Why we need to talk about the role of genetics in education

The leading genetics researcher explains why teachers need to understand and discuss the research into genetics, arguing that our genes are hugely influential in how we learn and our educational outcomes

Tes Editorial Staff

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“I have some sympathy for people getting nervous when discussing genetics and education,” says Dr Kathryn Asbury, a senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of York. 

Dr Asbury, though, can’t avoid it: she is one of the country’s leading genetics researchers and is co-author of G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement.

In this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, she talks at length about why the teaching profession needs to get beyond its nervousness on the topic of genetics. She argues that the problem for teachers is often not the research, but how they fear it may be used.  

“I think people worry that if we take genetics into account in thinking how humans behave and in particular how children learn and develop, then people think that leads to a situation where we discriminate against the less able or those who are weaker or disadvantaged in society for any reason,” she says. “The problem is not the research, but fears about how it might be used. We have a duty to reassure people that this is not why we do this research.”

Genetic research

She says this acceptance is needed because genetic influence is central to everything a teacher does. 

“We need to talk about genetics because everything a child does in a classroom is heritable, from learning to read, learning to do science, how they play with other children, how they communicate with their teacher…it is all influenced by their genes and when something is such a central part of who children are and how they behave and therefore how we plan to meet their needs, it seems a bit bonkers not to talk about it,” she argues. “We have this robust, replicated reliable, research, it seems silly to ignore it and pretend it is not there. We have to talk about what it means.”

The imperative to do this is ever growing, she says, as soon detailed genetic profiling will be upon us, so we need to decide what – if anything – we want to do about it. 

“I think what we will see in the future are Genome-wide Polygenic Scores (GPS) that can explain a good chunk of the differences between children in aspects of their education and learning. And so it is really important we prepare for that. If we start to have that information available some people are going to want to use it: is that OK? Do we want to use it? How can we make it safe? How can we ensure it is used to benefit children?”

Role of genetics in education

In the podcast, she talks at length about GPS and their potential role in education. She also details common myths around genetics (such a what heritability means), how teachers might take genetics into consideration in terms of pedagogy and why genetics research demands more diversity of options after education (a theme she also mentions in this Tes article). 

“If we accept that there are huge individual differences in all of the traits relevant to choosing what we want to do with our lives and how successful we are going forwards and if we embrace that diversity and say that partly for biological reasons that is the way that we are, then we need diversity of outcomes,” she argues. “At the moment, we funnel children towards university and we take pride in it, whether or not that matches what they want to do with their futures. We see university as the end goal – we need to take a much more life-long perspective. We simply do not have enough options for everyone to find their niche.”

You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.


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Tes Editorial Staff

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