• Question: Nature vs Nurture... what does the research say? Are there some areas in which teachers can have more/less impact?

    Asked by Pia to Anna, Catriona, Daniel, Katherine, Michael on 12 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Catriona Morrison

      Catriona Morrison answered on 12 Apr 2015:

      It is definitely a blend of both: nature and nurture are both important. But I would argue one cannot underrate the value of good teachers in every sphere of a child’s development.
      Research suggests that any disadvantages a child may have as a feature of their genes can be more than offset by the right environment: good parenting, the right friends, and – not least – good schooling.
      In terms of areas of impact, obviously there are the key subject areas, but I think, as important, are personal/ attitudes/ values/ ethos.
      Without doubt, teachers shape children. Inspirational teachers are people who are remembered over a lifetime.

    • Photo: Katherine Weare

      Katherine Weare answered on 13 Apr 2015:

      The research is suggesting both that genetic and early experiences are very influential – the impact of neglect on the infant brain is for example devastating 0 but also that the brain is a great deal more ‘plastic’ than we thought and that is it never too late to intervene and help in any aspect of development, cognitive or emotional. Often the influence of one person is a turning point, and teachers are often cited by those with severe problems as life savers. So never give up would be my response.

    • Photo: Michael Thomas

      Michael Thomas answered on 17 Apr 2015:

      Nature / nurture is a fascinating issue because we feel that it burrows into the essence of what we are as human beings. We are often tempted to think about ‘nature’ as the part we can’t do anything about. This sometimes translates in an educational context to the impression that ‘heritable’ abilities in children can’t be influenced by teachers.

      I’d say a couple of things. First, this is not at all how geneticists think about their findings. When genetics researchers interact with educators, the key message is that the discovery of genetic effects on behaviour should not be taken to imply that these outcomes—how good a child’s cognitive skills will be, how well he or she will do at school—are inevitable or determined by the child’s genetic make-up. Genetic effects may reduce or even disappear if the environment is changed (in this case the environment of the classroom, the broader educational system, the family, and society).

      This does raise the question of what educators should take from studies that report high heritability of, say, intelligence or reading ability or self-efficacy. We recently ran a symposium considering just this issue, and a summary of the discussion can be found in an article shortly to be published: http://www.psyc.bbk.ac.uk/research/DNL/personalpages/Thomas_etal_MBE_uncorrectedproof.pdf

      The second thing I’d say is that I don’t think we always end up focusing on the right things. Most of the data about what is inherited or what is environmentally influenced in children’s educational outcomes focuses on individual differences. We see who is better, who is worse, and then try and trace these differences to genetic variation or environmental influences. One might think of this in terms of the rank order in a class. Who’s at the top, who’s at the bottom.

      However, a focus on individual differences doesn’t tell us about the genetic factors that are common across all of us, and the environmental factors that influence us all. Twin studies, genome-wide association studies and the like are simply blind to factors on which we don’t differ. But in many cases, it is these factors that are of interest in education – factors which allow us pretty well all to learn and improve when exposed to educational environments, and those educational contexts to change to include training in the new skills that society asks of us.

      Is it best to focus on rank orders in the classroom, and how we might intervene to alter them? This is what a focus on individual differences encourages. The alternative is to think about factors that change the size of the differences between individuals; or factors that move the whole population, perhaps changing the environment to make outcomes better for everyone. Both of these changes could occur without altering the rank order in a class.

      I’m very enthusiastic about genetic research. It’s an exciting and fast-moving field. I think that down the road, it will give us essential insights into the biological mechanisms that underpin learning inside and outside the classroom. However, it’s important not to let this research restrict our focus to differences between children, nor to draw the incorrect assumption that genetic influences on behaviour imply that the behaviour cannot be changed – in a different environment, it might well be. And teachers can be the instruments of this environmental change.