Live Chat – Individual Differences #1 – Thursday 22nd March

ModShane: Good evening. The chat is due to start at 8.30 this evening, but do log in and say hello if you’re early.

ModShane: Can I sneak in with a question before everyone arrives? The first point in our topic guide: talks about genes being responsible for 30% of the variation in intelligence in young people but 76% in older people. So what’s the responsible for the other 70% in young people and what are the sorts of things that make the change to 76% in older people?

Emma: Okay, so this is a question about heritability – right? Studies tend to find (overall) that heritability increases as we age, so that it is maximal in adulthood.

ModShane: That’s what I understand to be true, but it is counter-intuitive to a lay person like me

Emma: What we suspect is happening is that people are seeking out environments that best support and foster their genetic propensities (gene-environment correlation).

ModShane: @Emma Like what?

Emma: I think I should take a step back to state what heritability is (and isn’t).It’s a population based statistic that estimates how much variance [in the outcome you are interested in – such as intelligence, or academic achievement] can be accounted for by genetic factors. Genetic influences can reduce (or disappear entirely) if aspects of the environment are changed (e.g., classroom, school, broader educational system and society, etc). For example, heritability estimates tend to be a bit lower in countries that don’t have standardised educational systems/more variable learning environments. This is a good paper –

ModShane: @Emma So it means that teachers and other factors have a bigger impact than genes in young people? But over time that effect will wear off and genetics will play a larger part?

Emma: I don’t think it’s really a ‘wearing off’ – those effects will still be important, but it is just that they don’t explain differences between people. Heritability depends on the range of typical environments in the population that is studied. If the environment of the population is fairly uniform, then heritability may be high, but if the range of environmental differences is very large, then heritability may be low. For example, if heritability estimates for reading ability were 100%, it is entirely plausible that a new intensive ‘environmental intervention’ of reading training would improve everyone’s performance (all children do better on the test, and rank order does not change). It is just that those differences that exist/remain between individuals will largely be present for genetic reasons [i.e., high heritability doesn’t mean the environment can’t have an impact].

Lorna: @emma so school environments becoming more similar as children get older (standardised curriculum etc) could be one factor underlying increasing heritability of educational attainment with age?

Emma: @Lorna – yes, exactly!

ModShane: @Emma and what does that mean for our educational system? Is it good to have high heritability or to have variation in teaching to find the best for each child?

Emma: The interesting bit (for me, at least) is that individual differences related to academic outcomes are under a genetic influence (to a moderate to large extent).

Emma: @ModShane – you have good questions! Yes, you can argue that high heritability indicates educational and social equality/uniformity of educational environments. it indicates that all basic learning needs are being met in modern educational settings.

ModShane: And so if heritability is around 30% for young people is it accepted that is a sign that our education system is not meeting needs? You say some countries show lower rates. What are the rates in countries that are considered to be doing well?

Emma: @ModShane I *think* from memory, countries with standardised systems get higher heritability estimates than those that don’t (UK vs US for example).

Emma: What heritability *doesn’t* tell you, is where these genes are and what they do. Thats is where molecular genetic research comes in. Once you identify the specific genes, you can start to ask more specific questions about the environment

ModShane: @Emma Understood. But I imagine therein also lie some risks.

Emma: @ModShane Yes, we need to be mindful and think carefully about how genetic information is used. The reality is that these traits are extremely polygenic, with thousands of DNA variants contributing to heritability.

Nthomas: to what extent can we cater for individual differences when preparing pupils for a standardised exam? i.e. do you feel process more important than outcome?

Coutenay: @nthomas it depends on what you are wanting to measure – if you want to know what a child knows about science, but that child has difficulties reading, then presenting the exam in a different modality, would be a very important thing to do.

Nthomas: @Courtenay but GCSE and A level exams are standardised so no flexibility. We already cater for particular needs, but does research show other approaches to individualise, eg for subject knowledge or skills

Courtenay: @nthomas that is unfortunate – if a child passes such a test, you can be reasonably sure that he/she has the skills/knowledge of interest. But one can fail a test for many reasons.

