Genes and education: the fog lifts just a little

In the year 2013, why exactly are people still talking about whether our intellectual abilities are inherited or learned? That’s the question I failed to ask on Monday at the first briefing to be held by the Education Media Centre, a new and highly worthwhile charity set up in London to add some evidence to the education debate. (Slight declaration of interest – I am a member of the Centre’s Advisory Network, giving me a warm glow but no spendable reward.)

This subject is famous for arousing idiocy among commentators on the right. For example, the Mayor of London (good at Latin, poor at anything invented since) famously pointed out recently that more people have an IQ of less than 85 than one of over 130. As IQ averages 100 and is evenly distributed above and below this mark, no big shock here.
However, journalists and commentators of all stripes are prone to being ill-informed about this massive and fast-changing field of science.

This choice of subject matter therefore involved a brave decision, one that was indicated by events (and in which I was not involved). I learned a number of things. For example, think about height. How tall you are is a simple number, not some complex thing like educational attainment. It is hard to lie about it, although tempting if you are calculating your BMI. As Lavinia Paternoster of Bristol University pointed out at the briefing, height is highly heritable, about 80 per cent coming from genetic influences. However, people in Britain are now a lot taller than they were a few decades ago. So the fact that something is genetic is not the same as saying you are stuck with it, or that it is fixed.

In any case, explained Paternoster, heritability is a complex matter. A tricky topic such as educational attainment would involve thousands of genes, most of them with only a minute incremental effect. Even if (it’s a big if) we knew the effects of every gene, we still would not know a person’s ability.

In any case, genes are expressed in a way that shows the effects of different environments, and do not act in isolation. There is a gene (it’s on chromosome 15) that is highly correlated with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a serious lung condition. But the gene does not give its owners COPD. It has to do with the nicotinic system, and makes you more likely to smoke, and therefore to have damaged lungs. This example also makes the point that genes can vary in importance. If people stopped smoking, this one wouldn’t be of much practical interest.

The lesson for education is that any link between people’s genetic content and their learning power is bound to be subtle. It suggests that the best tactic is to give every child the best possible education. By contrast, the right-wing belief in inherited ability accompanies an incurable lust to insult and denigrate teachers.

Indeed, Claire Haworth of the University of Warwick told the briefing that teachers themselves can be a little behind the game in getting across the subtlety of modern genetics. Oversimplifications such as the “gene for blue eyes” are still appearing in too many lessons. Genetics, she says, has changed a lot in recent years, and still does not know just where it is going.

John Jerrim of the Institute of Education told the event that he is sceptical about the effects of genetics-related thinking on education policy. But he also looked forward to some proper debate and information-sharing that might allow useful conclusions to be drawn.

Maybe he’s right. It would be odd if this vast growth in our knowledge of human development ended up not telling us anything about teaching or learning. But bear in mind that this new wisdom might not be anything we have glimpsed thus far.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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