Tag Archives: g is for Genes

Is Daniel Willingham the new Mind Gym?

“…don’t follow leaders” (Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues)

Over the past week or so I’ve been asked several times about what I think of Daniel Willingham’s book Why don’t students like school? With some embarrassment I’ve been forced to inform the inquisitors that I hadn’t actually read it. I knew much of its contents, of course, seeing as pretty much every educational blogger in the UK has reviewed, disseminated and debated it over the past year or so. In fact, its influence on teachers in the UK has been nothing short of phenomenal, so, over the past few days I’ve been making my through the book to see what all the fuss is about. Just to note, this is not a review of the book (others have done a much more thorough job of it than I can) it’s really just a few thoughts strung together concerning its success in the UK.

I have to admit that, despite being involved in either studying or teaching psychology for the best part of two decades, I hadn’t even heard of Willingham until a little over a year ago, so when his named kept cropping on Twitter and on educational blogs I thought I must have been sleepwalking through the last twenty years (my undergraduate degree is in psychology and much of my MEd was related to cognitive impairments in learning).

I found it refreshing that teachers were beginning to take an interest in cognitive psychology and educational research, yet I was slightly baffled as to why Willingham had become the poster boy for this burgeoning grassroots movement. I think I now understand.

Much of Why students don’t like school? would be familiar to most psychology graduates who studied topics such as memory and problem solving as part of their undergraduate degrees. I’ll admit to skipping a great deal of the book as I quickly realised I was returning to Karl Duncker’s Candle Problem and the Towers of Hanoi. Some of it will also be familiar to anyone with an A-level in psychology, especially the parts specifically related to working memory. My point is that essentially, there is nothing really ground-breaking here – it’s cognitive psychology, but with an educational twist.

What Willingham has wonderfully managed is to take an area of science, which is often shunned by teachers, and make it highly accessible – this is what academics are notoriously bad at. There are plenty of cognitive psychologists; just very few who have managed to capture the imagination of teachers in this way. This is evident in the educational blogs I often read. For example, I read little citing Alan Baddeley or Graham Hitch, the two giants of working memory (currently at the University of York – my own part-time stomping ground) or indeed, any other influential cognitive psychologists.

Willingham isn’t the only one who has managed to cross the divide. I suspect that one of the great success stories of the next 12 months will be Make it stick (Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel) a book full of evidence and tips on how to get your students to use their memory more effectively. This is perhaps, in part, due to the rush to devour everything cognitive, while other areas of psychology are assumed to have little relevance.

Other, equally relevant, areas have perhaps been neglected. Asbury and Plomin’s G is for Genes caused a blip of controversy (mainly by those who didn’t read it) but appears to have died away quickly without making any major impact. Similarly, the work of Australian educational psychologist Andrew Martin tends to be confined to academia (and Australia) even though its possible benefits for teachers are highly significant (his Building Classroom Success is an excellent read and supported by a host of evidence). There is also some fascinating work coming out of both The Institute for Effective Education and The Psychology in Education Research Centre (both also at York – sorry!)

Cognitive psychology might just be the flavour of the month, or it might entice teachers to stay a little longer – it remains the dominant psychological paradigm so it should be around for while. Unfortunately, there are other guests waiting to be entertained and teachers shouldn’t neglect them.

Are we simply replacing Mind/Brain Gym and VAK with Willingham and Goldacre or are we all part of new movement still finding its feet? Are we creating new celebrities whose every word we hang on to or are we looking for a new direction?

Only time will tell.


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.