Tag Archives: Plomin

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.

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.