Sébastien Goudeau is a social psychology researcher at the University of Poitiers in France. Sébastien studies the early roots of achievement gaps, and how preschools can inadvertently disadvantage working-class students. Sébastien talks with Annie Brookman-Byrne about his journey from teacher to researcher, and the power that social situations can have on individuals.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: What first drew you to research social psychology in schools?

Sébastien Goudeau: Before becoming a researcher, I was a primary school teacher for six years. During that time, I often asked myself this question: Although teachers do their best to offer all children in the classroom the same chances, why do schools fail to level the social playing field? In France, and perhaps other countries, many teachers, parents, and psychologists believe that differences in academic achievement reflect individual characteristics such as intelligence, motivation, or self-control. Wanting to find out whether this is true, and if not, what is really behind classroom inequalities, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree and then a PhD in social psychology. 

My studies focused on how the learning environment impacts academic performance. When I started my PhD studies, I was immediately fascinated by research on stereotype threat – the idea that fear of being judged according to a stereotype reduces performance – and the negative impact of a cultural mismatch between the home and school. I came to realize how context can play a role in constructing inequality. Inspired by this research, I decided to investigate how classroom interactions and social comparisons between children can perpetuate inequalities. I observed that when children compare themselves with their peers, or feel pressure from a teacher to perform, their achievement may suffer.

“When children compare themselves with their peers, or feel pressure from a teacher to perform, their achievement may suffer.”

ABB: What else have you discovered through your research?

SG: In preschools, whole-class discussions are intended to give all children equal opportunities to speak, with the goal of reducing any disparities in language skills that may stem from social class. However, my team found that such discussions do not in fact offer every child the same opportunity for oral participation. Instead, working-class children speak less, and less frequently, than their middle- and upper-class peers, whether or not contributions are solicited by the teacher.

Importantly, these differences are not due to differences in oral language proficiency – it is not because they lack the ability to express themselves that working-class students talk less. Rather, the working-class environments in which these children are raised clash with the middle-class norms that are prevalent in schools. The way they express themselves and their cultural experiences are less valued in the classroom.  

To understand the power of context on inequalities, I also look at how children and teachers explain differences in achievement. Young children, for example, appear to believe that differences in achievement are due to inherent individual characteristics, overlooking the impact of external factors. Preschoolers tend to believe that differences in oral participation reflect inherent characteristics such as ability or effort. These explanations can affect learning, which ultimately contributes to educational inequalities. Indeed, when middle- and upper-class students perceive that they are viewed positively, this may reinforce their (already strong) patterns of engagement, setting them up for academic success in the future. Conversely, working-class students may believe that they are seen as less competent, which might make them more reluctant to contribute in the future—a vicious cycle.

“Inequalities that are constructed at preschool lay the groundwork for achievement gaps throughout a student’s educational career.”

ABB: Will your research help to reduce the academic inequalities you see in preschools?

SG: Shedding new light on the early roots of achievement gaps in the educational setting designed to combat such gaps is critical. Inequalities that are constructed at preschool lay the groundwork for achievement gaps throughout a student’s educational career. My goal is to support teachers, schools, and policymakers in sharing good practices, interventions, and policies to reduce early disparities.

In a recent intervention, we examined how teachers can level the playing field by providing equal opportunities for engagement for students from different backgrounds. We began the intervention by making teachers aware of variations in oral contributions by social class. We pointed out that these differences are malleable, and not a reflection of fixed differences in ability; they are more likely the product of a cultural mismatch between the experiences of working-class students and the school environment. Finally, we suggested some strategies for ensuring that all children have equal opportunities to participate. We are still analysing the data but we hope that strategies like monitoring children’s participation will help to address the inequalities that currently exist.

“Teachers can level the playing field.”

ABB: Has working in this field changed your views?

SG: Researching this has been a revelation. I am now more aware of the impact a given situation can have on an individual. It is clear that subtle cues, such as non-verbal feedback, can influence how children think, feel, and behave. I have also come to have a more contextual and malleable view of individuals – understanding that people can change.

More on Sébastien Goudeau’s work
Do children believe abilities are fixed?

ABB: What ideas are you most excited about pursuing next?

SG: In recent years, valuable new tools have been developed for assessing behaviour and psychology, allowing researchers to explore interactions within a group and the psychological consequences of those interactions. I intend to use these tools to measure behaviour in real-life situations. For example, we can film scenarios using multiple synchronized cameras and sensors to capture interactions and distances between students. To examine the psychological experience and quality of these interactions, I plan to measure physiological markers of stress and emotions using skin conductance and movements of facial muscles. These technologies generate large datasets, and I hope to use artificial intelligence to analyse these data more efficiently. Such large quantities of data can mean long hours of coding, and AI could automatize some of this process.

I am excited to use these new tools to study marginalized communities around the world with my collaborators. Together, I hope we can offer all children more equitable access to education and better opportunities for development and learning.


Sébastien Goudeau was a primary school teacher for six years before joining the faculty of the University of Poitiers as an associate professor of social psychology. He conducts his research on schools, from kindergarten to university, at the Center for Research on Cognition and Learning. He teaches at INSPE (Institut national supérieur du professorat et de l’éducation/ National Higher Institute of Teaching and Education), where he trains future teachers. Sébastien is a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow 2023-2025.

@Seb_Goudeau on X

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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