Genetics and education – What’s the message?


Last week, The Times (@nicolawoolcock) reported a complaint by journalist Toby Young (@toadmeister) that he had been censored for writing that intelligence was largely genetic. What point was Toby Young trying to make by referring to genetic evidence and why was it censored?toby-young-times-censure

According to the Times, Young’s blog argued that IQ is a strong predictor of how children perform in school exams; that schools are largely unsuccessful in raising the IQs of pupils; and that ‘intelligence is a highly heritable characteristic, which is to say that more than half of the variance in IQ at a population level is due to genetic differences’. The context of Young’s article was how he had moderated his early view about the transformative impact that good schools can have, based in part on learning about the greater contribution of genetics to variation in IQ.

There was a negative response to the blog on social media, including that it ‘had deeply nasty connotations’. Teach First (@TeachFirst ), a teacher training organisation, took down the blog, saying the article ‘was against what we believe in’.

Why is genetic data controversial in education?

Genetics is controversial in education because is it sometimes used to support arguments of determinism. In the deterministic narrative, schools have limited influence on children’s academic achievement in the face of more powerful forces, be it genetic variation or socio-economic status. Genetics additionally has negative historical associations with discrimination on the basis of race.

Was the scientific data interpreted correctly?

A recent meta-analysis of 42 datasets involving over 600,000 participants found consistent evidence for beneficial effects of education on cognitive abilities. The effect of schooling was a gain of approximately 1 to 5 IQ points for each additional year of education. Schooling therefore does have a small but measurable effect on intelligence. It is likely smaller than the effect of genetics and of socioeconomic status on IQ.

Importantly, however, genetic effects are not deterministic. If the environment is changed, the genetic effect may disappear. For example, despite the high ‘heritability’ of intelligence often reported in scientific studies, this genetic effect is reduced or eliminated under conditions of socioeconomic privation. When a poor educational environment holds children back, genetics effects can reduce: a study examining reading found reduced genetic effects on reading skills when teaching was poor.

Most of the evidence on genetic effects (‘intelligence is 50% inherited’ and so forth) concerns the differences between people. It does not focus on the absolute level that everyone is performing at (that is, the way people are similar). It is possible for the environment to improve everyone’s intelligence, even while the differences between them are for mainly genetic reasons. Therefore, genetic studies reporting heritability only give part of the picture.

This is relevant because national educational policy is often about changing the conditions for the whole population, (hopefully) raising the education level for all. To take a hypothetical example, the government might decree that schools spend double the amount of time teaching maths. The result would be that all children in the country would get better at maths (though perhaps worse at the topics they have less time for). Those at the top of the maths class might still be near the top, those at the bottom near bottom, perhaps for genetic reasons. The heritability of maths skills could stay the same, even though everyone had improved.

Studies focusing on genetic contributions to education are therefore mainly important for the question of gaps between children, and policy ambitions to narrow gaps. The debate considers the genetic and environmental causes of gaps. These gaps might not primarily stem from variation in school quality, which is the focus of Young’s blog. Indeed, when schools are very good, and in a society with low inequality, any remaining gaps would come from genetic differences (or ‘talent’). If we were to achieve the goal of perfect schools and equal societies, this would eliminate at least half the gaps in educational achievement between children. In that sense, data showing increasing heritability of educational achievement would be an index of progress on those goals (see Asbury and Plomin’s recent book ‘G is for Genes’ for more on this).

However, we should remember that education isn’t about populations, it is about individual children. None of the findings on genetics contradicts the fact that any individual can get better at any skill by working harder at it, irrespective of their genetic make up.

How can genetics benefit education?

Right now, the main message from genetics is that not all differences between children in educational outcomes are environmental.

In the future, based on progress in ‘precision’ medicine, the ultimate promise held out by the application of genetics to education is that we will be able to identify the optimal environments to maximise the genetic potential of each child – to realise their talent. This is a long way off. It requires identifying the biological basis of learning, no mean feat. And there are broader ethical issues to consider about genotyping one’s child and handing over the data to their school. But the promise shows the direction of travel: far from arguing for determinism, genetics is about identifying the best environment for individuals to thrive in.

