Are you in the nature or the nurture camp? If there’s one topic in education guaranteed to lead to fierce debate, it’s behavioural genetics. Whether academic achievement is based mainly on heritability or environmental influences is a question that tends to polarise opinion.
This debate has been fuelled by the recent publication of books such as Blueprint: how DNA makes us who we are, by behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin (you can read a Tes profile of Plomin and his work here) and, on the opposing side, Blueprint: how our childhood makes us who we are, by clinical psychologist Lucy Maddox (yes, the titles are startlingly similar).
The truth is, both books will be popular among teachers. New research from the Psychology in Education Research Centre at the University of York shows that teachers are interested to discover more about how genes influence learning outcomes. Not only are teachers open to knowing more, they already have a pretty good grasp of how academic achievement is influenced by both the environment and genes (Crosswaite & Asbury, 2019).
In this study, Madeline Crosswaite and Kathryn Asbury asked volunteers to complete a questionnaire that included a range of topics related to their beliefs about the causes of individual differences in cognitive ability and about the relevance of behavioural genetics to education. These included beliefs about the relative influence of nature and nurture, knowledge of behavioural genetics, openness to genetic research in education, as well questions about individual mindset (fixed or growth).
Quick read: Growth mindset is ‘bullshit’, says leading geneticist
Quick listen: Why we need to talk about the role of genetics in education
Want to know more? Genetics researcher Kathryn Asbury explains how developments in the field could affect schools
The sample consisted of 402 teachers, including those working in primary, secondary, state and independent schools. It was a self-selecting sample so, as the authors point out, some of those who chose to complete the questionnaire might already have an interest in behavioural genetics.
Results showed that teachers generally perceived genetic and environmental factors to be of equal importance, which is relatively accurate in terms of previous research findings. Few teachers were found to be at either extreme, suggesting that most teachers have a pretty good understanding about what influences academic achievement.
Despite this, most teachers rated their knowledge of behavioural genetics as low but their openness to learn more was high, and this was especially true among primary school teachers.
In regards to mindset, respondents tended towards a growth mindset, although this was higher in those working in the state sector.
This appears to be the first study of its kind. A similar study was carried out in 2005, but only with primary school teachers (Walker & Plomin, 2005). There have also been huge advances in genetics research over the past decade and a half, so this current study adds a great deal to our overall understanding.
What do teachers need to know about genetics?
Teachers are, it would seem, eager to learn more about the role of genes relevant to teaching and learning.
But what should the overriding aim of any professional development programme be?
“The fundamental aim of any CPD in this area must be to support teachers in becoming well informed and in developing a clear and accurate understanding of, for example, what heritability estimates and polygenic scores represent; and what they can and cannot tell us,” says Asbury. "Too many debates in this area are based on misunderstandings of the evidence, and accurate knowledge and understanding is by far the best route to avoiding harm, in my view. That said, I think it is also important to place the evidence in its historical context as well as the contemporary context.”
This potential for causing harm was recently highlighted by Daphne Martschenko, of the University of Cambridge, along with Sam Trejo and Benjamin W Domingue, of Stanford University (Martschenko, Trejo, & Domingue, 2019). They point to how the field of molecular genetics is now moving incredibly fast, describing how the floodgates of genetic data have opened. They urge caution, specifically in education, and warn against misuse and repeating the errors of the past where the role of genetics has been used to support unjust and bigoted policies.
Asbury appears to broadly agree. “Genetic research should only be used in education if it has the potential to be beneficial,” she says, “Talking to teachers about what the research might mean for children in schools is an important part of the process of figuring out potential benefits as well as potential risks.
“We also need a wider policy discussion to ensure that if DNA data is ever used in education, that it is properly and justly regulated.”
Winning over the sceptics isn’t going to be easy, but ensuring that teachers are provided with accurate and up-to-date information is necessary if genetics is going to play a much wider role in teaching and learning.
Hopefully, now that experts in the field have a better understanding of what teachers know and want, they can begin to correct many of the misconceptions surrounding this complex yet potentially very useful area of research.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and Psychology in the Classroom (with Jonathan Firth). He tweets @marcxsmith
- Crosswaite, M., & Asbury, K. (2019). Teacher beliefs about the aetiology of individual differences in cognitive ability, and the relevance of behavioural genetics to education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(1), 95–110.
- Krapohl, E., Rimfeld, K., Shakeshaft, N. G., Trzaskowski, M., McMillan, A., Pingault, J.-B. & Plomin, R. (2014). The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(42), 15273–15278.
- Martschenko, D., Trejo, S., & Domingue, B. W. (2019). Genetics and Education: Recent Developments in the Context of an Ugly History and an Uncertain Future. AERA Open, 5(1) 1-15
- Walker, S. O., & Plomin, R. (2005). The Nature–Nurture Question: Teachers’ perceptions of how genes and the environment influence educationally relevant behaviour. Educational Psychology, 25(5), 509-516