Grégoire Borst

From the Learning Brain to Pedagogy in the Classroom


During his 15-minute talk, Dr. Borst discusses and explains the following:

  • Brain maturation, cognitive development, meta-cognition, self-control and inhibition;
  • What affects personal and professional success;
  • The 3 systems of brain development: heuristic, deliberate and attentional;
  • Training, experiments and activities in cognitive control alongside 160 classes and 4000 students from pre-K to 9th grade;
  • The classical school system v.s. the meta-cognitive approach

Dr. Borst defines a "Prepared Adult" as: An adult that can exert free will, express empathy to others, be altruistic and tolerant and reason logically even on complex issues. Someone that has the ability to flourish intellectually, emotionally, and socially.


Grégoire Borst is a full Professor of developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience of education at the University of Paris. He is the director of the Laboratory for the study of Child Development and Education (CNRS) at La Sorbonne and a junior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. Borst obtained his PhD in 2005 from Paris Sud University and was then a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University from 2006 to 2010. His work focuses on the role of cognitive and emotional control on the cognitive and socio-emotional development of children and adolescents and on learning at school and in everyday life. Borst has published more than 70 scientific articles and 6 books including two for children to explain the basics of the brain and the mind. He works in close collaboration with the educational community. Borst is also a senior fellow of the International Bureau of Education (IBE – UNESCO) and a junior fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF).


What I wanted to present to you. It's going to be mainly about, well, how to try to think of how to bridge the gap between labs and classroom. That's been a thing we've been trying to do over the last 15 to 20 years in the lab. I'm running in Paris, the Sorbonne. So I'm both the doctor and the professor, actually. So I'm trying like the professor at the university. So I'll try to keep it short, which is not my best ability. But I thought I would be the only French guy going over time. But like, apparently, like it's a general trend today. So I'm very happy to be like apart from the group that is always going over time. This is the type of talk I gave to teachers, not necessarily in public schools, both for primary and secondary schools. The first thing in the first point I'm trying to make is that brain maturation is dynamic and asynchronous. This is something that is important because there is a lot of neuro myth, long maturation and brain maturation in specifically. You might wonder why it is important to debunk those type of neuro myth because it has a very strong effect on how we think about cognitive development and because cognitive development is so important about the way we teach and the way we conceive pedagogy. I think it's important to to make the case that it's also true at the biological level, then to make the case that if it's true at the biological level, it might be true also at the cognitive and socio emotional level.

So I'm not going to go in the details. We're going to have a lot of time. But usually what I'm trying to make the case for is that, well, first of all, like maturation curve, which is like depicted here, which is basically the thickness of the cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain. There is two different stages in brain maturation, one where you multiply the connection between the neurons, and so mechanically you increase the thickness of the cortex. And this is depicted as the first part of each of these curves. And then there is a second part where the thickness decrease basically in the cortex due to the selection of the connection that allows for the best adaptation of the biological system to the environment. And this occurs at different rates in different parts of the brain. So again, like we all have this biases to think of development either at the brain or cognitive level as a continuous and very linear development. But this is not true. I mean, this is fundamentally not true. And what we know now is extremely dynamic and nonlinear, which is actually, I mean, quite obvious when you look at the behavior of the children in the classroom. Well, the second very important point is that period of high sensitivity of the brain to the environment is not restricted to 0 to 3 years of age.

I mean, this is very strongly basically ingrained in the in education. But like, I mean, not everything goes from 0 to 3. I mean, like actually the sensitivity of the brain during adolescence is as important to the environment is as important during adolescence, then from 0 to 3 years of age. And then the last part is that brain maturation is extremely long in the human species, the range from 0 to 22 years of age. So, I mean, you're not an adult when you're 18 or 21. And this is also very important when we conceive education and learning. Well. So if except if you're a strong duelist and strong Cartesian. If brain maturation is dynamic and non-linear, while cognitive development is also dynamic and non-linear, and this is quite important to make a case for that because like, as you know, I mean the the position model of development is very strongly ingrained in teachers, at least in France. And this is still in my pre service teachers. This is what we trained them on. Like we, we teach them like the position model for them to conceive cognitive development. But this is like, like we went over this model approximately 60 years ago. So there is no cognitive development lab in the world.

Now that is a bit serious that think about cognitive development in a way that I thought about it for two main reasons. First of all, like babies have way more capabilities than fact like that. Babies can do like simple arithmetic operation. They can do empirical, inferential Bayesian reasoning. They are also displaying a lot of prosocial behavior. And the second idea, which is important, is that as adults will still make a lot of errors, even in very simple situation. And this is completely against the position model in which at 15 years of age, basically you acquire a logical structure that allows you to think logically in any kind of context. So we move to different tomorrow that a bit more dynamic, a bit more complex to understand and which is a bit more reflect, a bit more like cognitive development in children and social emotional development in which actually era is not age dependent but context dependent. And you can actually observe that in the classroom. You can see that actually children can actually express an ability within a context. You change the context and then, yes, like difficulty to express this ability. And so what we're working on in the lab, which is makes us still a new position lab, is we're still trying to develop a global understanding of cognitive development through the emergence of three big systems in the brain, a system one that is like the whole heuristic system, which is like all about like approximate strategies, automatism that we create over time that are very efficient, very fast, and they are very effortless and they works very well, but not in all contexts.

