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Radio 4 The World Tonight – 25 July

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Blog - Radio 4 The World Tonight – 25 July

Friday 26 July 2013

Several people have emailed to say: was that you on Radio 4 last night?  Well, yes, it was.  I was responding to some research findings about the role of heredity in school performance from a professor as written up in the media recently, for example at http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/8970941/sorry-but-intelligence-really-is-in-the-genes/.

These are the key points I tried to put across in response – all in about 3 minutes of course!

It is no surprise that there is genetically determined  variety in the way our minds work, as there is in all other aspects of the human body and appearance, as there is across nature.  It is also  illuminating to look at ways in which our improving understanding of the human genome can be of use and relevance  to the way we educate young people.

That said, as an educationalist, I would want to focus on what is useful and good as a starting point for the enterprise of education.
To be a great educator you have to be an eternal optimist and believe that education has the power to transform people, through high expectations, inspirational teaching, hard work on the part of students,  and keeping and open mindset about their capacity.
The shadow side of this positive and open approach is determinism, a closed mindset, and that dreadful adage that you “can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  To be a good educator that all has to be banished.  That is not to say you are not always on the hunt for better, more targeted and precise teaching methods, but you certainly don’t want to make children believe that their destiny is all preordained in their genes.  It is much more complex that that.  We are not just IQ machines.
All teachers know that high expectations lead to better outcomes, and – as the American psychologist Carol Dweck has constantly said – deliberately cultivating an open mindset is critical in getting teachers and learners to believe that they can achieve, and the results of having a positive belief about your capacity are proven and stark.  Dweck’s recent talk at the RSA is  here http://www.thersa.org/__data/assets/file/0004/1526674/20130708CarolDweck.mp3
Concern would be that – improperly or partially understood – Professor Plomin’s views about the overwhelming impact of heredity on what he calls intelligence would lead to some very closed and self fulfilling attitudes both among teachers and students.  I simply believe that if you a to make a difference as an educationalist you have to believe that you can.
That’s not to say that we close our eyes to what science can tell us about what is likely to be effective teaching teaching, but it does mean that we need to find a way not to consign young people to a life of menial work just because their genetic makeup might say that the probability of them being good at maths is low.  We’ve been down that road in education and in society once in the last hundred years and we don’t want to go there again.
Moreover, even if it were possible to map with precision young people’s likely attitudes, how would we deal with children who inexplicably developed an interest for something they were not supposed to be good at? Someone who because of an inspirational role model become passionately interested in music or sport?
The nature-nurture argument is an old one, and I think most of us who work with young people realise that it’s a complex interaction of both that makes a person, along with a few mysterious sparks which we can never quite account for.  I would be very wary of the determinism that Professor Plomin’s approach, taken to its extreme, seems to lead to.
And finally, people are not only cognitive processors.  They also have emotions, capacity for goodness (or sometimes capacity for badness), and what we might call soul, or character.  It is reductive a model simply to think of them as IQ machines genetically predetermined, however important and illuminating that science is.