'Genetics might predict intelligence, but every child still benefits from an academic education'

The science of genetics may suggest that schools cannot do a huge amount to boost social mobility – but that doesn't mean we should reverse our commitment to an undifferentiated academic curriculum

Toby Young

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I read with interest Dr Kathryn Asbury’s excellent contribution to the debate about the influence of genetically-based individual differences on educational attainment. Her article was, in part, a response to a blog post by me on the subject, as well as a response by Professor Sonia Blandford, which briefly appeared on the Teach First website before being taken down. I have reposted the two blogs on my website – mine is here, Professor Blandford’s is here – and you can read an article about the whole imbroglio on Quillette here.

As that article points out, my post accurately summarised mainstream scientific research in this area but it is worth highlighting that not everyone accepts the findings of psychologists and behavioural geneticists. One of the claims I made is that there is little robust evidence that schools can raise the general cognitive ability of individual students – which is not to say it is impossible, only that we have not yet discovered how to do it. But the fact that schools have not yet found a reliable way of closing the attainment gaps linked to genetically-based individual differences does not mean they cannot shift the entire bell curve to the right, and many schools do. That is, good schools can raise the mean even if they cannot close those gaps. But I should have added that many eminent social scientists believe that some experimental interventions have successfully raised children’s IQs. For a summary of the evidence, see this article by Richard E Nisbett, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Dr Asbury and I broadly agree on what the science tells us about the relative impact of nature and nurture, but I part company with her when she links this to an argument for more flexible targets within our education system and a greater plurality of goals. The fact that half the population of schoolchildren have below average IQs, and the fact that IQ is linked to academic attainment, does not mean that only the top half should be entered for the English Baccalaureate. Expecting 90 per cent of children to achieve level 5 or above in the seven EBacc GCSEs may be unrealistic, but there are good reasons for thinking that entering that number is the best way of maximising the percentage of children who obtain it. And the exam results of children in the world’s highest-performing education regions – Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai – suggest that significantly more than half of our schoolchildren should be able to meet that target.

Evidence for less differentiation

There is a good deal of debate about the merits of a differentiated versus an undifferentiated approach to teaching and learning and, as with most questions in education, the issue is far from settled. But the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) data suggests that the less teachers differentiate the tasks they give to children in lessons based on whether they are falling behind or racing ahead, the higher the average level of attainment. 

In the book Dr Asbury co-authored with Professor Robert Plomin on genetics and education – G is for Genes – it sounds at times as if she is appealing to human bio-diversity to make the case for differentiating what children are taught according to their different learning styles. I am sceptical about this, too. The fact that the speed at which children learn is partly due to genetic differences does not mean that some learn kinaesthetically, some learn visually, and so on, and acknowledging the impact of genetic differences on educational outcomes does not mean you have to embrace this hypothesis. A recent letter in the Guardian debunking the myth of "learning styles" was signed by several psychology professors who accept the mainstream science on individual differences, including Dr Steven Pinker.

In education, as with all areas of social policy, the research evidence can only take you so far. It is more useful when it comes to ruling out certain approaches than ruling any in. Our values will always play a part in guiding our choices, as Dr Asbury says in her Tes article. One of the reasons I favour a largely undifferentiated curriculum, in which all children are taught the same core body of knowledge up to the age of 16, is because I share ED Hirsch’s belief that introducing all children to the best that has been thought and said, and teaching them to value logic and reason and evidence-based argument, is the best way of instilling a sense of common culture and purpose, as well as creating a shared framework in which political disputes can be resolved. It is a way of mitigating the risks associated with multi-culturalism and democratic pluralism. More broadly, vigorously promoting the values of the Enlightenment is the best bulwark against the darkling plain of anti-Enlightenment movements, whether on the far left or the far right. I believe diversifying the curriculum in the way Dr Asbury proposes would be a recipe for social disintegration.

Hirsch puts forward another argument for teaching all children the same, core academic curriculum, which is that he believes it will lead to greater social mobility. “Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the social status quo, whereas the best practices of educational conservatism are the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition,” he writes in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them.

Dr Asbury cautions against expecting education to do a huge amount to boost social mobility, and I share some of her scepticism – not least because the number of white-collar jobs is shrinking, not growing, with an ever-increasing number being replaced by intelligent machines. I presented a Radio 4 programme on the subject of social mobility earlier this year in which I talked to Professor Plomin, among others.

The strongest argument for an undifferentiated, academic curriculum is that being introduced to the best that has been thought and said is every child’s birth-right, regardless of their background, ethnicity, religious affiliation or polygenic score. This was eloquently expressed by Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: “Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or dull, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal – he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.”

Toby Young is director of the New Schools Network. He tweets @toadmeister

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