And we need like this system one to function very quickly in, in our society. But like from time to time, we make systematic years in the classroom and out of the classroom because we relying too strongly on those automatism. And so what we need to learn in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom from time to time, is to reengage our deliberative, deliberative, analytical system of thoughts like it's very slow and effortful strategy, but if you use those strategies, usually you don't make mistakes. And what we're arguing in the lab, you cannot understand yours and success through the lens of this system. You need a third system that is very much what basically Maria montessori was arguing for, which is basically the attentional system or the attentional control system in cognitive control system. And so what we think in the lab is that cognitive development is is essential essentially based on the interplay between these three systems that evolve over time. And so what we are interested in and why do we know that cognitive control, but more generally self-control is important for academic learning and professional achievement. So there is like this massive studies have been run in the basically in the in the in Canada where they follow like a group of 1000 children over 30 years of time and they measured during childhood self-control, IQ and socioeconomic status.

And then they measure at adolescence a bunch of variables that reflects academic success, but also like risk, risk making. And then they also looked at what happened when those children grow up and what happened for them, like from the in the physical and mental health, but also well-being. And what because it's the same cohort that you follow over time, you can like determine to what extent individual differences in IQ, self-control or socioeconomic status. Explain, for instance, academic success. And what they found was that actually, like the variables that explain less, the individual variability of like academic success but also professional achievement is IQ. And this is interesting because like in most systems and especially the French system, what like the strong emphasis is about like basically. How to gain an accumulate knowledge over time, which is basically which year you spend in the system. You gain IQ points. But if this is not predictive of your professional achievement and well-being, then it might be the other type of competencies that we need to develop in our system. Or, as you may might have already guessed, socioeconomic status is the big driving factors of your professional achievement and academic achievement. But in this specific sample, actually what was most predictive was individual differences in self-control.

So there is a strong need to try to to understand how we can foster self control. And I mean, like Montessori as a category has a lot going on and how to develop those type of skills. But more generally social emotional skills that we know now that are the most predictive of your professional achievement, but also your ability to adapt over time. So what we've been trying to do in the lab is to bridge the gap between the lab and the classroom, but also going from a dialogue that goes from lab to classroom, but also classroom to the lab. And we've been running a lot of experience that we publish in international scientific journals, in the role that play that cognitive control plays in academic learning, starting with academic learning in which you observe systematic difficulties in children. So you can go to the next slide. So for instance, we we we showed that, you know, that there is a difficulty for children to compare letters or mirror image of each other. It's most probably due to the fact that learning to read is actually producing a major reorganization of the brain for each new cultural tool that our brain acquire. You change and you reconfigure the brain, and especially when you learn to read your specialized parts of the visual system for letters and words presented visually. Except that this part of the brain, because it's a new cultural tool at the phylogenetic time, basically these neurons they have the the the the properties to generalize in mirror.

So and this is very adaptive to for instance recognize the faces. If I my face is going to the right or to the left, you can recognize me very easily due to this mirror generalization process. But of course it's detrimental for the recognition of letters and words presented that are mirror of each other, such as DMD. And so what we showed is that independent of your level of or your prevention in reading, if you want to compare BMD, you have to learn to inhibit, to resist to this automatism. We also worked on the solving arithmetic word problem, such as John as ten marbles. He has five more marbles. And William, how many marbles do William have? And here also we showed that systematic difficulties of children at school is actually reflecting a difficulty to resist to an automatism. Within this context, we worked on the composition of rational numbers. You know that some students have difficulty to understand that 5.3 45 is actually smaller than 5.4 because they transferred to do a negative transfer from an approximate strategy that created during when they learn to compare whole numbers and if they transfer the strategy to a rational numbers, they make systematic errors. And again, we showed that cognitive control was critical within this context.

And we also show it for inflecting the verb in central in sentences such as The Dog of my friends eat or to reason on the buoyancy of I argue, but it's off objects. And we just published this paper recently in GCP. So basically what we did in the lab was to, to, to try to understand what type of intervention might foster disability, to overcome systematic difficulties in context in which you have like an interference between a system one, an automatism and heuristic, and the analytical, deliberate strategy that you should use within this context. And I'm going to go very quickly on that. But basically, we we use a randomized controlled trials, pre-test process, and we vary the type of intervention. And what we showed is that the only basically intervention that works within this context is actually to use kind of a metacognitive approach in which we make the the the conflict, we make the, the learners aware of the conflict within the specific context and how to resist inhibit this automatism in order to use a more logical strategy. And what you see on the right part of the screen is basically basically the neuro plastic processes going on before and after learning. So those are the same learners before and after learning when they're achieving like a change in their strategy, as you can see, like before, when they make like systematic here within this context, they use the, the more the posterior part of the brain.

