Reading in progress: G is for Genes

This book recently came on my radar because I encountered some research asking teachers how useful they thought behavioural genetics was for classroom practice. This seemed to me to be another case of, ‘Dear teachers, we wish to conduct research into [posited educational mechanism, in this case, behavioural genetics]. Please tell us in advance that you think it might be useful, so that we can convince educational awarding bodies to fund our research.’ In response to my urging that perhaps wares ought to be shown before teachers are asked to buy them, I was directed to this book.

I haven’t finished reading yet, but I have a preliminary concern. I’ll fill you in on how it is addressed.

Firstly, the book is published in 2014 but is exciting because it goes against the grain of the time in that the authors want to make a case, drawing on behavioural genetics, for a personalised approach to student learning based on individual genetic profiling.

This follows, of course, Gove and Gibb’s endorsement of a sort-of Hirsch-derived rejection of educational determinisms. The story goes that students are basically the same in terms of educational potential, and it is socio-economic differences that hold them back. Good schooling should serve as the equaliser in that it provides a background of cultural capital necessary for social mobility. Cue a host of approved neo-trads (the staff of Michaela School being a good example) arguing for a ‘whole-class’ teaching approach in which students move through the curriculum together (apart from one or two clinically identified exceptions). This is supported by some high profile refutations of poor research into individual differences in learning which are (no-one would deny) easy targets. Subsequent claims that students’ needs ought to be met on an individual basis are normally dismissed by this group as so much ‘learning styles’.

It seems to me that students do have a lot of important differences that educators should seek to address, all easy knock-downs of spurious v-a-k research notwithstanding. But is genetics really the ideological approach we want to yoke our resistance to?

At the early stage of my reading, there seems to be an important contradiction at the heart of the argument advanced. Let us put aside, for the moment, the very broad-brush nature of data derived from twin studies into the heritability of learning traits, as well as the ‘future science’ location of a ‘learning chip’ that could provide a detailed profile of educationally relevant traits. The case for the importance of heritable elements of academic success is made as follows:

‘People sometimes assume that environmental influence becomes more important as we develop and accumulate experiences. However, for traits such as cognitive development the reverse appears to be true. Genetic influence increases over time until, in later life, cognitive ability is almost as heritable as height’ (p.6)

Given that school is one of the relevant environmental influences, this claim would seem to limit the power of schooling, over time, to have any significant impact on cognitive ability. It plays nicely for current proponents of selective education, although that is not the approach ultimately commended in this volume. That approach is given early on as follows:

‘Research into all three types of genotype-environment correlation shows us that sensitivity to genetically influenced differences between children represents the most promising means available to schools and teachers who wish to offer a genuinely personalised education. As well as sufficiently sensitive and skilled teaching and a classroom designed to foster creativity and personal development, the key to making this work is an understanding of genetics and the degree to which different behaviours are inherited.’ (p.11)

The earlier deterministic claim about cognitive development seems to limit the potential of this scenario to bear significant fruit. I imagine that this will be addressed as the volume develops in sophistication. There may be some unpalatable consequences – for example, that there might be genetic limits on the emancipatory possibilities of education – but the overall claim is that teachers’ knowledge of the genetic differences between students is one of our best hopes of helping them to fulfil their potential (where ‘potential’ would be fleshed out in biological terms), such that ‘genetics education should form a core part of all teacher training’ (p.11).

As usual, a claim like this is going to depend on the extent to which reasonably confident knowledge of relevant mechanisms is translatable into classroom practice, if not immediately then in terms of some conceptually viable future educational science. I am sceptical about this possibility, but open to being convinced. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Asbury, K and Plomin, R (2014) G is for Genes. The Impact of Genetics of Education and Achievement. Wiley Blackwell.