Before then, as a society, we need to make progress on deciding how we feel about differences between children (in contrast to how well all children are performing). It may be that maximising every child’s (genetic) potential does not narrow the gaps between them. When education empowers every child to reach for the stars, we may have to accept that it is different stars the children are aiming at.

For more information

Here is a recent article giving an overview of the use of genetics in education. Here is a video that gives an introduction to the field: Professor Michael Thomas “Genetics and Education” from Learnus – Understanding Learning on Vimeo.

The Montessori educational method – is it effective?


CEN member Chloë Marshall has published a paper entitled “Montessori education: A review of the evidence base” in the journal Science of Learning. Montessori education is an alternative method of education which has been in existence for 100 years. In her paper, Chloë reviews the small number of research studies that have evaluated the Montessori method and draws attention to some of their methodological limitations. She also discusses studies which have not directly evaluated Montessori education, but which have evaluated features of other educational methods that are shared with Montessori, such as using phonics to teach reading and spelling. She concludes that there is growing evidence that the Montessori method is effective for supporting children’s cognitive and social development, at least when carried out faithfully to Montessori’s principles

A former Montessori teacher herself, Chloë says “National and regional education systems are beset by regular swings of the pendulum, for example towards and away from phonics, and towards and away from children working individually. This means that elements of the Montessori method will sometimes be in vogue and sometimes not. It is therefore particularly important that Montessori teachers understand the evidence base that supports, or does not support, their pedagogy.”

Neuro-hit or neuro-myth: The future of education is brain stimulation


Brain stimulation sounds futuristic. But education is all about changing the brain, and it’s possible that new tools are available to help us do just that. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we introduce the concept of brain stimulation and take a look at the current evidence on whether it is effective for improving learning outcomes.

All Special Kids conference – Educational Neuroscience and Special Educational Needs


CEN director Professor Michael Thomas and CEN member Professor Chloë Marshall were keynote speakers at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, organised by ASK (All Special Kids). ASK is a non-governmental organisation that supports children with special educational needs, and their families and teachers. The theme of ASK’s annual conference this year was educational neuroscience.

Chloë’s workshop on the afternoon of Friday 6th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience: neuromyths and neurohits in the education of children with special educational needs”. It introduced teachers to educational neuroscience as a discipline and how its findings might support children with special educational needs. It generated a valuable discussion about how to evaluate educational interventions that claim to have a basis in neuroscience, and how to identify neuromyths.

Michael’s presentation on the morning of Saturday 7th October 2017 was entitled “Educational neuroscience aims to use insights into brain function to shape educational practices – How can it help children with special educational needs?” It considered the links between new findings in neuroscience and teaching approaches for children with Special Educational Needs. The session sparked a great deal of interest amongst parents and teachers alike.

Cambridge seminars on the Educated Brain #3: Effective translation

The University of Cambridge will shortly host the third of three ESRC-funded research seminars on The Educated Brain, on Friday 13th October 2017. The first seminar considered Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood, while the second seminar addressed The Educated Brain: Late Childhood and Adolescence. The final seminar is entitled Effectively translating neuroscience for teaching practice: Opportunities and next steps.
Provisional programme
Venue: Kaetsu Conference Centre Murray Edwards College
12.30 – 17:00: Includes lunch, short talks and discussion and will be followed by a networking reception
Confirmed speakers include:
Rachel Snape (Head Teacher, Spinney Primary School)
Paul Howard-Jones (Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol)
Jon Simons (Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge)
Sara Baker (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge)
The seminar is organised in collaboration with Learnus.

“What touchscreen technology is really doing to your child’s brain”


In the October issue of Tatler magazine, CEN PhD student Cathy Rogers discusses research on how widespread use of touchscreen tablets may be influencing toddlers’ cognitive and brain development. She describes Birkbeck’s TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project, one of the few longitudinal studies designed to look at the effect of touchscreens on very young children.

