Nature or nurture

12th May 2006 at 01:00
David Halliday's article raises some interesting issues in the debate over behaviour in our schools (TESS, April 21).

In it, he appears to suggest that two camps exist - neuroscientists, geneticists and evolutionary psychologists in one corner arguing that genes are to blame for pupil behaviour and that little can therefore be done, while standing opposite them are the traditionalists who believe that it is the environment in which a child is nurtured that determines how his or her personality will form.

Neither group will thank Mr Halliday for the way he has simplified their views.

The nature versus nurture debate is, or should be, largely redundant, thanks mainly to what we have learnt through science about brain function and development. Genes set out the probabilities for each of us, but it is the environment that determines how they will unravel to produce our phenotype, and ultimately our endophenotype.

So it is how the gene-environment interaction takes place that will determine the outcomes for each of the children going through our education system, and Mr Halliday is surely correct in asserting that teachers have a major contribution to make in shaping that learning environment.

The key issue is how and why we make these decisions and what I, and I suspect the scientific community, would argue is that we must base our judgment on sound empiricism, not on "gut feelings" or "commonsense".

Behaviour management requires sophisticated tools, and a sound knowledge of the difficulties that some children face in developing empathy, impulse-inhibition and acquiring a genuine sense of self.

When self-destructive, their actions may appear to be illogical and thus do not lend themselves to good old-fashioned sanctions and consequences. Much of what we learn through experience when dealing with such children is counter-intuitive.

As the former head of a special school, the suggestion that parents have failed their complex children if the behaviour of the son or daughter is in some way challenging is one that I and others who work with such children find highly offensive. Far too many have been let down by failures in the support system to recognise, diagnose and treat the conditions during the early childhood years.

No parent of a neurotypical family will ever understand what it is like to nurture a child who has autism, ADHD or any of the commonly occurring conditions that can lead to challenging behaviour.

And remember please, that despite a dramatic rise in levels of diagnosis across the country, we are still failing to identify children who have such problems (girls in particular), many of whom will be labelled as "naughty", "ill-disciplined" or "bad". Our courts and young offender institutions are full of them.

So while I agree with Mr Halliday's concluding remarks that teachers do matter and can have a profound and long-term effect on the lives of young people, I would urge caution when disparaging the contribution made by science to our ever-improving understanding of this very complex issue.

Forget nature and nurture. The new frontier of our understanding lies with "epigenetics".

Bill Colley

Caledonia Training Atholl Gardens Dunkeld

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