Why teachers should resist deterministic views of learning

The academic underachievement of working class children is nothing new; it’s just that MP’s in the UK have finally decided to investigate it. To be more precise, the Education Select Committee have launched an investigation into the reasons behind the educational underachievement of white working class children. While underachievement amongst this group is common throughout the developed world, so is the research that has attempted to identify its causes.

From the outset I think that we have to establish that education and educational policy is never apolitical. Certainly, more recently, education policy appears to have been motivated, at least in part, by the editorial policy of the British press, leading to moral panics that don’t necessarily have any place in educational reality. The general population then become convinced that the British education system is no longer fit for purpose – the government then translates such misguided opinion into policy in an attempt to secure the public vote.

We also have to establish that there is a tendency for those involved in education at all levels to take some kind of political standpoint and accuse those who don’t agree with them as taking the opposite view. This can then lead to absurd comments from, amongst others, the Secretary of State for Education who recently claimed that Marxist teachers were the new enemies of promise, hell bent on destroying our schools. Such prosperous pontifications help no one – especially not the children who we are here to help fulfil their potential.

Returning to working class underachievement, the first real attempt to look into education from the perspective of social class was made by radical economists Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis. In their 1976 critique of education in the United States – Schooling in Capitalist America – Bowles and Gintis attempted to establish the reason why so many working class children fall behind their middle class counterparts. They concluded that schools have a tendency to reward behaviours such as compliance while belittling other characteristics such as creativity. The problem at the time was that Bowles and Gintis were unable to support their opinions with any solid empirical evidence so it fell upon others to collect and analyse further data. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Jean Anyon at the City University of New York, conducted observational research in five elementary schools ranging from predominantly working class through to ‘executive elite schools’. Anyon found that methods of teaching in these schools were set to match the perceived ability of the children, based on categories of social class – so the working class children were instructed, compliance was rewarded and simple routines were enforced. As the school rose in the socio-economic scale the education itself altered; pupils were given more freedom of choice, instruction became understanding and there was less emphasis on arbitrary rules and regulations. Ultimately, the quality of education the children received was dependent upon where they resided on a social class scale.

But could it be that working class children are simply less intelligent?

Recently, the psychologist and behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin has suggested that academic achievement is around 60 per cent genetic. His views were printed in a number of right-wing publications including the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator and The Daily Mail. As The Spectator quite rightly points out, Plomin has ‘no political axe to grind’ (although he does have a book out in the UK in September!) so his recent visit to discuss his views with the Department of Education officials might not be part of any political agenda.  As the actual academic paper referred to in the press does not yet appear to be available, it’s difficult to be sure if the assumptions made in the Daily Mail (or any other publication) are entirely accurate (I understand the DM has been a little inaccurate in its science journalism in the past).

Plomin has taken his data from the Twins Early Development Study (Teds) – a study of all twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1996 and currently consisting of around 13,000 pairs of twins. Essentially the study is an attempt to identify the impact nature and nurture has on our cognition, learning and behaviour. Twins (especially identical twins) provide rich material to disentangle nature and nurture due to them sharing 100 per cent of their genes.

Unfortunately, the danger is that the underachievement of working class children could be attributed to their lack of genetically inherited intelligence rather than other factors such as family background, parental involvement, public perceptions or cultural capital. Let’s also not forget that recent findings from neuroscience have found a huge increase in synaptogenesis (the forging of new connections between brain cells) throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. The brain is still developing, and at a startling rate.

Furthermore, several things struck me while reading The Spectator piece. I’ll include the quote and then offer an observation (forgive me if some of them sound a little naïve – I’m not a geneticist).

“First, GSCE and IQ only correlate 0.5. Which means GCSEs aren’t a great measure of what we would normally call academic intelligence”.

So what are we actually measuring – intelligence or the ability to pass a GCSE?

“GSCE results turn out to be strikingly heritable — 60 per cent, when at that age, 16, IQ is only 40 per cent heritable”.

So we know that IQ can be measured using methods designed to measure IQ. That might sound a little odd, but the experimental psychologist Edwin Boring (one of the founding fathers of IQ testing) claimed, “Intelligence is what the tests test” so I would dispute The Spectator’s oversimplification of the Intelligence Quotient, while not rejecting the concept of IQ entirely.

“So the reason why children’s GCSE results vary is more to do with their genes than their environment”.

While not disputing this entirely either, this seems like a bit of leap to me and I’m not sure if this is an assumption made by Plomin or The Spectator. Notice also that concordance levels are not 100 per cent. A similar illustration would be that schizophrenia is around 40 – 50 per cent genetic so if one of a pair of identical twins suffers from schizophrenia there is only about a 50 per cent chance the other one will (much higher than the 1 per cent of the general population – but still not determined). There is, therefore, no guarantee that identical twins will both score highly in GCSE’s or on IQ (in fact research using the Teds study has also found significant differences in many pairs of identical twins in terms of educational attainment, personality and lifestyle).

While IQ remains an important measure of academic success, scoring high on an IQ test won’t guarantee it. Ruth Lawrence gained an O level in maths when she was 9 years old; her A-level in pure maths at the same age (a grade A) and graduated from Oxford University at 13. She then completed a second degree in physics and a PhD. She is now Associate Professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Andrew Halliburton has an IQ of 145 (that makes him a genius!) and gained an A grade in his Scottish Higher exams when he was 14. However, Andrew dropped out of university after a year and in 2010 was working in McDonalds.

Sometimes the relatively small percentage attributed to nurture can make all the difference.

While the influence of factors other than genetics are more difficult to measure, that doesn’t mean that we should give up on trying. Research into factors such as academic self concept, implicit theories of intelligence, buoyancy and ‘grit’ is beginning to reward us with a greater understanding of success and failure within an academic setting and, unlike more deterministic views, such concepts don’t necessarily reinforce class stereotypes. The thought of genetic scanning to identify those more likely of academic success reeks of eugenics while at the same time ignores the capacity for human growth and potential.

Ultimately, education should not only be a leveller; it should be a liberator and should never become an oppressor. As educators and policy makers it should be our goal to get the most out of all children regardless of their background and regardless of our often-arbitrary measures of success and failure.

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