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Book Review: G is for Genes - The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement

17 February 2014
Appeared in BioNews 742

G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement

By Dr Kathryn Asbury and Professor Robert Plomin

Published by John Wiley and Sons

ISBN-10: 1118482816, ISBN-13: 978-1118482810

Buy this book from from Amazon UK

The last few months of 2013 featured a good deal of public, policy and even Parliamentary debate on genetics, education, and IQ.

In October, Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to Education Secretary Michael Gove, set the ball rolling with his long essay, which included a discussion of the work of Robert Plomin, an internationally recognised authority on the genetics of children with learning disabilities in particular and behaviour genetics in general. The press picked up on this and there followed a very confused and confusing discussion of how to think about genetic variation and educational attainment and what Cummings (and Plomin) were saying.

In November, London Mayor Boris Johnson stirred the pot in his own inimitable way. In his 'What would Maggie do today?' speech he mused on the significance of innate differences for education, inequality, competition and national fortunes. In December, in a lower key, the House of Commons Education Committee took evidence from Plomin among others as a part of its investigation into 'underachievement in education of white working class children'.

'G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement' is not a scientific study as such, although it does present a useful and accessible introduction to some of the ideas and approaches of behaviour geneticists. Fundamentally it is an intervention into the public and policy debates by two experts in the field. It is very readable and one hopes it will be (or indeed has been) read by many with an interest in the issues. In this book the authors go beyond the obvious findings of behaviour genetic studies relating to individual differences to outline how they would like to see education and schools develop.

Publication of the book coincided, roughly, with the publication of an academic paper by Plomin and colleagues titled 'Strong Genetic Influence on a UK Nationwide Test of Educational Achievement at the End of Compulsory Education at Age 16' (1). One of the arguments made by critics of a claimed link between genetic variation and variation in IQ test results is that IQ tests are biased and peculiar. What about school tests? While for behaviour geneticists the new findings were unsurprising, for the 'Educational Establishment' (if I may be excused a lazy generalisation) they posed something of a dilemma. Did they want to make a similar argument against the tests they were administering in schools?

The answer would appear to be no, they didn't. An influential response to the latest findings has been in part to smother the debate with the claim that 'we knew that all along', by which they mean that teachers since time immemorial have known that children are innately different in their abilities and inclinations, however measured, which must be reflected in teaching practices.

It is worth emphasising at the outset that this is a very misleading spin on the history of these debates. In reality, claims to have found a contribution from innate differences to IQ scores were vigorously resisted for many years. If the findings are now widely or more widely accepted it is in part down to the perseverance of researchers such as Plomin. Relatedly, it is worth noting that while many geneticists were critical of Steven Rose's recent discussion of this issue (and the book under review) in the TES, Rose, like the 'Educational Establishment', has shifted his position from one of outright rejection of pretty much all of the findings of behaviour genetics (as expressed in his co-authored book 'Not in Our Genes') to grudging acceptance today that they are on to something.

All or much of this counts in Asbury and Plomin's favour. But beyond outlining and defending the finding that genetic variation contributes to variation in achievement, what are Asbury and Plomin presenting and arguing for? The following gives a sense of their overall perspective, and ambition: the entire education system, they argue, 'is predicated on the belief that children are "blank slates"'; but in reality it will soon be possible 'to use DNA "chips" to predict strengths and weaknesses for individual pupils' (pp. 5, 12); what is needed is learning that is 'personalised to an unprecedented extent', in a large and fantastically resourced school designed to 'activate positive genotype-environment correlations', so enabling children to 'fulfil their natural potential' (pp. 182, 183).

The starting point for their argument is as one-sided as the previous rejection of innate differences by some within the educational system. As anyone with children in the school system knows, it is ridiculous to claim that the entire education system 'is predicated on the belief that children are "blank slates"'. Further, the idea that in the future teachers might make use of the results of genetic testing in schools seems fanciful. Certainly it seems unlikely to many (including this reviewer) that we are likely to see genetic profiling linked to academic ability any time soon, for a number of technical and social reasons (in contrast, at his appearance in Parliament, Plomin estimated five years' time). Finally, active gene-environment correlations remain very speculative in the context of human learning, and absent knowledge of specific genes it is again unclear what the concept could add to current teaching practice.

Having said all that, the history of debates in this area suggests that we should not rush to dismiss genetic hypotheses outright. Indeed, I would l like to see an engagement with the arguments (including a critique of them) put forward in this book and fear that the switch from rejection to 'we knew that all along' by the 'Educational Establishment' is a way of ignoring the issues. But in turn Asbury and Plomin aren't making it easy for those of us who would like to see a more subtle and mediated discussion of genetics and education.

Buy G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement from Amazon UK.

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