Why genes matter in L&D

by L&D22 Nov 2016
As a recent article in The Conversation pointed out, the debate around the effectiveness of different learning styles in modern education is as active as ever – with many recognising that each pupil prefers a different learning style and technique.

Darya Gaysina, lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex, writes that this can make it hard for teachers to gear classes up for each individual’s preferred style of learning.
“Especially given that one style, such as social learning, can appear to be the exact opposite of another style, such as those who prefer a more solitary style of education,” she said.
“Research shows that when it comes to learning style preferences or even A-level choice, they are pretty hard wired in each individual – with genes playing a large part in the process.”

Gaysina pointed to “educational genomics”, a relatively new field, which has been expanding rapidly in the recent years due to advances in technology. It involves using detailed information about the human genome – DNA variants – to identify their contribution to particular traits that are related to education.

It is thought that one day, educational genomics could enable educational organisations to create tailor-made curriculum programmes based on a pupil’s DNA profile.

“A number of recent large-scale genetic studies on education-related traits – such as memory, reaction time, learning ability and academic achievement – have identified genetic variants that contribute to these traits,” she explained.

“And studies using even more advanced technologies are also currently underway, promising to add to our growing knowledge of what helps us to learn.”

She added that this information could then be used to find out what DNA variants contribute to reading and mathematical ability, or school achievement – and then used to predict whether or not a pupil is likely to be gifted in a particular field such as music or mathematics, for example. These “traits” could then be nurtured in the classroom.
A personalised approach

Gaysina said that despite all the existing evidence for individual differences in learning, genetics is rarely a consideration when it comes to education.

Though, recent years have seen a rise in funding and research into personalised medicine. This involves “mapping” genetic differences among people to predict and target potential health issues in later life, which has allowed doctors to adjust treatment and prevention approaches to try and stave off risks before they even begin to develop,” she said.

“So it wouldn’t be a great leap to use these same databases – and research funding – to advance the field of educational genomics. Meaning that every child in the future could be given the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential.”

However, she cautioned that it is also important to bear in mind that our genes do not work in isolation.

“The human genome is a dynamic system that reacts to the environment. And the role of the environment in education is just as important to the development of a child,” she said.

“For example, musical talent can be inherited, but can only be developed as a skill in the presence of specific environmental conditions – such as the availability of musical instrument and hard practice.”

And educational genomics aims to uncover this complex relationship – to look at how the genome works in different environments.

Gaysina said this information will then help researchers to understand how this interplay affects brain and behaviour across the life of a person.

“By considering DNA differences among people in the future, educational genomics could provide the basis for a more personalised approach to education,” she said.

“This would most likely be a much more effective way of educating pupils because educational genomics could enable schools to accommodate a variety of different learning styles – both well-worn and modern – suited to the individual needs of the learner.”

Gaysina suggests that in time, this could help society to take a decisive step towards the creation of an education system “that plays on the advantages of genetic background, rather than the current system, which penalises those individuals who do not fit the educational mould”.