Abena: @Courtenay – I would say it really depends how you define ‘knowledge’. If it’s the ability to memorise some ‘stuff’ for an exam then yes; if not, no.

Jacob: @Courtenay @nthomas very true. Errors, and more importantly learning from error feedback, is one way to begin to individualise test preparation

Nthomas: @Courtenay trouble is vast majority of UK teenage students take gcses – we’d love to individualise if evidence of benefit

Courtenay: @Abena I’m not sure what you are getting at – can you give me an example?

Abena: @Courtenay – I mean being reasonably sure of anything in a student’s learning must be difficult to ascertain from performance on a test. Is an exam grade a true sign for learning / knowledge or a proxy?

Courtenay: @Abena oh, I see, you mean it just tells you an outcome, not how they got there…

Abena: @Courtenay – yes, it can give us a snapshot in time but doesn’t tell us much more than that.

Abena: For the disorders listed on tonight’s topic page, is there any neurophysical / neurochemical evidence of them, or are they generally diagnosed by behaviours?

ModKathryn: Just to help there – the disorders listed are ADHD, autism, dyscalculia and dyslexia

Courtenay: @Abena the disorders listed are diagnosed by behaviours alone – we do not have robust physical tests (sometimes called biomarkers) for any of these.

Abena: @Courtenay – are the diagnostic tools robust and well-applied? Has anyone ever studied this?

Courtenay: @Abena considerable amounts of research on diagnostic accuracy – depends on the measures used, age of child etc. No diagnostic instrument is perfect but there are ways of measuring accuracy of particular measures

Lorna: @abena there are currently no biological tests for dyslexia, developmental language disorder, autism and other ‘non-syndromic’ disorders. The underlying causes are complex and multifactorial – so the specific genes contributing to language difficulties will vary from child to child, for example- each gene individual gene variant by itself having a tiny effect on brain development. So the best available diagnostic tools are based on behaviours – e.g. Standardised tests, observations, questionnaires

Emma: @Abena There are standardised clinical tools that are used to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. They are not perfect, but they are pretty reliable.

Abena: Autism is the one I hear most teachers have least problem with diagnoses. The others often have a reputation of over-diagnosis. I wonder if this is fair.

Courtenay: And diagnosis would involve direct assessment, observation, family interview (case history), and hopefully, discussion with teachers/class observation!

Jacob: @Abena @Courtenay Indeed. There a number of behavioural screeners for dyscalculia (Brian Butterworth’s in the UK, PanaMath in the US, for example), which have been validated now on thousands of children and adults

Courtenay: @Abena in our SCALES research we do find variation in symptom reporting depending on who is doing the rating – our expectations play a key role in how much of a problem these are.

Abena: I hardly dare ask but is it likely in the future, we will consider such disorders as non-issues as we now do homosexuality?

Courtenay: @Abena I often give my running disorder as an example – my running speed is probably in bottom 3rd centile for women of my age…but we don’t think of this as a disorder because (for the most part) it doesn’t yield any negative functional impacts these days (i can get a bus, mobility scooters are popular). So one reason things like ADHD and dyslexia and developmental language disorder are important to diagnose is that we know these children are at high risk for negative life outcomes

Jacob: In terms of brain-based evidence, recent work has begun to show different behavioural, yet similar brain activity profiles during arithmetic for children diagnosed with dyscalculia and dyslexia, but it’s only just a start. See here for more info

Lorna: Neurodiversity activists are working towards that! Neurotribes by Steve Silberman is a great book on autism and neurodiversity

Abena: Because of the way our schools are set up though, right? In an adapted environment, these disorders may not have such a negative impact?

Courtenay: @Abena well, society places high value on oracy and literacy, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. But yes, in other cultures/societies it would have less impact (like my running!)

Abena: Thanks all. @Lorna – that books looks interesting. Will read.

