Academics call for schools and teacher trainers to challenge genetic myths

A geneticist has called for improvements in what children are taught about genes because pupils could be picking up outdated myths.

At a media briefing, held by the Education Media Centre, experts said teachers should also be given a basic understanding of genetics as part of their training.

According to Dr Claire Haworth, deputy director to Professor Robert Plomin on the influential Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) at King`s College London , the school science curriculum needs modernising to take account of advances in our understanding of how genes work:

“The field of genetics has changed remarkably in the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve only very recently really understood the DNA sequence so the kinds of genetics taught in schools is actually outdated based on the scientific evidence we have and doesn’t incorporate the complexity we’re discovering through science .”

Dr Haworth believes the school curriculum can focus too much on genes and single characteristics such as eye colour, overlooking the complexities of genetics in behaviour where many genes are at play, interacting with the environment and are not deterministic.

Improving the understanding of genetics in schools is key, in her view, to dispelling some of the myths around the science.

Dr Haworth agreed teachers would benefit from an introduction to the basics in how our genes behave as part of their teacher training, especially if that would help explain the variation in the way different children learn and therefore lead in the long term to improvements in education policy and teaching methods.

Dr John Jerrim of the Institute of Education supported the idea of including genetics as a small part of teacher training especially if it challenged many of the misunderstandings about genes. He suggested improving teachers’ knowledge of genetics could mean the profession would be more likely to embrace any innovations which might emerge from advances in our scientific knowledge over the next 20 or 30 years.

All our experts stressed much of what we know about genes applies to the population in general rather than to individuals, and they agreed the study of genetics and its influence on learning and attainment is in its infancy and we are a long way off understanding enough for genetics to shape education policy.

Dr Lavinia Paternoster, a geneticist at Bristol University, highlighted some of the common misunderstandings about genes – one of the themes of the briefing:

Our experts challenged some genetic myths:

You are not doomed by your genes. Genes are generally not deterministic. Most genes should be thought of as probabilistic risk factors influenced by the environment.

Although there are some rare genetic conditions which cannot be altered we can often change the importance of our genetic background and use the environment to overcome genetic weaknesses and draw out genetic strengths.

There is no one gene for reading ability or intelligence. Hundreds or thousands of genes are involved and on their own the effect of single genes is tiny.

We will probably never find all the genetic changes relevant to educational attainment because there are so many and they are just too hard to find.

It’s not nature vs. nurture. It’s nature AND nurture. Even if you could discover all the genes involved in educational attainment , the environment would still matter.

The study of genetics is more about understanding the biology of how humans work rather than predicting how things will turn out.


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