teacher and with each other (Barnes 1976), not for any purpose (for instance regulation or work organization), but in the very perspective of learning.

26As far as education and more precisely instruction practices and learning are concerned, this point is crucial: what king of light can be shed upon specific aspects of teacher’s action, and especially teacher’s speech interacting with student’s speech and dedicated to learning process.

27In other words, if we consider that teacher’s action is a kind of specialized engineering expertise, we have to take very seriously the constraints emerging from the fact that a teacher is a kind of engineer, or – at least, if he’s not mixing action with research and theory – skilled in teaching/learning craftsmanship.

28First of all, the teacher could be considered as a specialist and a practitioner of a very special kind of language, a ‘talking-to-produce-talking-to-learn’, or a language that impulses or regulates student’s language in order to densify learning processes by way of semiotic interaction:

“they enacted a sociocultural model of education even though they did not necessarily know it as such” (Mercer, this issue).

29I speak of ‘craftsmanship’ referring to the French “art de faire”(eustochia, kaïros, ‘dexterity’ …), ‘tour de main’ (knack), brought in by de Certeau (1980) and of a great use to define what is the real professional expertise: a very important point as far as teacher’s effectiveness is depending on his/her own mastering of an effective teaching talk:

“To make the most of opportunities for applying the affordances of the social brain during group work, it is necessary to maximise the use of Exploratory Talk. This encourages us to relate the quality of the dialogue which takes place in groups and the quality of talk that goes on in teacher-led whole-class sessions.” (Mercer, this issue)

30Prof. Mercer (this issue) lists a number of researches on this challenging ‘dialogue mastery’, uncovering many variants:

“dialogic instruction, characterized, by the teacher’s uptake of student ideas, authentic questions and the opportunity for students to modify the topic (Nystrand, 1997); dialogic inquiry, which stresses the potential of collaborative group work and peer assistance to promote mutually responsive learning in the zone of proximal development (Wells, 1999); dialogical pedagogy, in which students are invited to retell stories in their own words, using paraphrase, speculation and counter-fictional utterances (Skidmore, 2000); and dialogic teaching, which is collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful (Alexander, 2004).” (Skidmore, 2006, p. 203)

Language and work, language in the workplace, language as a workplace

31These reflections are close to a research field related to professional education and training, where researchers study language in the workplace and language in the work process itself (Boutet, 1995; Lazar, 1999; Filliettaz & Bronckart, 2005).

32A subset of this field consists in studying teacher’s work from an ergonomical point of view. I’d like to ask Prof. Mercer if he thinks interesting to create links with work analysis, as far as teaching could be assimilated to a kind of work where language is more than in other human activity a core component. In France, we are familiar with many approaches considering teacher’s language in the setting of teacher’s action.

Language, literacy across the curriculum and multiliteracy

33Another active field in French context is the study of language as an pivotal tool to develop general literacy and what contemporary definition of literacy calls “multi-literacy,” distinguishing literacy “across the curriculum”; education of oral communication skills (Nonnon, 1999; Vacca et al., 2014; Bernié et al., 2003; Bernié, Jaubert, & Rebière, 2003; Guernier, Durand-Guerrier, & Sautot, 2006; Canelas-Trévisi, Guernier, Cordeiro, & Simon, 2009), and specific content area literacies: language in science education classrooms (Astofli, 1986; Mercer, Dawes, Wegerif, & Sams, 2004); language in Foreign Languages teaching (Guernier, Durand-Guerrier, & Sautot, 2006); language in Language Arts teaching (Schneuwly, 1988; Schneuwly & Dolz, 2009); language in Literature teaching (reference), language in Mathematics (Duval, 1995; Chesnais, 2014): language in History education (Kessas, 2012; Cariou, 2012); language in Technical and Vocational education (Clément, 2002); language in Art education (Zander, 2003; Barnes, 2009; Chabanne & Dufays, 2011; Goswami, 2009; Mili & Rickenmann, 2004); language and Music education (Rickenmann del Castillo, Mili, & Lagier Langton, 2009; Gritten, 2008); etc.

34In all these researches, language is considered as a shared tool in a dissymmetrical collaborative action, where the teacher is supposed to master, so to speak, 1) the language of knowledge, the mere semiotic manifestation of content (le “texte du savoir,” Chevallard, 1992); 2) his own language, which assumes many functions; 3) and the language of students. This “multiagenda” (Bucheton & Soulé, 2009) is the basis of a successful teaching action, even if the verbal intervention of a teacher is reduced to a minimum at first (or superficial) glance.

35All this to give to Prof. Mercer’s how deep is the interest for Language in educational settings among French scholars, and how thoughtfully he’ll be read.

