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when science meets education

The Education Media Centre, modelled on the Science Media Centre, launched this month. Here, in a guest blogpost the EMC’s Chief Executive, former BBC Education Correspondent Sue Littlemore, reports on its first media briefing on one of the most controversial areas of education research: genetics.

 

I love the succinct SMC motto: “Where science meets the headlines”. This week science extended its network and got together with education, thanks to a mutual contact: genetics.

The debate over the role of genetics in education has been in the news following Boris Johnson’s dismissal of those of “our species” with a low IQ and after Michael Gove’s outgoing adviser, Dominic Cummings, urged educationists to stop ignoring the evidence on genetics and its impact on learning.

But what is that evidence? And can genetics answer some or any of the important questions in education? That was the theme of the first background briefing for education journalists arranged by the new Education Media Centre.

The briefing set out to address some key issues: could genetics fully explain why people differ in their motivation to learn or why some children find it easier to learn to read than others? Are the fears of parents who suspect future research might lead to labelling some pupils as having the “wrong genes” justified? As researchers uncover more about the genetic influence on children’s attainment should that change the way we teach and organise schools?

Amongst some geneticists and educationists there is growing interest in studying these areas. Certainly the media and parents are fascinated too, but there is also concern the impact of genetics research is easily misunderstood beyond the science community. Some worry it is an area of enquiry whose findings could be “dangerous in the wrong hands”; others argue robust research is easily obscured by misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

But three experts accepted the Education Media Centre’s invitation to rise to the challenge of demystifying this tricky subject to a largely non scientific audience.

During the discussion, Dr Claire Haworth, deputy director to Professor Robert Plomin on the influential Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) at King’s College London, called for improvements in what children are taught about genes because pupils could be picking up myths and misinformation. She suggested the school science curriculum needs modernising to take account of advances in our understanding of how genes work:

“The field of genetics has changed remarkably in the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve only very recently really understood the DNA sequence so the kinds of genetics taught in schools is actually outdated based on the scientific evidence we have and doesn’t incorporate the complexity we’re discovering through science.”

Dr Haworth believes the school curriculum focuses too much on genes and single characteristics such as eye colour, overlooking the complexities of genetics in behaviour where many genes are at play, interacting with the environment and are not deterministic.

Improving the understanding of genetics in schools is key, in her view, to dispelling some of the myths around the science, and Dr Haworth agreed teachers would benefit from an introduction to the basics in how our genes behave as part of their teacher training, especially if that would help explain the variation in the way different children learn and therefore lead in the long term to improvements in education policy and teaching methods.

Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education, supported the idea of including genetics as a small part of teacher training especially if it addressed many of the misunderstandings about genes. He suggested improving teachers’ knowledge of genetics could mean the profession would be more likely to embrace any innovations which might emerge from advances in our scientific knowledge over the next 20 or 30 years.

All the experts stressed much of what we know about genes applies to the population in general rather than to individuals, and they agreed the study of genetics and its influence on learning and attainment is in its infancy and we are a long way off understanding enough for genetics to shape education policy. 

Dr Lavinia Paternoster, a geneticist at Bristol University, highlighted some of the common misunderstandings about genes – one of the themes of the discussion:

  • You are not doomed by your genes. Genes are generally not deterministic.
  • Most genes should be thought of as probabilistic risk factors influenced by the environment.
  • Although there are some rare genetic conditions which cannot be altered we can often change the importance of our genetic background and use the environment to overcome genetic weaknesses and draw out genetic strengths.
  • There is no one gene for reading ability or intelligence. Hundreds or thousands of genes are involved and, on their own, the effect of single genes is tiny.
  • We will probably never find all the genetic changes relevant to educational attainment because they are just too hard to find.
  • It’s not nature vs. nurture. It’s nature AND nurture. Even if you could discover all the genes involved in educational attainment, the environment would still matter.
  • The study of genetics is more about understanding the biology of how humans work rather than predicting how things will turn out. 

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