Tag Archives: Genes

Psychology and Education: It’s Good To Be Critical.

Psychology is still a very young discipline and one fraught with competing theories, multiple paradigms and methodological problems. It’s also become very popular with teachers, especially with those who are eager to understand how psychology can be used in their own practice.

This interest has led to a flurry of Edu-bloggers and Tweeters taking up the mantle of advising others on how they might go about applying psychology to their classrooms. Often, these amateur psychologists use the knowledge they have gained through reading or attending conferences to engage others and further the knowledge of others.

What I have noticed, however, is that many are so taken by what they have learned that they become uncritical of the information they have acquired. They may be approaching psychology from a cognitive perspective or from any one of the other paradigms available, without applying any kind of critical gaze. When others read these blog posts or engage in online discussion, they often assimilate the information in an equally uncritical way.

If you study psychology formally (as an undergraduate of even an A level student) criticality becomes vital. All paradigms (from Freudian Psychodynamics through to Behavioural, Cognitive, Evolutionary and everything in between) are assessed for their validity and relevance. Indeed, this criticality and understanding of competing paradigms are necessary for a Psychology degree course to be accredited by the British Psychological Society – the first step on a long road to becoming a Chartered Psychologist.

Take, for example, cognitive psychology. We can learn a great deal from studies within this paradigm, especially as it applies to education (cognitive psychology is also the current dominant paradigm). Nevertheless, studies into memory and other cognitive processes are often conducted in highly controlled artificial environments with many of the participants drawn from the psychology undergraduate population. This means that such studies suffer from both low ecological validity (results can’t necessarily be applied to the real world) and sample bias. A 2010 study found that 96 percent of participants in psychology studies represented only 12 percent of the world’s population, while others have found that a large percentage of studies rely solely on student samples (a detail that is often omitted from the published paper). This also raises concerns over the use of non-naïve participants. It’s easier for more knowledgeable participants to second guess the purpose of the study and alter their behaviour according (generally referred to as demand characterises).

Many studies don’t travel well from the laboratory to the classroom. For example, Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets fails to support her earlier findings when they are introduced into a real world environment. However, with such a widely known theory, it remains difficult to find any genuinely naïve participants, certainly within the teaching profession.

What about genes? Surely this is proper science that can’t be disputed? The more recent discipline of behavioural genetics certainly shows promise but also prompts controversy. Much of the controversy concerns the equally controversial construct of general intelligence, or G, (measured as IQ). Statistically, there is little doubt that IQ correlates highly with a large number of positive outcomes. Children of high IQ parents are more likely to have similar IQ’s to their parents (even when raised outside the family) and studies using identical twins support the genetic link, yet the concordance rates are never 100 percent, indeed, they range from about 40 percent up to about 80 percent in some studies. It’s difficult to argue with the statistics, however, those who wholeheartedly support the genetic basis of intelligence are often also those who are highly critical of correlational studies – it’s often their first point of criticism – correlation doesn’t imply causation. Indeed, G itself is a correlation, prompting some to argue that IQ is merely a reification, something that has been made concrete even though it should only exist in abstraction.

Whether we support the existence of a genetic basis of intelligence or not (and I must admit that I don’t doubt the findings), without applying a critical gaze we are in danger of omitting important aspects.

Genes do interact with the environment through what is known as genotype-environment correlation, 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 their children – providing them with a home life which is educationally uninspiring). Correlations can also be evocative whereby certain behaviours are promoted through the child’s genetic predispositions. Finally, such a correlation can be active in that the child actively seeks out opportunities and challenges based on their genetic predisposition (see Plomin and Asbury for a much deeper discussion on this). Such considerations are often conspicuously absent from blog posts, perhaps as a way of supporting a personal ideology, but most likely through a lack of criticality, understanding or simply not reading widely enough.

On a superficial level, even the amateur psychologist understands that there are multiple, often competing paradigms in psychology. While learning tends to be cognitive based, behaviour management is often behaviourist in nature, differing little from the early studies of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner, where teachers are urged to keep order through simple methods of reward and punishment. The potential problem here is that we ignore the ever present social processes taking place, the kids who will endure the sanction because of the belief that they will win points from within their peer group, or emotional aspects where students employ defensive tactics as a way of coping with anxiety or other psychological problems.

Curiously, in a bid to become more critical, many teachers appear to be becoming less so, accepting what they are told by self-styled educational gurus or accepting only the evidence that supports their own view. Unfortunately, Twitter is a poor platform for wider debate and few minds have been changed in 140 characters.

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.