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Genes have a bigger impact on GCSE results than teachers?

The big education news in the UK today is the findings of a study that compared the GCSE performance of sets of identical and non-identical twins.  The conclusion being widely reported is that genes have the largest impact on GCSE results which is unfortunately a mis-representation of the study’s findings and these articles also fail to highlight some of the limitations of the approach taken by the study.

The study lead himself highlights the potential for mis-interpretation:

“Since we are studying whole populations, this does NOT mean that genetics explains 60 per cent of an individual’s performance, but rather that genetics explains 60 per cent of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment.

“This means that heritability is not fixed – if environmental influences change, then the influence of genetics on educational achievement may change too.”
Nicholas Shakeshaft quoted in TES Connect

I think we can safely say that environment influences the affect of genetics, so identical twins raised in different circumstances and taught in different schools are extremely likely to get different GCSE results. So while genetics is an important determinant of success in education, that success also hinges on environment.

I feel the main dangers associated with the mis-representation of this study are:

  • Students who perform badly lose motivation (give up) “because its their genes” that are hampering their progress.
  • Schools and teachers focus resources on the higher achieving students because they have the genes for success and these efforts are wasted on students whose genes determine their ultimate poor performance.

There is an alternative perspective which is more resources should be focused on the lower performing students because of the disadvantages they face as a result of their genes. I doubt this view point will gain traction politically though!

The Independent reports that the study’s findings suggest that “an individually tailored approach to a child’s education is more likely to combat any lack in performance due to genes rather a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to the curriculum”, which reminds me of the arguments around the use of learning styles to tailor education to individuals. The concept of learning styles have now been largely discredited (e.g. Lafferty & Burley) so I doubt we could identify a style of eduction that would suit individuals based on their genes (can you imagine, a child’s DNA test is followed by streaming into different classes with different methods of teaching…). This is essentially what learning styles attempted to do by a survey rather than a DNA test.

So if we are to tailor learning to individuals its seems more likely an approach such as that advocated by personalised learning will be most appropriate. This is based on the learner themselves understanding how they learn best so they can help define their goals and their own learning path. Its not clear to at what point in a child’s education this becomes a realistic option.