Genes – Should we fear them?

There has been much media attention surrounding the role of genes and education lately. It all kicked off a few months ago with a visit to the Department of Education from behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin (of which I have written previously) and continued with the controversial thesis by former Gove advisor Dominic Cummings. The ‘thesis’ coincided with the publication of ‘g is for Genes’ a book detailing the possible links between genetics and academic achievement by Plomin and University of York academic Dr Kathryn Asbury. Journalists from all sides of the political spectrum began to comment on the good, bad and ugly of genetic research and the ethics of such science was debated on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, where one panellist came close to declaring Plomin and Asbury the antichrist.

I decided that the best way to get some kind of grip on the topic was to read the book, so as soon as it was available I downloaded the electronic version and began wading through a branch of research I knew little about. I approached the book with a certain degree of trepidation. First of all I was unsure if I would understand it all (and I’m still not totally convinced I do); secondly I was expecting to dislike the whole idea that academic achievement might be more about genes than about effort. Finally (and related to the second point), Kathryn Asbury just happens to be my PhD supervisor (this could prove awkward, I thought).

As it turns out, there is much to like about ‘G is for Genes’ and it’s far from the dogmatic, eugenics inspired work some sections of the press had led me to expect. The data is essentially drawn from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a project based at King’s College London and involving more than 10,000 families.

The basic premise of the book draws on a process known as the ‘genotype-environment correlation’. Essentially, this is the view that both the environment and our individual genotype interact in different ways. These correlations can be passive (for example, low achieving/low aspiring parents will pass both their genes and their attitude to education on to the their children – providing them with a home life which is educationally uninspiring). Correlations can also be ‘evocative’ where certain behaviours are promoted through the child’s genetic predispositions. Asbury and Plomin suggest that teachers who recognise this may offer more opportunities to a child who, say, shows a particular skill with numbers. Finally, such a correlation can be ‘active’ in that the child actively seeks out opportunities and challenges based on their genetic predisposition. Genes, insist Asbury and Plomin, are generalists while environments are specialists.

The book essentially suggests that children are far from ‘blank slates’ and this view will concern many teachers (although the idea began to fall out of favour during the waning years of behaviourism in the 1950’s and 1960’s) and that all of us are guided more by genetics than environment. That said, the role of the environment (and, more specifically, the role of the school environment) plays an essential role in recognising and nurturing those genetic predispositions. A child, for example, might show signs of particular skill in maths but that skill won’t necessarily be recognised unless the school environment is stimulating enough or teachers are able to recognise and nurture such a predisposition. This would naturally assume, I think, that skilled (and therefore qualified and trained) teachers are vital to the education of all children, no matter where their genetic propensities lie.

So what about IQ? Intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) is not only correlated with academic success, it also appears to be genetic. Surely, then, we could simply test pre-school children for IQ and then stream them into educational systems that make the most of their genetic intelligence? This is essentially what the 11+ exams used to do (and still does in many parts of the UK) and research into this area has led some to use it in order to advocate a return to the two-tier system. Asbury and Plomin point out that this is perhaps an erroneous suggestion due to research that finds that IQ rarely remains static – a four-year-old might score highly on an IQ test only to discover that IQ has actually fallen five years later. As teachers we are all too familiar with the child who arrives in year 7 at level 5, only to find them struggling to achieve 5 good GCSE’s in year 11. If we were to use IQ to influence teaching (and I’m not sure we should) we would need to test it at regular intervals during the school years. If we were to re-introduce the 11+ exam nationally, we could be doing a huge disservice to those children who might not yet have encountered an environment stimulating enough for them to reach their genetic potential.

Of course teachers deal in individuals while behavioural geneticists deal in populations. Many teachers don’t consider the comprehensive system to be a  ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach so bemoaned by right-wing politicians and media outlets. Good teachers will tailor their teaching to individuals whenever they can and the private sector is able to do this even more successfully. Furthermore, the authors fully support theories that attempt to encourage children to think of intelligence as malleable rather than static and the work of Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck is briefly encountered throughout the book.

The final part of ‘G is for Genes’ takes the reader on a tour of educational personalisation as well as ‘Eleven Policy Ideas’. Here Asbury and Plomin return to Dweck by suggesting that education should nurture a ‘growth mindset’ as well as advocating the increased use of technology in order to further personalise the learning process. The Eleven Policy ideas is the section where, I suspect, some teachers might find issues. The suggestion that reducing the curriculum down to basic skills (reading, writing, numeracy, ICT) will horrify many teachers but the authors counter this by adding that there should be a greater number of optional choices in order to supplement basic skills. Other policy ideas are interesting and seem simple but would, equally worry some. One particular suggestion is to forget about labels (e.g. dyslexic, autistic, gifted, etc.) and simply give help where it is needed, coupled with mantra ‘the abnormal is normal’. Others are less controversial: ‘Teach children how to succeed’ seems fair to me, as does the increase of work and college based vocational education.

G is Genes isn’t a frightening book (although the suggestion that children should be ‘chipped’ in order to determine their genetic propensities does smack of 1984). As I said, there is much to like, but much to feel wary about as well. Of course academics don’t make policy, they simply make suggestions and ultimately it’s the politicians who decide how such research is used (if it is used at all). The danger is that all this can so easily be used to fuel an agenda and take society down a road that leads to the further marginalisation of certain groups. If used morally and within standards of basic human dignity and advancement it could also prove to be a great leveller, ensuring that all children reach their potential.

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2 thoughts on “Genes – Should we fear them?

  1. Kathryn Asbury

    Hi Marc. Glad it didn’t turn out to be awkward! And thank you for taking the time to read the book. I’m especially glad your review focused on the importance of teachers, particularly in creating opportunities for fruitful genotype-environment correlations. The initial Guardian piece, in response to Cummings’ essay, was damaging in suggesting that teachers are unimportant. I hope we’ve showed in the book that genetic research does not show this to be the case – teachers are vital. We know that some teachers are good at personalising teaching and learning – something the research suggests is likely to be very important – but we also think our educational system could make it easier for teachers to work in this way. We’re interested to hear teachers’ “issues” with our 11 suggestions. They really were just intended as a starting point and could be seen as 11 Research Questions. We would welcome any imput, particularly from teachers! Finally, I like your final sentence. It is exactly what we would like to see happen. Thanks again for reading and reviewing. Kathryn

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Post Of The Week – Thursday 21st November | DHSG Psychology Research Digest

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