Genetics and education

Morning all. I’m handing over to my guest blogger today as it’s Wednesday. Enjoy!

 

This week’s subject is quite challenging so get your thinking caps on.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fdjsp

Now it’s this radio programme I’d like to refer back to for this brief survey of some of the issues involved. For those who don’t know the format there is a panel who question the speakers (called witnesses in the prog) about the view they are putting forward either in favour of the subject or against it. The idea is to focus on any moral issues that do (or could) arise from the subject under investigation.

The first speaker was one of the authors of the book. Their view was that, as scientists, they simply put the facts out and it’s up to others to interpret or from the government side formulate policy based on the results of that research. In other words they did not see any moral dilemma in deciding whether to publish or not. They’re basically saying they do not see they have any responsibility for the possible outcomes. Do you agree with that? Should science incorporate a moral responsibility to the society round about it and possibly further afield? Despite the authors of the book claiming that it was not the scientist’s job to formulate policy one of the panel (who had read the book) said that they did actually suggest policy matters towards the end of their book.

The genetic information would enable schools to be able to personalise learning through understanding a child’s genetic as well as social background. I’m wondering at this point how on earth they could possibly keep data like this safe. I don’t what security is like in whatever country you live in but over the past few years, here in the UK, there have been a number of whole databases lost, stolen or compromised: laptops have been stolen (one from the seat of a car of a Ministry of Defence employee), memory sticks have been left where they shouldn’t have been and sometimes corrupt employees have changed information on a person (and more recently even patients in a hospital have had their “information” changed). Just think of the implications of say your whole genetic make up being stolen. Supposing you play in a group and someone finds out that you don’t have a “musical” profile in your genetic make-up. Do you get fired or asked to leave?

When a panel member suggested that it seemed that the research was leading us to a situation where when a child is born their genetic “profile” established & stored so that when they were of school age their learning could be tailored to suit that child; the author said that the research did not support such a view. They re-iterated the view that their role was simply to put the facts out and let others make decisions based on it.

The second speaker was a teacher from the south of England who works in a school (Years 1-6, ages 5-11) where they have a different view about how children should learn.

There is a video of some of the kids and the teaching in class on their site (http://www.thewroxham.org.uk/).

Now before giving you their idea he claimed that their results in exams provide proof that the system they use works. So what is the system? I can base what I write only on what the speaker said as I have no experience in the field (and don’t know anyone with it). The school ethos is “Learning Without Limits”. The difference is that they do not use the term “able” or “ability” (either high or low or any variation of it). He explained that the school allows the children to “choose their level of differentiation (or challenge)” in each lesson. If you watch the video you can see children explaining a bit about how this “challenge” idea works. The children make the decisions that affect the pace of their learning and ultimately I suppose their future. “Able” he feels has negative connotations so they speak of a child working at a particular “level”. The child makes the choice on the next level of challenge. They are the learner in the process; they are part of a “learning journey”. Now obviously I don’t know how that works in practise but I think most of us probably came through the old system of “streaming”: the clever ones in a subject went into “Set 1” (the top set) or whatever your school called it with the rest going downwards in 2,3,4 etc so it is very hard for us to imagine how we could choose what our next learning level would be. All I can say is that, if the school results which he says are very good are anything to go by, it seems to work where he teaches. When asked about whether genetic information would (or could?) help him in his job he was rather non-committal. I wonder what you think of the idea. I also wonder how the children will fare when they have to go into a senior school where this particular idea is not used; how well will they be able to adapt? Well, it’s food for thought for anyone who has left school behind even just a few years ago. Would this system have suited you?

The programme couldn’t go into many different areas because of its remit but think about some of these scenarios. Can you imagine a staff room conversation in which teachers would be talking about whether pupil X or pupil Y should be taught music or art because they did not have the “musical gene” or the “artistic gene” in their profile? Suppose a child just loves music and wants to do it. Why shouldn’t they? They might not be the next classical composer or pop sensation but they could enjoy doing music for its own sake and be willing to practise. Under this new idea they would probably be excluded because they didn’t have the right genetic profile for musical ability. Don’t know about you but it sounds scary to me! More importantly where does it go next? Do interviewees, for example, take their genetic profile to a potential employer to demonstrate why they should be given the job rather than someone else? What about relationships between people? Would dating agencies request genetic profiles so they could “match” the same sort of people? You might be offered potential dates only with those who are “most suited” genetically. Suppose the country is short of scientists would you be happy if the government decided to look for any of the population who had the scientific ability gene? They might then be given special “treatment” in certain areas: educational, financial & even social. I’m sure you can think of a number of other areas in which research like this would have a major impact. If you thought 1984 (Orwell) was scary the potential of this research takes things to a whole new level. If you weren’t scared before I hope you can see why now you could have reason to be. I’ve only been able to look superficially at some of the implications but where do you see this sort of thing going?

(There were two more speakers in the programme but I’ll leave them till next week as they cover a number of different areas to the two people I’ve covered here.)  

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Predicting the life outcome for a child based on their genetics is a dangerous slippery slope which potentially is inaccurate, since whilst genetics plays a part, so does the child’s background culture, family situation, community and the education system.

    Reply

    • Posted by Rambler5319 on November 14, 2013 at 04:33

      I agree but the research was based on identical twins so things like background, family situation etc were the same for each twin. That’s the reason they are making so much of this 52% figure being down to the child’s genetic make up.

      Reply

  2. […] This week we’re looking at the second part of the subject I started last week (13.11.13). […]

    Reply

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