CEN student wins grant to develop spelling app

Capita SIMS Annual Conference 2017

Capita SIMS Annual Conference 2017

Fiona Button, who is soon to complete the MSc in Educational Neuroscience, has won a grant from the education charity SHINE to develop Button Spelling, an app to teach the spelling of difficult words using visual mnemonics. An initial trial, which formed Fiona’s dissertation project, showed that using these mnemonics significantly improved children’s retention of tricky spellings. The Let Teachers SHINE grant will enable Fiona to develop a prototype version of the app and to test it in participating schools.

The competition for these grants was fierce, with only 10 of the 147 applicants being successful. A big congratulations to Fiona! Her dissertation supervisor, Prof. Chloë Marshall at UCL Institute of Education, said “I am very proud of Fiona, and she richly deserves this award. She has developed a really innovative set of materials for helping children to remember words that are tricky to spell, and the creation of an app will allow children greater autonomy in working on their spellings. Fiona’s achievement encapsulates what is so valuable about the MSc in Educational Neuroscience. The programme encourages teachers to bridge the gap between research and practice in the science of learning, and to contribute to creating a more secure evidence base for education.”

Fiona will be presenting her research at a CEN seminar at 4-5pm on 23rd November. Check from October for details.

Is intelligence fixed?


The idea that our intellectual ability is written in the stars is not one that’s confined to the classroom, but it’s certainly relevant, indeed central, to the way that teachers approach their craft. This idea is also key to the way that children are perceived, and the way that they perceive themselves. In our latest addition to the neuro-hit / neuro-myth resource, we explore what intelligence is, then look at the literature around how performance on cognitive tasks can be advanced or held back.


Diagnosis – which diagnosis? Pitfalls and prospects for supporting the struggling learner


In the second Annual Learnus Public Lecture on educational neuroscience held at Church House in Westminster on 17th May 2017, Professor Sue Gathercole (MRC-CBU, University of Cambridge) talked about the challenges faced by families, practitioners and policy-makers in supporting children who are struggling to learn.

She identified major hazards. These include social inequities, difficulties in identifying underlying problems in children whose first language is not English, haphazard routes to professional help, dependence on diagnoses that are of limited value, and an unrealistic emphasis on cure rather than compensation.

Prof. Gathercole argued that diagnoses of specific disorders, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, developmental language disorder, dyscalculia and ADHD, might provide re-assurance to parents and access to therapeutic resources. However, more often than not, children exhibit more than one ‘disorder’, symptoms can be highly variable for child assigned the same disorder, and separate diagnoses play down the similarities often shown between children with different disorders. Individual diagnoses therefore can hinder identification of underlying cause or most pragmatic treatment.

She illustrated some of the challenges by describing recent research on struggling learners at the Centre for Attention, Learning, and Memory (CALM). In one study, a large sample of over 400 children were recruited through educational referrals for a range of learning problems. Detailed profiling of the children indicated that dimensions of cognition and behaviour were more important than diagnoses. She also presented evidence on when intensive cognitive training could be most effective. While no panacea, it was most beneficial when children had to learn to do something new, rather than striving to overcome a narrow core problem.

Lastly, neuroimaging of the brain structure of the struggling learners pointed to inefficient white matter connectivity as a marker of learning problems. Indeed, measures of brain connectivity could predict maths and reading ability.

An enthusiastic audience raised a number of questions in the Discussion session, including the relative neglect of secondary education as a period to remediate deficits not addressed through early intervention, the importance of the child’s self-esteem in response to their slower learning progress, and the role of the teacher in identifying each child’s strengths as a foundation on which to build strategies to overcome their difficulties. Professor Gathercole finished by describing an ambitious future project to collect advice and tips from university students who have overcome learning challenges on the best strategies to pass on to the struggling learners of tomorrow.