And if you use the right political lever you produce like a different response at the behavioural level that is supported by a change in the neural network that is engaged within this specific activity. Well, the key here is to show that actually within this network that is allows for the people to shift from a systematic error to success within this context, actually emotional part of the brain are actually activated. So it's not about just purely like logical reasoning, like core reasoning, it's also about all the emotions that are engaged in learning. And actually most of the errors we make produce emotions. And it's because we remember those emotions that we change our response on the next time we are encounter this context so we can move a couple of slides because the other way that we won't have the time. So we move to that. I can go to that another time. Okay, so that's what we've been doing for the last three years. Our basically our observation was that it was super difficult to to bridge the gap between a lab that do development of psychology, psychology of education, neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience through and try to reach the teachers in the classroom are not to to tell them what to do like what pedagogy to run in the. But just like to inform them about the type of research we were doing in the lab and how they can like use this research to interact, like to ask questions about their pedagogy and to like basically try to other types of approach for when a teacher encounters systematic difficulty in some type of learning.

So the key here is like we are a small lab, there is a 15 pigs in the lab. I'm running. But if we want to reach out to a lot of teachers, we need to use like basically a numeric platform and online platform. So we partner with a big French publisher, Connaughton, in which where we created Virtual Lab and we started to do participatory open citizen research within the field of education in relationship with development of psychology. So that's what we've been doing. So next slide, please. Step one was to try to to let them know that we were existing. So we did this online interactive video conference with more than 160 classes. We are like more than 40,000 students that attend this conference where we talked about the brain. And so from actually preschool children all the way to middle school children. And we talked about the brain. We received like more than 800 questions in real time during the 45 minutes of the conference. The step two was actually to work with the teachers to try to identify systematic errors that might be due to automatism or approximately of strategy that's been constructed over time in previous years of learning, and to see whether we can identify those and work like on what were causing systematic difficulties within this context.

So the third step was actually something that the the the teachers asked for. So they said, well, look, I mean, you're saying that cognitively control is super important in learning, but we do have a lot of actually activities in the classroom that foster cognitive control. Can we show that those activities are actually improving cognitive control? Yeah, well, if you want to do that, then we use RCT, so we have to do a pre test, post test and then within the same classroom have half of the students working with like playing some games and half of the students playing other type of games. So we constructed the whole experiment with the teachers, so they kind of give us input on how to evaluate on the test and the pass test, what type of intervention we can come out with for the control group and the experimental group. And then they run the whole thing in the classroom and we explain why it was important to do random assignment to the two groups and so forth and so on. And you go very quickly. We use the strip test, which is a very classical task in psychology, in which you have to identify the colour of the ink that is used to to write the different words.

And there is a conflict between the colour of the word and the colour of the ink. And what you can see on the right part of the screen is that the control group is in blue, the experimental group is in purple. And actually between the pre test and the posters, the experimental group, the learning aid is higher in the experimental group than in the control group. So what we showed was that actually now we try to apply that to real school situation basically, and trying to see whether kind of classical approach works better or worse than more kind of a metacognitive approach in which you teach the students very explicitly what are the biases that kind of conflict with the type of abilities they need to mobilize within this context and how to inhibit those automatism? So next slide, still using a pre-test post-test and having two groups in each classroom. So we did three tests, immediate post-test, then post-test. After a couple of weeks, we worked on arithmetic word problems. And just to go quickly over it, we looked at the green one goes to a metacognitive training. The gray one goes to a kind of classical one where you just explain the rule to apply within this context. And again, the metacognitive approach seems to work better, but it works better in the classroom.

So that's the teachers themselves run the experiment and also basically provide their own evidence that this approach work better than like the classical one. Next slide, please. So based on all of this participatory research that allows us to actually create pedagogical material for the classroom, for the teachers. So we created actually a game that you can play with preschoolers that to foster executive functions and especially flexibility, cognitive flexibility. And we also created with like teachers a whole like pedagogical sequence in order to teach how to innovate, how to foster the ability to resist the automatism in the brain of the non reading and reading students. We also write a couple of books on the brain, but you have to learn French if you want to read those books. We rewrote a couple of books for actually teachers, but also a couple of books to explain how the brain works to the students, because we know that this is a big leverage to basically explain why. I mean, to imply growth mindset basically in the students. And last but not least, why actually least? Well, that's just like to thank all the members of my lab because it's a big lab. A lot of us are working on this and I'm just like the strawmen today and just explaining what we've been doing. But all those great collaborative mine are actually producing all the data I've been presenting today. Thanks a lot for your attention.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.