Wednesday, 14 January 2015

‘G is for Genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement’ by Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin – book review

The study of genetics in relation to intelligence and educational achievement is controversial. There is fear that children with ‘good’ genes would get extra resources while those with ‘bad’ genes would get ignored. However, this book shows that far from having good or bad genes that determine academic outcomes, environment has a really important impact. Aimed at a wide-ranging audience, the book describes findings from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS), a study of over 15,000 families with twins born from 1994 to 1996.

An outline of the methods used to study genetic versus environmental influence is provided, offering a great introduction to genetics for those new to this area. The twin method works by looking at differences between identical (monozygotic) and non-identical (dizygotic) sets of twins. If the differences in a certain ability are smaller between the identical twins than the non-identical twins, we can conclude that genetics are playing an important role. This is because identical twins share all of their genetic code, while non-identical twins share around half of their genetic code. Analyses allow researchers to tease apart genetic and environmental effects. The book describes findings about science, maths, language, and PE. It also discusses special educational needs, genetic disorders, socioeconomic status and school quality. My main take-home message is that it is a very complicated picture, whereby lots of genes contribute to academic outcomes and each has a small effect (for example there is no single maths ability gene).

Finally, the authors provide a list of practical applications that teachers and policy makers could put in place based on the findings. This is my favourite part of the book, as it helps to close what initially seems like a large gap between genetics and education. I think it is important for all scientists whose work is relevant in a practical setting to outline the implications, rather than leaving it to non-experts to extrapolate. This reminds me of the recent push for educational neuroscience; teachers are keen to use neuroscience in their classrooms but without expert advice may unwittingly follow unscientific methods. Although some of the recommendations given are not necessarily contingent on genetics findings per se (for example, studying behaviour alone may have led to the conclusion that labelling children is not helpful), an understanding of genetics may make these arguments more convincing. Policy makers, teachers, parents and pupils may be more convinced by a school change that is 'genetically sensitive’.

Overall the book is a great introduction for those new to genetics, and is an excellent example of how researchers should be relating their scientific findings to education.

To find out more about how genetics may relate to education, and in particular intelligence, I recommend this BBC podcast which examines some of the moral debates.

Reference:

Asbury, K., & Plomin, R. (2014). G is for Genes: The impact of genetics on education and achievement. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.