Teachers matter more than genes

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Forget the staffroom gossip. Background does not determine behaviour, says David Halliday

ake any school, any day and the dominant topic of discussion is the behaviour of pupils. This rarely dwells on the acceptable behaviour of the majority but usually focuses on the low level disruption that is so corrosive to teaching and learning or, for most of us, those infrequent but more dramatic incidents.

Occasionally, tagged on to the description there is an explanation along the lines of: "What else can you expect when you consider the home background?" Then there is the increasingly popular: "I know the parents, it's in the genes."

On this, the 30th anniversary of the publication of Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene, it is interesting to consider the progress that the genetic explanation for behaviour has made in schools. It is not only teachers, but their pupils, who are increasingly explaining their behaviour in this way.

"I couldn't help it sir, it's my genes"; or: "Did you not know I was ADHD?"

Thirty years ago, as a naive student at Jordanhill, I was imbibing the "truth" about human nature and how the behaviour of pupils could be modified by the adept use of positive reinforcement, based on an understanding of the ideas of B F Skinner, as expounded in books such as Beyond Freedom and Dignity. This was pre-Thatcher UK - another world - where many still accepted the blank slate view of human nature and were persuaded we could be "engineers of souls".

We were assured that manipulation of the environment, including the pupils in our class, would ineluctably lead to better behaved children and a better quality of education. Skinner promised us that we could take any healthy child and train them to become doctors, lawyers or artists. Human nature and behaviour, we were reliably informed, was exceedingly malleable.

While I did not appreciate it at the time, Skinner's behaviourism had reached its zenith; the next 30 years was to be a long slide for that view, as the environmental determinism of Locke, Watson, Skinner and others was eclipsed by that "new" kid on the block of genetic determinism. Ironically, the back to nature movement was resurrected from an earlier age and given a makeover, after years of neglect - a consequence of the revulsion felt by many after the eugenics movement.

"Ideas have consequences." What we think - and not just the academics - really does matter. The presuppositions of class teachers and their expectations for their pupils have had, and will continue to have, a profound impact on what happens to pupils and the direction schools take in the coming years.

Ideas have been cascading into education from cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology; they have been creating a new conventional wisdom, based on nature not nurture, as the key to understanding human behaviour. As Dawkins, one of the new high priests of our contemporary understanding, succinctly put it: "We and all animals are machines created by our genes."

So should we be concerned at this ejection of nurture by nature as the primary explanation for behaviour? We need to be careful not to oscillate from the extreme behaviourist panacea that was fed to my generation of student teachers, into embracing an equally false and dangerous understanding based on a flawed appreciation of the role of genetics. There is a danger we become engulfed by a genetic fatalism and find ourselves in a situation where teachers docilely accept pupil behaviour as genetically predestined.

It is one thing to be aware that some individuals may have a predisposition to be more aggressive or susceptible to drug-taking or obesity; quite another to make excuses for inaction or acquiesce with pupils to accept the status quo as their destiny.

In retrospect, it is worrying that so many educationists in the past behaved with such a herd instinct and swallowed hook, line and sinker the behaviourist explanation for human behaviour. Hopefully, we will become more critical in our evaluation of the evidence for the role of nature, as it impacts on behaviour and permeates education; accepting the crucial role of genetics but also acknowledging that behaviour is a complex manifestation of genes interacting with environment.

Perhaps it is time we became more critical and less dogmatic and recognised that we may never fully understand what causes behaviour.

Most importantly, we need to be wary of simply substituting genetic for environmental determinism. Instead, we should remember the wise words of Popper that "determinism was a day dream of omniscience". Rather than attributing and abdicating responsibility to the environment or our genes, we need to keep faith with the old truth that a good teacher can make a difference - irrespective of genetics or home background.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High.

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