How important are our genes and our environment to our educational outcomes?

Newly published research in npj Science of Learning helps us understand

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Mar 23, 2018
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Two new research articles have been published on npj Science of Learning, and they might just provoke some lively debate. The articles – from groups in the Netherlands and the UK – looked at how much a person’s DNA contributes to school performance.

Students at selective-entry schools tend to outperform those at non-selective schools. The UK group found substantial genetic differences between students at these school types, and investigated whether admissions processes were behind these differences. Indeed, they found that after accounting for heritable traits like socioeconomic status, prior achievement and ability, the genetic differences between school types almost disappeared. Correspondingly, the difference in exam performance between school types also disappeared. 

The Dutch team looked at epigenetic signatures and their association with the number of formal schooling years a child undergoes. Epigenetics provides a way for environmental factors (e.g. smoking, air pollution) to influence whether genes are turned on or off. The authors found that epigenetic changes caused by smoking and other environmental factors are also linked to a person’s years of formal schooling.

These two articles are accompanied by three other perspective-style pieces in the journal. First, Sue Thomson takes a look into the important connection between socioeconomic background and school achievement. Second, Nick Martin dives into the rich genetic data we can now associate with intelligence and other school-related outcomes. Finally, the journal’s editors provide an overview of the two original research articles. This collection adds to an important and growing area of research on how our genes shape school outcomes, and by extension our lives.

A number of media outlets (e.g. Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail) provide commentary on these results.

Go to the profile of Alan Woodruff

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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