Elizabeth Spelke teaches in the Psychology Department at Harvard and participates in the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines at MIT. Formerly at Pennsylvania, Cornell, and MIT, she is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. Her awards include the 2016 Carvalho-Heineken Prize in Cognitive Sciences, the 2014 NAS Prize in the Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, the 2009 Jean Nicod Prize, and honorary degrees from the Universities of Umea (1993), Paris-Descartes (2007), Utrecht (2010), and the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Paris, 1999). Her work is strongly marked by three sabbaticals in Paris that spawned longstanding collaborations with investigators in the cognitive and brain sciences.
Human infants knowledge about objects, animate beings, the social world, geometry, and number. Children development of new systems of knowledge, especially prior to the start of formal schooling. Through this research, and in interdisciplinary collaborations with neuroscientists, computational cognitive scientists, philosophers, linguists, and economists, she aims to understand our uniquely human talent for learning both so fast and so flexibly.
Every child counts: Enhancing the literacy and numeracy of poor children
With Esther Duflo and Stanislas Dehaene, I will design a field experiment to implement and evaluate two sets of games for poor children to play in preschools, exercising and training basic skills in mathematics and reading. The proposal builds on past research with Duflo in India. In one completed field experiment, children in 214 preschool classrooms were randomized to receive math games (based on basic research on numerical and spatial cognition), games with the same structure but with social content (active control), or the regular preschool curriculum (no-treatment control). All children were assessed on school math abilities before and at three time points after the 4-month intervention. Relative to both control conditions, children who played the math games showed enduring gains in numerical and geometrical abilities. A second, ongoing field experiment, designed with Duflo and with input from Stanislas Dehaene, extends our work by introducing symbolic material into the math games. We will develop games aimed to enhance the readiness of poor preschool children for learning to read. I also work with Emmanuel Dupoux and Pierre Jacob to develop interventions to enhance poor children's aptitude and motivation to learn from literate and numerate adults. Thus I aim to contribute to leverage basic research in cognitive science and to improve the education of all children, especially the poor.