Sometimes research gives clear cut answers to a research question. Someone makes a discovery, it is reviewed by their peers, published and leads to a fundamental re-alignment of our thinking about the topic. Other times there is a debate which rumbles on and on. Numerous research studies are published, some appear to support one side, some the other. One example of the latter is the nature-nurture debate. In an interview in The Spectator in July, Professor Robert Plomin revealed the as-yet-unpublished results into his research into the genetics of GCSE results (Wakefield, 2013). He directs the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) which is tracing the development of all UK twins born form 1994 to 1996. Their GCSE results are just in and his analysis suggests that around 50-60% of the difference between individuals is down to genetic factors. It varies by subject, around 52% for English, around 58% for Science. Of course, cynics will say that you can prove anything by statistics, but Plomin is a respected professor at King’s College, London so his work should be taken seriously.
Plomin does make two very interesting observations himself. In the interview he commented that heritability increased with age. That sounds contradictory. Surely the genes are fixed at birth? His explanation is initially there is less inherited differences between children. However, slightly cleverer children tend to read more and mix more with similarly brighter children. So their selected environment tends to enhance the initial difference and so that difference grows. Exactly the same is true for sportspeople, sporty kids will choose, or be led into, more practice and exercise and so become more sporty – as was pointed out by James Flynn many years ago (Dickens & Flynn, 2001). Plomin’s other point is that, if individual differences are so important, we really need a much more individualised and active model of education. The old models of teacher instruction just do not fit, he believes, with scientific evidence about children. Do I hear a shout of Hallelujah? Perhaps not yet, but it is a step in the right direction, even though Plomin has taken a slightly odd route to get there.
However, even before Plomin’s interview, Steven Rose, emeritus professor of Biology at the Open University, had published a riposte. All these studies on heritability depend on the claim that you can separate the effects of the environment and the genes and that the interaction between them is relatively small. Rose notes that this calculation can only work if the environment is reasonably stable. That is fine for agricultural research into crops grown in greenhouses. It is less fine for children. Some studies, Rose comments, give a heritability estimate of 70% for middle-class children, but only 10% for working class kids – possibly, he suggests, because their environment is less stable. Furthermore, genes and environments interact in complex ways, and a whole new science of epigenetics is studying this. Only this year, a genome-wide association study (Rieveldt, 2013) of over 125,000 people had their genomes surveyed to try and find a gene for educational attainment. Three genes were indeed found to be associated, but they accounted for only 0.02% of the difference (i.e. about a month’s schooling!) On that basis, the environment is (almost) everything.
It looks as if the two sides are drawing together. The learning environment is vitally important and it needs to be structured in such a way that children’s individuality if cherished. Sounds familiar?
However, one very serious issue about educational attainment is the extent to which some children are overlooked and rejected by the system. A new book by Scott Kauffman addresses this problem. As a child he was put into a remedial stream at school, on the basis of a low IQ test score, but he did eventually become an able student and that experience fired off his interest. He reviewed Terman’s classic 1921 study of high-IQ individuals, noting that Terman rejected 2 individuals from his study group who later went on to become Nobel laureates! Kaufman provides a welcome insight into the many different forms intelligence and ability can take, including a discussion of autistic savants and schizophrenics. He believes that by redefining intelligence we may nurture more great minds. Perhaps the lesson to be learnt is the danger of labelling, whether by genetics or the environment, and the importance of looking at each child as a unique individual with their own unique potential.
Another long-running debate is about the value, and most effective starting date, of formal education. An open letter to the Daily Telegraph from the Save Childhood Movement (Paton, 2013a) signed by 127 Early Years experts, including Sir Al Aynsley-Green, formerly the Children’s Commissioner for England and emeritus professor of child health at University College, London, argued strongly that in the U.K. we should follow the Scandinavian pattern of keeping children in nurseries up to the age of six or seven. On a personal note, I have visited many pre-schools overseas, and where there is an age-mix of 3 to 6 years the difference is just unbelievable. Predictably however, the letter drew varying reactions. The Archbishop of Canterbury supported it. On the other hand, Baroness Sally Morgan, the chairman of Ofsted, countered the letter with a proposal (Paton, 2013b) that children should start school at two, in order to eradicate the achievement gap between well-off and poor children. Now the New Scientist (Whitbread & Bingham, 2013) has joined the debate with a defence of the original letter. In it, the authors point to a major review of the link between symbolic play and the development of the symbolic skills needed for literacy from the Centre for Excellence in Early Childhood Development (Christie & Roskos, 2009). The need for women to be freed to go back to work is blamed, not only for the 1870 introduction of universal education, but also for the current government’s push for more and more early education. They have a point. But is this not another example of children being treated en masse as commodities, rather than as precious individuals?
So giving children the freedom to be themselves and play will help their language? Seems obvious enough. You might think that everything that need to be discovered about language development was known (and just the politics needs sorting out). But Erica Cartmill and her team at the University of Chicago (Cartmill, 2013) videotaped parents reading to their 14 or 18-month olds. Viewing the muted tapes, it became obvious that the quality of the parents’ non-verbal cuing (gesturing or pointing) made a significant difference to the children’s vocabulary – and that is known to have a significant effect on their subsequent progress. There is always something more to learn. Perhaps there is value to these debates after all, in highlighting where we, the adult world, need to learn from the children.
Cartmill, E.A. et al. (2013). Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary 3 years later. Proc. Nat. Academy Sc. doi:10.1073
Christie, J.F. & Roskos, K.A. (2009). Play’s potential in early literacy development. Encyclopedia on early Childhood Development available on http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/ECLKC/encyclopedia/Enc09_Christie-Roskos_play_en.pdf.
Dickens W.T. & Flynn J.R. (2001). ‘Heritability estimates versus large environment effects: the IQ paradox resolved’ Psychological Review vol. 10, summarised in ‘Opinion essay’ New Scientist 21/04/2001 pp 45-47.
Kaufman, S.B. (2013). Ungifted: intelligence redefined. New York: Basic Books.
Paton, G. (11.9.2013). Start schooling later than five, say experts. Daily Telegraph available on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10302249.
Paton, G. (4.11.2013). Schools should admit children at two, says Ofsted chief. Daily Telegraph available on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10425343.
Rieveldt, C.A. et al. (2013) GWAS of 126,559 individuals identifies genetic variants associated with educational attainment. Science 340(6139):1467-1471.
Rose, S. (18.10.2013). School achievement isn’t just in your genes. New Scientist, 2940: 28-29
Wakefield, M. (24.7.2013). Revealed: how exam results owe more to genetics than to teaching. The Spectator, available on http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8970941.
Whitbread, D. & Bingham, S. (2013). Too much, too young. New Scientist 2943:28-29