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Have Direct Measures Of DNA Variation Now Become Educationally Useful?

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In the last few decades there has been an increasing interest on how genes affect children’s learning processes and development. Nowadays, researchers are trying to find out what exactly is contributing in education, what are the important outcomes any educational professional should know and how education can be improved. Biological factors are actually being measured in different studies to be able to understand how do genes come up in each individual and if there is any relation between them. We have seen surprising studies such “500 genes that are linked to intelligence” (Harvard University in the US, University of Edinburgh and University of Southampton in the UK, 2018) or “Why is educational achievement heritable?” (King’s College London, 2014) which show researchers’ interest to find something useful that can give proper results and new knowledge about how children learn. Nowadays we know genes influence who we are, how we are and who we turn to. Past studies have found that genes are definitely related on personality’s and successful in life since the DNA was discovered. There is of course, a strong relation with genes, but there are also environmental factors involved. Actually, there have been studies that have been looking at in which way environment and genes affect identical twins and non-identical twins. Other studies have checked the relation between parental genotypes and the educational achievement measuring parental level studies. Others have simply checked how educational achievement is related to the number of years students have been schooled. There is a massive motivation for researchers to find what is actually affecting children´s educational progress to find out how policy makers, teachers, or educational professionals can improve education.

Some psychologists and geneticists affirm that the DNA variation is absolutely useful for educational professionals to be able to work better, having precise genetic information about children’s differences to create new educational methods. Robert Plomin, for example, psychologist and geneticist investing his career in looking up for behavioural genes to explore nature-nurture interface confirms: “genetic differences cause most variation in psychological traits – things like personality and cognitive abilities. The way your parents raise you, the schools you attend – they don’t have much effect on those traits. Children are similar to their parents, but that similarity is due to shared environment.” For Plomin, there is a high probability that children´s achievement at school is due to their genes, as he explains in an interview in 2015, “If there are educational opportunities for all the children, that means that the differences that are left are going to be mainly genetic differences”. In contrast, the psychologist registered in the British of Psychological Society, Oliver James, who also criticises Plomin’s research, believes that “sticking with the genetic story holds out no hope”. Instead he prefers to stick with the environmental story, which is a far richer narrative, full of parental missteps, social maltreatment and educational neglect (The Guardian, 2018). Then, are environmental factors correlated to nature ones? Is nature the governing force behind our behaviour or is it nurture? While almost everyone agrees that it seems a mixture of both, there has been no end of disagreement about which is the dominant influence. Is DNA variation, then, useful for education?

Each student is biologically different as everyone has a unique genetic profile, therefore, a unique genotype, meaning all the genes that have been inherited. Genes are the storage units of genetic information and are made up of DNA sequences. They are essential to generate and manage mental processes, that is, they intervene in the mental life and, consequently, also in how we learn. So, they influence in the creation of neurons and other brain cells, the chemicals these cells secrete, the way they react to new information, and the way they connect with each other. They intervene, then, in the psychic faculties and intellectual capacities, but they are not deterministic because students are also influenced by the environment. The genetic profile contributes to the unique phenotypic profile, which refers on how these genes are actually expressed (including physical and nonphysical traits), so the temperament and abilities of each student will be slightly different depending on their genetic variants. In addition, only a little of each DNA is likely contributing to the variation in each trait (Kovas, Malykh, Petrill, 2014).

Scientists can look at the influence of genes on behaviour by using a mathematical formula called heritability estimate. Heritability is the percentage of variation between two individuals with respect to a specific characteristic that is attributable to genetic differences. To study heritability, scientists use information from identical twins because the genetic material is almost exactly the same which makes it easier to determine the relative influence of the environment. So, it gives information about the differences that exist between two people, but the rest will depend on the environment, as genetic effects are not deterministic. For example, the same genes may have completely different effects depending on the environments in which they express themselves. For instance, they can have highly heritable in one culture and highly environmental in another depending on the access to education (Kovas, Malykh, Petrill, 2014). Thus, genetic information about complex traits is probabilistic because just as knowing something about a person’s home’s environment may provide only probabilistic information about their educational potential, so knowing their DNA sequence can provide only probabilistic information, too (Kovas, Malykh, Petrill, 2014). In contrast, the effect of the environment on a phenotype depends on genotype. In relation to the acquisition of expertise, genotype–environment interaction refers to the possibility that children respond differently to a training regime on the basis of genetic differences between them (Kendler & Eaves, 1986; Plomin, DeFries, & Loehlin, 1977). Therefore, to what extent is it important to study the genetics related to education? This biology affects our psychology, which in turn affects how we move through the education system. The largest type of genetic studies in education that have been done are mostly twin and genome-wide association studies (GWAS) which are related to the two branches of behavioural genetics: quantitative genetics and molecular genetics. They both study the sources of the relationship of different traits to understand environmental influences (Kovas, Malykh, Petrill, 2014). There are thousands of studies looking for the impact of nature-nurture on individuals such twin methodology, evaluation of the teacher/classroom effect, examination of the ethology of learning disabilities, parental genotypes effect or socioeconomic status effect on children’s learning and educational attainment. Even the whole motivation of finding new information, it seems researchers are having difficulties to find how to quantify nurture and its effects on each individual knowing the nature is totally different in each person.

