Kathryn Asbury: Lessons for educators from genetics

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I GREW up in Leeds and during the mid-1980s I was lucky enough to attend St Dominic’s middle school in Chapeltown (now Holy Rosary & St Anne’s). What made the school – and its inspirational headteacher Mr Hallinan – so great was that every pupil was made to feel special, whatever their particular strengths and weaknesses.

There was a sense that Mr Hallinan and his staff would search out every child’s talents and nurture them, building pupils’ confidence and their chances of a brighter future. It was a school in which children were understood as individuals, a wonderful school to which I feel a personal debt.

Together with my colleague Professor Robert Plomin, I have now written a book, G is for Genes, looking at how nature and nurture play out in our schools. The idea is to start a conversation about whether genetic research – the study of nature and nurture – can inform educational policy and practice and, indeed, whether it should.

So what does the evidence tell us? Well, first of all studies carried out around the world show that nature matters. Genes explain more than half of the differences between children in how well they can read, write, add up and perform in their GCSEs.

Studies tell us that nurture matters too, as does the interplay between a child’s genes and their experiences at home, school and elsewhere. In sum, we know that children differ from each other and that they differ for biological as well as social reasons. There is nothing very controversial about this idea that both nature and nurture matter. Which parent hasn’t said “he gets it from me” or “she’s just like her dad”? And how many of us have benefited from a great teacher?

A few years ago we asked hundreds of primary school teachers what they thought and more than 90 per cent of them said that nature had at least as much impact as nurture on differences between children in how well they learn. That’s what the scientific evidence says too. However, the fact that children are different to each other isn’t really taken into account in the way our school system is organised.

It is hard for teachers to treat each pupil as an individual when schools are under so much pressure to meet more generalised targets. There is too little attention paid to whether these targets are meaningful for an individual child. We believe that all children will have a better chance of thriving at school if their individual interests and abilities are taken into account. By tailoring education in this way, more children will achieve their full potential.

In G is for Genes we go beyond the scientific evidence and speculate about what schools might look like if they took this evidence into account. We tentatively propose very large schools which offer a great deal of choice to their pupils in terms of courses, qualifications and extra-curricular activities. We also suggest that each child has a key worker who knows them well and can work closely with them throughout primary and secondary school, ensuring that their education meets their individual needs.

What we are describing is a school that respects the differences between children and supports them in becoming the best that they can be. A school a bit like St Dominic’s, in fact, but on a much larger scale and with more investment and a wider age range.

These are just initial ideas on what a personalised education system might look like. Some of them might work, some might not. Our aim is simply to start the conversation and to invite parents, teachers, policy-makers and scientists from other disciplines to join in.

The conclusion might be that genetic research has little or nothing to offer the world of education, and we think that’s fine as long as we have had an informed discussion along the way.

The only thing we ask is for people not to be put off by the fact that this is called ‘genetic’ research, which makes it sound like we think genes, and only genes, are important. We don’t. Like most people we think that both nature and nurture matter – and if this type of science can help make education work better for our children then that must be a conversation worth having.

• Kathryn Asbury is a lecturer in psychology in education at the University York and co-author of G is for Genes.