Let’s Try to Talk About Genes (again)
Hold on to your hats! It’s that thorny subject, rearing its ‘timely’ head again. Roger Titcombe and I are busy trying to convince others that cognitive ability is something we need to look square in the face. This is proving to be difficult. I have written at length to several renowned professors, some even claiming to champion debate about our genes and how they relate to learning and teaching - the result is a stunning silence. Well, if the honourable professors won’t take it on (maybe their sponsors won’t be happy), let’s see if there are practicing educationalists willing to push the boat out.
Our secondary school are relying increasingly on the application of CATs in Yr7 because they have difficulty setting Progress and Attainment 8 targets for their students on the basis of the SATs results awarded only a few short months earlier. It would appear from this practice that they have no difficulty with cognitive ability per se. I conclude this because they’re using them at great cost to supplement the information they feel they can rely on. As we all know, CATs measure cognitive ability and have historically been a reasonable proxy for general intelligence, as opposed to the rather meaningless results obtained from SATs. So what is cognitive ability and how can it help make kids smarter and not simply pass the test?
Decades of research have revealed that there are education related genetic variants (ERGV for short). The fact is, as much as some are reluctant to be drawn into this debate for fear that some will argue that genes determine outcomes we still need to go there. The study of genes tells us an increasing amount about child development. Evidence shows that just as for other traits, there are genes for educational attainment. These genes contribute to development from the outset and go on to exert an influence throughout our lives in a very close association with the environment - step forward educators. Let’s, however, be clear: they do not determine what happens, rather they offer potential development opportunities. With the best teaching in the world, I was never destined to become a concert pianist. On the other hand, if we were ever able to map the genes that contribute to intelligence, we need to be willing to use that information for the benefit of the individual just as we are already doing in medicine.
Enter ERGV’s. We all carry these gene variants, some more than others. Children who have been identified as possessing more of them learn to speak at an earlier age and later develop reading skills more rapidly. What is interesting from this research is that, unsurprisingly, ERGV’s do not favour children from any particular social background. Researchers are looking at ways to use this information to develop effective teaching strategies to intervene where needed to help children reach their maximum development. What can never happen is what we are unendingly being told we have to do now, to manufacture equality of opportunity to produce homogeneous attainment outcomes. We are ALL different. Different is good, but we need to understand it and work with it rather than against.
Teaching that targets cognitive growth relies on an understanding of human development. Our genes are a vital part of that story and we have ignored this fact for far too long. Time to grow up and take responsibility for aiming to make everyone more intelligent through a recognition that environment matters.