Language or languages: a semiotic problematization

36Again, this is not a critic of Prof. Mercer’s work, as I’m sure that this concern is him. But I’d like to have his position on the definition he gives to the central concept of “language.” This concept is often used in the Vygotskyan vulgata in a simplistic approach that reduces it to “verbal language,” in itself a simplification, not only for a pernickety linguist. I think that he hasn’t had time enough to develop that point. So I suppose he’s eager to keep in his reader’s mind that a more complete definition of language is required, that I will present like concentric semiotic spheres.

37To begin with, is Prof. Mercer interested as a psychologist, specialist of “interthinking,” in the first sphere of signs, not only the basic linguistic components (let say, to be rapid, lexic and syntax), but in the paraverbal phenomenon (stress, musicality of voice variations, emotional marks in spelling, stressing …) (Kerbrat-Orrechioni, 1992; Brown & Levinson, 1987)? I think for instance that this simultaneous but closely intricate emission of subtle signs is a very important part of the sub-conversation which has a very important effect, for instance, on students’ engagement, students’ attention, even students’ ability of listening and metabolizing teacher’s speech. Could this fall within the scope of the ‘aesthetic’ part of the social brain (as Wickman can speak of “esthetic experience” in “science education,” 2013), or the socialization of emotional grounding of interpersonal relationships (Shimamura & Palmer, 2012), as far as socio- and ethno-linguistics have documented, from a long time, that those signs and their interpretations are social constructs (Gumperz & Hymes, 1964, 1972)?

38The same question could be asked for a second semiotic sphere, which includes a very complex and rich system of co-verbal signs, pertaining to many intricated systems studied by kinesics, haptics and proxemics, etc. (Birdwhistell, 1952; Kerbrat-Orrechioni, 1994; Andersen, 2008 ). As we become conscious of the strongly dense flow of interconnected signs send within the most elementary communication event, we become more conscious of what has to be the ‘craftsmanship’ of the teacher, or if he could achieve such a level of mastery, his status of an ‘engineer-in-talking-to-teach’ (Filliettaz & Bronckart, 2004).

39But that’s not enough. We have to introduce in our concept of ‘language’ another sphere: the artefacts that are used as signs in the teaching setting (“milieu” à la Brousseau, 1998), who falls within the theory of intruments that Rabardel (1995, 1999) links directly to Vygotsky in a book directed by Yves Clot, Avec Vygotsky (1999).

40And to add a last lay of complexity, we’ll refer to the dynamic conception of signs, conceived not as a-historical and frozen objects, but as the result of a continuous process of interpretation (a semiosis). In that model, historicity and sociality are rooted in the very core of signs. I refer here to the semiotic theory inspired from Peirce, as applied to the forms of significance in educational sciences by our colleagues from Geneva (Moro) and Bordeaux (Bernié & Brossard) in the French speaking community (Moro & Rickenmann, 2004). This paradigm has been applied to a social approach of semiotic construction of skills in a developmental perspective (Moro & Rodriguez, 2004).

41Of course this definition of language was not the main point of Prof. Mercer contribution, but I’d like to know if the very nature of language modality has to be taken into account in the “social brain” model, and how far?

Nonverbal reasoning, nonverbal language

42The precedent question is motivated by my position as a researcher interested in relationships between language(s) and art/esthetic experience and practice. Thus I couldn’t leave Prof. Mercer without telling him my deep curiosity for what could be develop from such assertions like this one, about “non-verbal reasoning” and its “language base”:

“Even non-verbal reasoning has a language base. This is compatible with claims made by Wegerif (2010) and Mercier and Sperber (2011) that human reasoning is essentially dialogic, and so functions best when set in argumentative contexts.” (Mercer, this issue)

43But what is precisely that “language base”? Is it purely verbal, an equivalent or a translator for any signs in any modality? Or does it include some uses of nonverbal language? The observation of ordinary interactions (for instance between two construction workers discussing the best way of resolving a technical problem) shows that they use verbal language mixed with the use of improvised graphic language (a rough sketch rapidly drawn on a wall) and always paraverbal signs like gestures and hands movements expressing such abstract things as strength of material or deformation, etc. This is the kind of associations that come to me when I read this:

“A neuroscientist who has studied both literacy and music, comments: If the hypothesis that the dyslexic brain is inefficient in phase locking to rhythmic information in speech is supported by further studies, we can begin to think about how to facilitate children’s ability to phase lock to any kind of rhythmic information. For example, rhythm is usually more overt in music than in speech. So perhaps the neuroscience-enriched educator would begin with tapping or dancing in time with music.” (Mercer, this issue)

44My interest in that “language base” and “non-verbal language issue” stems from my interest in art languages, and the observation of real behaviors during artwork receptions: as verbal language is not directly available, especially when the viewers are beginners or non-specialists, but when the intensity of experience calls for communication, the subject tries all means to produce signs and maybe, in these situations, body language, facial expressions, body posturing, mime games are used as much as the equivalent in verbal language, that is: metaphors (Ricoeur, 1975; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Gibbs, 2008; Parsons, 2010).

