Research isn’t a threat – it’s an opportunity

13th November 2015 at 00:00

Any discussion of IQ is a minefield. Most explosions occur when intelligence is compared between genders, socioeconomic classes or races. Or when the heritability of intelligence raises its head. Especially in education.

Most people working in schools are resistant to the idea that a child’s educational success is genetically predetermined. It is far preferable to believe that if you work hard, you will do well. This is why Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory have been so popular with teachers. With enough effort and positive thinking, they tell us, anything is possible.

Research blows a hole in all of this, with some scientists saying that up to 80 per cent of intelligence is genetic, a figure that can vary over time.

Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, has been working with more than 15,000 families since 1994, trying to detach the effects of nature from those of nurture. This year was a landmark year, as the twins observed in the study completed their A-levels, allowing Plomin and his team to draw conclusions about not only the twins’ performance in intelligence tests but also their educational achievements over time. His results show that 60 per cent of the variation between children in intelligence scores and school achievement can be explained by genetic differences (pages 12-13).

Another strand of research is on developing DNA tests to identify how genes can affect learning. This, however, is at an early stage, with results so far explaining only about 5 per cent of differences.

These advances have huge potential benefits for education, but Plomin is downbeat, feeling teachers are uninterested in or even hostile to his work. “I’d be very happy if in the near future we could have discussions in education with teachers and put genetics and education together in the same sentence without people freaking out,” he says.

It’s not hard to see why there would be opposition from teachers: his findings threaten the principles of equity that permeate education. Yet it is easy to be bamboozled by statistics. Sometimes percentages can obscure rather than illuminate. Opportunity is everything.

That 40 per cent, or even 20 per cent, still leaves a lot to play for. It just depends on how you look at it. The RAF has an intensive training programme for its pilots. Only a very tiny percentage of the tiny percentage put forward for pilot training fail to qualify. Those who are struggling are quickly identified and are given performance coaching to overcome their difficulties. Why? Because the RAF has invested considerably, intellectually and financially, in each one and takes the view that it must strive for success, ultimately delivering pilots trained to meet the challenges of the front line.

“No matter how hard anyone has worked, you can always get another 1 per cent out of them,” says Carl Melen, who is in charge of pilot training at RAF Wittering.

In schools we also invest in children intellectually and financially – by the time a child is 16 we have already invested some £50,000 in them. Similarly, then, we shouldn’t want to let any of them fail. When resources are tight and getting tighter, this kind of information will surely help to target them strategically at pupils who are most in need.

There is no doubt that research on intelligence is powerful, but it should not be seen as a threat to teachers. Instead, it should be seen as another weapon in their arsenal. It should enhance their practice, not dictate it.

Not every child can be a genius but each and every one can achieve their potential. It’s not about where they start; it’s about where a good, research-informed teacher can take them.

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