We Need to Talk About Genetics

5 March 2018

Author: Fran Haynes

At the recent Research Schools Conference on 7th February, Dr Kathryn Asbury, lecturer in Psychology and Education at the University of York, presented some stimulating findings from her work on the relevance of genetics to education. Not surprisingly, the role that genetics has to play in education is an emotive topic, and one that most people feel wary of approaching. However, whilst Dr Asbury acknowledges the trepidation felt by many at the idea of even talking about using genetic information to help shape our educational strategies, she also eloquently elucidates why the time is ripe for tackling these anxieties head on.

What is Happening in the World of Genetics?

As a starting point, Dr Asbury reiterates the certainty that genetic factors influence the behaviours that we see in the classroom. Why is Dr Asbury so sure? Firstly, there exists (and has existed for decades) robust, replicated and reliable research evidence that makes this claim impossible, and perhaps even dangerous, to ignore. Secondly, Dr Asbury refers to more current developments in molecular research whereby scientists are finding genetic variants of very tiny effects that are associated with aspects of learning. By combining these variants, scientists are able to produce genome-wide polygenic scores (GPS) which can help to explain the differences in children’s learning and education, for example a child who may be at greater risk of finding reading or maths more difficult.

And it is here that the apprehension starts to creep in. Many may question that if we dig beneath the impressive scientific jargon, are we in fact approaching, with alarming rapidity, the tarnished territory of genetic profiling? To cut a long story short, the answer is yes. However, as Dr Asbury explains, people are nervous, and understandably so, yet the worry is not the research (for all intents and purposes, that horse has bolted) but fears about how these scores might be used, and by whom.

Tackling the Nerves through Tackling Misconceptions

A great deal of the fear and antagonism surrounding the use of genetics in education stems from far-reaching misconceptions, and perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of all is rooted in the concept of heritability. As a starting point for enlightening the lay person about this oft-quoted (albeit indirectly) but rarely understood idea, Dr Asbury refers to the work of Eric Turkheimer, and in particular his first law of behaviour genetics: all human behavioural traits are heritable. In a nutshell, this irrefutable law tells us that everything is heritable, or in other words that all factors are genetically influenced. However, what this law does not give us, in any way, is a blueprint dictating what an individual is going to be like with no deviation. In fact, heritability is a population statistic. For example, we might say that a behavioural characteristic, such as confidence, is 50% heritable. However, this does not mean that an individual’s confidence is explained by 50% of their genes. Rather, the heritability of 50% helps to explain how much of those differences in confidence between individuals are explained by differences in their genes.

So what does this all mean? Essentially, it is crucial to understand that heritability is about probabilistic risk, not deterministic outcomes. A helpful example given by Dr Asbury is the idea of height. Most heritability estimates range from between 40% to 60%. Height, however, has a heritability of 90% – your genes are very influential in how tall you will become. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we cannot change our height by wearing a pair of high-heeled shoes. In other words, genetics tell us what is but not what will be. In the classroom, this means that we will have children who find some aspects of learning more difficult than others. To any teacher, this is not news, but having a genetic understanding of what is behind these differences could be the innovative step forward in overcoming the disparity.

School Talk

As we have ascertained, the thrust of the argument concerning the use of genetics in education is not whether the research should go ahead (Dr Asbury believes that GPS will be available in the next five to ten years) but rather what to do with that information now. This is a thorny ethical patch to try to weed, and the arguments are sure to tangle further before the path is clear. Nevertheless, what is apparent is that the time to engage with this debate is upon us. Dr Asbury argues that the reticence we may feel about opening this can of worms must be quashed whilst the GPS work is still in the field of research science; this is the only way to reduce trial and error when the information is out in the real world.

Dr Asbury further asserts that we have to begin this discussion by accepting that the wealth of research shows that there are biological reasons why some children find learning more difficult than others. Seen in this light, it is seemingly a logical step to understand GPS data can help us to identify children who at risk of underachieving, or to identify genetic risk factors. In this vein, GPS data could be viewed as equivalent to free school meals data, and therefore be used as an index that identifies children who are likely to underperform so that schools can intervene sooner to overcome the difficulties. The contention arises from the conflict between our comfort with saying there are social reasons why some children need help and so we are going to target our resources on them, but our unease about making the same claim for biological reasons. The moral complexity increases again when we consider that indices such as free school meals successfully identify only two thirds of children who underperform at GCSE. Should we, therefore, ignore the possibility that the other third could be identified through genetics, and consequently not offer the intervention that could potentially level the playing field?

The Future Looks Messy

Once the role of genetics in education is hopefully established in the domain of evidence-informed discussion, more questions and concerns are inevitably going to emerge. For schools, these questions will no doubt start to influence policy and therefore young people’s life chances. Some reflection points for these weighty school-based discussions are outlined below:

  1. When GPS data becomes available, who, if anyone, should have access to this information? The class teacher? SLT? The child? The parents?  Alternatively, would it be better to identify some children as at risk of underperformance and therefore in need of intervention, but not necessarily ascertain the reason why?
  2. If GPS data is used to identify students who are at risk of underperforming, when would be best to intervene? For example, for students who are at risk of finding reading difficult, intervention very early on would seem most beneficial to ensure access to the curriculum. However, it is important to emphasise that as well as affecting intelligence, genetics also influences other factors that support or inhibit success at school, for example motivation, self-efficacy and the ability to make friends. Would intervention for these attributes be more advantageous later on in school life?
  3. What will this intervention look like? It may be the case that the interventions that are already in place do not need to change, but the students to whom the intervention is targeted do.
  4. Who will be responsible for ensuring that those with access to the GPS data in schools accurately understand what it means? Is this the job of the scientists or the school?

Further Reading

G is for Genes, Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin

This blog was hugely informed by the podcast that can be found at:



Fran Haynes


Posted on 5 March 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence
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