Every September teachers up and down the land welcome new classes of children. Each child they see in front of them is visibly unique and will present them with different challenges as the year progresses. Some will learn easily and well while others will find learning new skills difficult and need additional support. Some, especially the youngest ones, will need the adults in the classroom to help them with reading and numbers, others with concentrating and sitting still, and still others with making friends. Particularly vulnerable children may need help in all of these areas. Children differ and it is important therefore that schools provide equal but different opportunities for them to learn and develop. Teachers understand that many of the differences they see between children are influenced by genes as well as experiences. I say this with confidence because just a few years ago researchers from the UK-based Twins’ Early Development Study (TEDS) asked hundreds of primary school teachers exactly this question and more than 90 per cent said they believed that nature had at least as much impact as nurture on differences between pupils in how well they learn. What teachers see in the classroom is precisely what scientists see in the data. No controversy there.
And yet, when it is publicly acknowledged that children’s achievement in school is influenced by genes a tumbleweed moment often ensues. Putting genetics and education in the same sentence is a modern taboo. There’s a tendency for people to anger quickly and to start throwing around accusations and assumptions which only serve to replace the tumbleweed with a fog of fear and hate. Something similar to this happened last Saturday when the Guardian published a front page article regarding a leaked essay by Michael Gove’s special advisor, Dominic Cummings. Although only a fraction of Cummings’ essay discussed genetics and education this was the fraction that captured media attention and public interest. It was predictable that in the thousands of comments that quickly appeared beneath the Guardian article words like ‘eugenics’ were bandied around.
I have some sympathy for the anxieties underlying this reaction. We all know that there is an unfortunate history of genetic research being used for ill as well as good. However, it surely makes it even more important to discuss scientific findings in this area objectively and to decide as a society how we want to use them. When barriers go up at the mere mention of the word ‘genetics’ such a discussion isn’t possible. Of course nobody wants to believe that children’s abilities and achievements are determined by their genes, or that the actions of parents and teachers count for nothing. And they don’t have to. The evidence is crystal clear that although genes are a major influence on differences between children they determine nothing. Accepting the influence of genes does not involve accepting genetic determinism and doing so actually flies in the face of the evidence. Behavioural genetics is about probability not prophecy. It tells us a great deal about differences between children but nothing at all about the potential of an individual child, or even the relative importance of genes and experience for that particular child. It does tell us that both genes and experience are important and that nature and nurture work together.
Teachers and parents have a vital role to play in nurturing natural potential. Consider, for example, how children learn to read. It makes no sense whatsoever to say that reading is genetic. If children were not taught to read and exposed to lots of print they simply wouldn’t learn, regardless of their DNA. Where genes come into play is in influencing how quickly and how well they learn to read. Genes are a major part of the reason why some children are lost in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Harry Potter by the end of Key Stage One while others just look lost when presented with a simple sentence. We’re a considerable distance from knowing exactly which genes (and for that matter which experiences) influence individual differences in learning but that time is likely to come. We may even reach a stage where we are in a position to screen for learning abilities and disabilities – we’re already there in several branches of medicine. This means that we need serious discussion now if we are to be ready to use evidence and new technologies well and wisely, in the service of a good society.
The comments beneath the Guardian article, and much of the media follow-up since then, have made it abundantly clear how widespread misunderstanding of genetic influence is. There is a need for people like me working in the field to communicate more effectively with teachers, parents, policy-makers and the public. We need to offer reassurance that common anxieties are unfounded and to explain why conditions must be created in which the conversations we need can take place. Otherwise we will only ever discuss the application of genetic research to education through the distorting prism of politics. Making science party political is both inappropriate and unhelpful.
So, let’s remove the taboo about genetics in education and start talking. The debate should be about how we use existing evidence to enhance our schools and provide better opportunities for all children and young people, particularly those who fail to flourish in the current system. In our book, G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement, Robert Plomin and I present some of the most interesting and important behavioural genetic findings regarding education. We cover the 3Rs, science, sport, cognitive ability, special educational needs and the school environment and we explain what genetic influence means – and what it doesn’t – in each instance. In the final section of the book we take a leap in the dark and speculate about educational policies and practices that could make sense in light of the evidence. We put ourselves in Mr Gove’s shoes for a day. Our tentative recommendations cover matters related to the curriculum, special educational needs, extra-curricular activities, teacher training and school size. We go as far as to suggest what a genetically sensitive school might look like, not because we know but because we want to trigger debate.
But our central conclusion is that a genetically sensitive education system should be all about personalised learning – giving every child exactly what they need to go as far as possible in our society. Children come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of talents and personalities. We think it’s time to use the lessons of behavioural genetics to create a school system that celebrates and encourages this wonderful diversity.
Kathryn Asbury is a lecturer in the Pyschology in Education Research Centre at the University of York. Her book G for Genes is available as an ebook now and will be published on November 4th.
Follow her on twitter @KathrynAsbury1