Putting genetics and education in the same sentence is a modern taboo.
Kathryn Asbury, co-author with behavioral geneticists Robert Plomin of G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement made this point when she wrote “Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better” last year.
Recent research by Professor Plomin “shows genes are more important than we like to think”. Longitudinal adoption studies in particular show parents have much less influence than some might believe.
… At one time people thought family members were similar because of the environment, but it turns out that the answer — in psychopathology or personality, and in cognition post-adolescence — the answer is that it’s all genetic! What runs in families is genetic!’
It’s not really “all” genetic, and Plomin’s hyperbole is not helpful. But IQ and other traits do correlate closely with birth parents, and “tiger-mothering” by adoptive parents makes very little difference in the long term.
It’s another counterintuitive mind-melt. The environment, all that maths coaching and tiger-mothering, can maybe have an effect on a kid’s IQ when he’s young — bump him up a few notches. But as he gets older, his IQ will become ever more closely correlated with that of his blood relatives.
Plomin offers a theory that would explain why IQ moves closer to biological origins over time.
‘… ‘We don’t know, but it’s probable that little early genetic differences become bigger and bigger as you go through life creating environments correlated with your genotype.’ I must look baffled. ‘The simplest way of saying this is that bright kids read more, they hang out with kids who read more.’
Our environment shapes our development, but it’s also true that our genes shape our environment. This reminds me of the finding that parents read more to their daughters than to their sons. Perhaps part of the reason is due to innate differences between the genders, and parents find the “cost” of reading to a squirming child higher than to a calmer one.
According to Plomin, educators “especially don’t want to hear that IQ is highly heritable”. Perhaps because they believe this lessens the value of what teachers do in the classroom and what social services schools push to provide. And then there’s the fear of “a segregated world, children with low IQs condemned from birth to clean the loos”.
Knowing and accepting heritability of certain traits can aid in tailoring teaching to help students with specific difficulties.
‘Oh, I go to an education meeting and this is all I get,’ Plomin says, showing the first sign of mild exasperation. ‘They think it’s just terrible because we’re going to start labelling kids from really young. But kids label each other already — they know who’s sporty, who’s bright. And if we can read a kid’s genome, we can predict and prevent disease. If we can read their DNA, we can tailor the teaching to help a kid with learning difficulties. Surely it’s worse,’ he says, ‘to just sit in a classroom and sink, unable to read because no one has identified that you might have trouble? At least consider that it’s not an open-and-shut case.’
Many aspects of good teaching apply to the general population of students, but some particular instructional strategies work better for particular types of students.