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At the moment it is thought that will never find a single gene that can explain a person’s ability because it seems that the combination of genes and experiences ultimately form our personality, identity, and influences in our behaviour (Meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies for personality, PT Costa, DI Boomsma, 2010; Genes, environment and behaviour, Khan Academy). Therefore, on the way we learn. That means then that the environment then has a strong impact on how we are, too. Some kids pick things up in a flash, others struggle with the basics. This does not mean it’s all in their genes because the child’s environment can play a big role in the educational attainment. Of course, kids with supportive, stimulating families and motivated peers have an advantage, while in some extreme cases the effects of malnutrition or trauma can compromise brain development (P. Ball, 2018). Curricula, teacher training, teaching methods, class settings, educationally relevant cultural norms and values, are all examples of environmental factors that have a profound effect on what, when and how we learn. “There are multiple definitions of learning, but all of them are related to behaviour changes due to the experience; that is, with acquired changes. By interacting with the environment that surrounds us, we learn; assimilate and store the result of this interaction and use it, voluntarily or involuntarily, in future interactions. We are modifying our behaviour as we learn” (Aprendizaje y Herencia, E.Sánchez). However behavioural genetic research show that these and other educational environments interact with people’s unique genetic profiles, which may lead to huge individual differences in motivation, learning, ability an achievement, for example (Kovas, Malykh, Petrill, 2014). What it is essential to know, then, is that genes are there, but if the environment does not let them expose, they will not be expressed. If you had a whole different set of experiences over your lifetime your genes may be expressed in different ways, and you may behave differently than you do now (Genes, environment and behaviour, Khan Academy). This is to say that the environmental effects are modulated by epigenetic programming of gene expression to shape development (D. Francis, D.Kaufer, 2011). Epigenetics studies refer to the set of functional elements that regulate the gene expression of a cell without altering the DNA sequence. The cells have the ability to mark which genes should be expressed, in what degree and at what moment. The epigenetic changes are not static and can be modified throughout the life of the cell meaning they are reversible and can be influenced by environmental factors. Therefore, how important is to have a deeply knowledge about genetic mechanisms? Is it ethical to have the whole picture of genetics within education?

Clearly, genetics have an enormous influence on how a child develops. However, it is important to remember that genetics are just one piece of the intricate puzzle that makes up a child’s life. Environmental variables including parenting, culture, education and social relationships also play a vital role (K.Cherry, 2018). Having a deep knowledge about genes that influence learning and educational success can be positive for the individual itself, but it can also lead to negative consequences. We live in a world in which it seems that the “difference” is the “strange” and therefore it’s excluded within the society. It seems there are not enough values implemented in the society and everything out the normal is wrong. Ethically it seems mechanisms do not have to be deeply known and understood because they can have a big impact in the society, as it seems that everything that comes out of the ordinary has a negative connotation. Thus, having the specific knowledge of the influential genes in the education of each of the individuals enrolled in the educational system may end up resulting in social exclusion through negative labels attributed.

By personalising education, schools should draw out natural ability and build individual education plans for every single child, based on children specific abilities and interests rather than on governments decisions. The observation and tracking process has to be intensified for children who are falling behind in a basic skills for life area, and that these children receive individualized support in the school, so the abnormal has to be normal (G is for genes, K.Asbury, R. Plomin). It is believed that individualized plans associated with the needs of each one of the individuals can help them to keep developing their skills as well as their learning process the way they need, and it sounds fantastic. For example, the use of genetic markers for dyslexia as a basis for early intervention using established phonological training techniques illustrates the potential benefits (Thomas e t al. 2015). Even though, realistically, it is very utopian because the educational system we are inversed in do not give enough tools to approach the new changes teachers face every day. It is difficult to have individual plans for each student in need. As good as it sounds, in a daily basis class it is hard to give one to one opportunity to those children. We all know educational roles who actually guide those children and help them to develop, but in some cases, those students may already feel apart from the ordinary. That means that having too much genetical knowledge can also lead to intrinsic consequences related to personal and social development. The fact of labelling for being slower when it comes to learning how to read, having less facility for mathematics or having some kind of deficiency that makes educational development less possible in some areas, ends up damaging the student personally and socially. Being labelled, and therefore excluded, ends up doing emotional damage that could have been evaded at first, without having an individualized plan. But this is not all because judgements are everywhere. It seems that even if children have individual plans or not, people who surround them are able to see the learning differences and this can end up affecting their emotions. So, labelling will still be harming people due to the constant competitivity in the society. “Children go to school, they fail, they get diagnosed, they’re given special resources but by then it’s too late… Why not preventative education?” (Asbury, Plomin 2014). As they confirm, the Learning Chip can make a reliable genetic prediction of heritable differences between children in terms of their cognitive ability and academic achievement. I suspect this can be unethical, as this idea will send a chill down the spines of many parents, who might fear that children will be branded for success or failure from birth. As educators, is this what we want?

Teachers, then, need to be experts in child development, with strong personal and communication skills that allow them to connect with individual pupils, understand their needs and desires, and nurture them in the appropriate way (K. Asbury, R. Plomin). This is one of the ways in which current educational policies and practices need to be changed and genetics can suggest changes that might have a positive impact but there is a need to have in mind how having knowledge about the whole mechanism can influence individual’s personal and social development. What it is actually needed now is to teach values from a very early age, understand that each person is different, and that each has its peculiarities, defects and / or difficulties. I believe that, in addition to know how genes can interfere in anyone’s development, it is very important to know the environment in which those genes are influenced. Even so, I believe that knowledge of genes is helping to discover new ways in which children with learning difficulties can learn, but it is not enough, since the daily experience affects that learning, and therefore, the person. For genes being useful to education there is a long pathway for education to be done first, to transfer knowledge about values and respect to promote understanding. So, education has first to make few changes for genes to be able to be useful at all. Also, it is very important to keep researching in the field, to have enough evidence about how education can be improved always trying to meet individual goals, but also, realising how much negative impact they can make in their social and personal life.

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Have Direct Measures Of DNA Variation Now Become Educationally Useful? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“Have Direct Measures Of DNA Variation Now Become Educationally Useful?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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Have Direct Measures Of DNA Variation Now Become Educationally Useful? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:
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