Courtenay: @Abena having said that, the curriculum is not always in line with developmental expectations and this can give the impression that a child is having problems when it is just they are not developmentally ready for what they are being asked to do!

Abena: @Courtenay – this totally resonates! Unfortunately it’s easier for adults to see (retrospectively thinking about their peers and what they achieved in spite / because of school) and not so much for kids/teens. League tables don’t wait for ‘readiness’ 🙁

Nthomas: @Courtenay That is soo sooo true!

Courtenay: @nthomas this is the one thing I could change if I could – we seem to have forgotten all about the zone of proximal development!

Jacob: @Courtenay this is such an important point and likely to be a source of tension in education (maturation/development vs guided instruction). Zone of proximal development indeed, as well as capitialising on the timing of critical periods

ModKathryn: Could you elaborate on what zone of proximal development is?

Jacob: The zone of proximal development describes the “”sweet spot”” between (1) what a learner can achieve unaided and (2) what they cannot achieve without help. It’s the point where they benefit the most from guided instruction

Courtenay: the zone of proximal development is basically the gap between what a child can do (without help) and what they can’t do. The idea is that you target new learning in this zone – just a bit beyond current ability.

Jacob: How’s that for reliability of answers!

ModKathryn: Excellent!

@Courtenay: I worry that the gaps in the curriculum are just too big, and many children feel frustrated and experience failure regularly

Abena: @Courtenay – I agree, which is why I find what MCS Brent do with their ‘boot camp’ and same expectations for all. Their claims are astonishing – that even students several years behind with literacy / numeracy make huge gains by avoiding differentiation and instead supporting them to reach the same goals. They make no allowances within the classroom for SEN, including ADHD…and if the reports are to be believed, the students love it.

Lorna: @abena I’m not aware of any independent evaluation of Michaela school techniques

Courtenay: @Abena the school where I am a governor uses something called ‘you own your own behaviour’ (YOYOB) – I don’t know of any research on it, but works very well in that school! They move up and down a behaviour line – I like it because if you move down, you still have potential to redeem yourself within the same lesson/day

Courtenay: @Abena I’m always suspicious of ‘astonishing’ claims! A real problem for many children with SEND is being able to reason about cause/effect/and future consequences

Abena: @Courtenay – yes, they talk in their book about the need for speed when it comes to consequences and reactions.

Courtenay: @Abena agree they need to be immediate, otherwise many children with SEND won’t link the outcome with the behaviour!

Abena: @Courtenay – do you think this holds in examples of suspensions carried out over more than the day of the offence? Does anyone know of any evidence supporting / refuting the effectiveness of suspensions in elementary / primary schools? Especially with SEND students?

Courtenay: @Abena I’m afraid I don’t know about that. I would question what the goal of suspension is – I suspect for many children it won’t alter their behaviour because it doesn’t get at the cause of the behaviour.

Abena: @Courtenay – I agree. The time is not used for restoration or for probing the issue – just as punishment (in this case)

Courtenay: @Abena not helpful! for SEND, really important to understand the triggers of behaviour and how to address the before things reach crisis

Abena: @Courtenay – But schools (generally) wouldn’t see a ‘crisis’ as their failing…only the student’s 🙁

Lorna: @Abena not sure about evidence on that, but imagine frequent exclusion for behaviours over which the child may have limited control (e.g. Impulsivity in ADHD) likely counterproductive

Courtenay: @Abena I do know of cases where the school has a tricky balance in meeting needs of the child with challenging behaviour and meeting the needs of the other children affected by that behaviour…

Courtenay: Thank you all for such interesting questions – clearly we have lots of research work to do (and lots to do to influence those who dev curriculum and behaviour policies)

ModKathryn: Thank you all for the discussion! Remember you can ask a question at any time on the website by clicking the Ask icon. See you in the next live chat!

Posted on March 23, 2018 by in Live Chat Transcript. Comments Off on Live Chat – Individual Differences #1 – Thursday 22nd March