45We may not exactly be talking about ‘non-verbal reasoning’, but rather ‘non-verbal co-experience’, when visual, acoustic or proprioceptive modalities are at stake (Kövecses, 2003; Freeman, 2011). But these issues are central in an educational context, because students are precisely those persons who have not the linguistic resources to think directly the foreign language of knowledge. For researchers like me, working in the domain of art education in its relationships with language at large, it would be of a great interest if we could gather evidence, coming from psychology, that even non-verbal reasoning/experiencing abilities could be improved by verbal co-activity.

“Even in the visual arts, styles of painting are distinguished not just through the use of specialized vocabulary, but through the linguistic invocation of the body of common knowledge that underpins critical analysis and the instruction of novices.” (Mercer, this issue)

46This point may appear to be crucial when we come to struggling with the anthropological process of ‘culture transmission’, in situations where ‘verbal language’ seems to be either absent or strictly unable to transmit or express experience, emotions or even proto-concepts or quasi-assertions signified in artworks or art performances.

47This is an important point, as far as language, and especially writing, is used in professional development practices and explorations in the paradigm of ‘approches cliniques’ (clinical approaches: Blanchard-Laville, 1999; Cifali & Giust-Desprairies, 2008). The same interest is raised by the perspective of using language to “teach emotions” (Colleta & Tcherkassof, 2003) and in the perspective of “education of values and attitude” (Favre, 1998).

To conclude: teacher education requiring a great achievement in the “art of talking to teach” … or to scaffold the “talking-to-learn”

48In order to train efficiently beginning teachers, we need to document and even to control the basic process of subjectivation, the building of habitus (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). For what do we know about the genesis of teacher’s dispositions to do a good job, to be engaged in his/her work and to become as efficient when he uses speech in classroom? How did he become a ‘good scaffolder of classroom speech’? How far can teacher education reach and affect this level of subjectivity (if only this could be the real goal of professional education: one could assume that this is not a mere passive process but a process of empowerment: “développer le pouvoir d’agir”: Clot, 2001).

49Following the assumptions of “professional didactics” (Pastré, 2011), or “didactics of practice” (Billett, 2011), the efficient teacher is not only a speaker but, so to speak, a ‘student listener’: he has to be able to decipher the most tenuous or labile signs coming from his/her students:

“And the benefits are reciprocal. From hearing their students explain their understanding (or misunderstanding), teachers can gain a better understanding of what students do know, or do not know, and so adjust their ‘scaffolding ’ and instructional teaching accordingly” (Mercer, this issue).

50And for teacher educators, the goal is to find the better arrangements in order to let this professional (and critical) skill to develop optimally. Prof. Mercer addresses this issue only by referring to a set of dialogic rules to be applied in the classroom. His paper was not intended to develop this point, but we’d like to read more about it further.

51And I can’t help ending this discussion of Prof. Mercer’s paper without expressing my deep gratitude, not only for the scientific depth of this work, but also by underlining his ethical concerns. For taking into account the social dimension of the simplest classroom interaction is to get conscious of the deep misunderstandings which are threatening the core of the educational process itself. If the brain is social, the social can hinder brain development. The “social brain” theory is in itself ethical: Prof. Mercer’s is explicitly fighting a “reductionist” conception of evolutionary psychology, that remains

“still associated with an inherently individualistic conception of human cognition.” (Mercer, this issue)

and could bring teachers to envisage a classroom as a battlefield where only the better “selfish gene” is supposed to survive. And we agree when he refers to sociodidactics (Rochex & Crinon, 2011) claims that

“this misses one of the most important functions of our social-cognitive capabilities, which is that we are able to engage collectively in purposeful, reflective endeavor.” (Mercer, this issue)


“Given the demonstrated impact of children’s pre-school experience on their academic achievements, and the variety of that experience amongst children, the relationship between language and the social brain achieves a special significance in the classroom. The role of classroom talk for promoting the development of children’s skills in reasoning collectively and reasoning alone thus needs to be recognized as extremely important and be better understood. For some children, classroom dialogue may offer crucial opportunities for learning that could transcend their social destinies.” (Mercer, this issue)

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Jean-Charles Chabanne, « Reaction to Prof. Mercer’s paper: Education and the social brain: linking language, thinking, teaching and learning »Éducation et didactique, 10-2 | 2016, 35-47.

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Jean-Charles Chabanne, « Reaction to Prof. Mercer’s paper: Education and the social brain: linking language, thinking, teaching and learning »Éducation et didactique [En ligne], 10-2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2018, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Charles Chabanne

Professeur à l’Institut Français de l’Éducation, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, université de Lyon

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