How genetics could be used to help future learners unlock hidden potential

Educational genomics could mean bespoke curriculums can be created based on a pupil’s DNA

Darya Gaysina
Wednesday 23 November 2016 20:24 GMT
Genomics uses detailed information about the human genome to identify their contribution to education-related traits
Genomics uses detailed information about the human genome to identify their contribution to education-related traits

Salman Rushdie recently caused controversy by bemoaning the lack of “rote learning” in schools. He spoke about the benefits of learning poetry by heart – a method many see as archaic and outdated in today’s classroom.

Despite the criticisms of Rushdie’s comments, the debate around the effectiveness of different learning strategies in modern education is as active as ever – with many recognising that each pupil prefers a different learning style and technique.

This can, of course, make it hard for teachers to gear classes up for each individual’s preferred style of learning. Especially given that one style, such as social learning, can appear to be the exact opposite of another style, such as those who prefer a more solitary style of education.

Research shows that when it comes to learning strategy preferences or even A-level choice, they are pretty hard wired in each individual – with genes playing a large part in the process. And we know that genes can also shape our relationships with other people – whether they be parents, teachers or peers.

Why genes matter

“Educational genomics” is a relatively new field, which has been expanding rapidly in recent years because of advances in technology. It involves using detailed information about the human genome – DNA variants – to identify their contribution to particular traits that are related to education.

And it is thought that one day, genomics could enable educational organisations to create tailor-made curriculum programmes based on a pupil’s DNA profile.

A number of recent large-scale genetic studies on education-related traits – such as memory, reaction time, learning ability and academic achievement – have identified genetic variants that contribute to these traits. And studies using even more advanced technologies are also currently underway, promising to add to our growing knowledge of what helps us to learn.

This information could then be used to find out what DNA variants contribute to reading and mathematical ability, or school achievement. And then used to predict whether or not a pupil is likely to be gifted in a particular field such as music or mathematics, for example. These “traits” could then be nurtured in the classroom.

A personalised approach

But despite all the existing evidence for individual differences in learning, genetics is rarely a consideration when it comes to education. Though, recent years have seen a rise in funding and research into personalised medicine. This involves “mapping” genetic differences among people to predict and target potential health issues in later life, which has allowed doctors to adjust treatment and prevention approaches to try and stave off risks before they even begin to develop.

So it wouldn’t be a great leap to use these same databases – and research funding – to advance the field of educational genomics. Meaning that every child in the future could be given the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential.

But it is also important to bear in mind that our genes do not work in isolation. The human genome is a dynamic system that reacts to the environment. And the role of the environment in education is just as important to the development of a child.

For example, musical talent can be inherited, but can only be developed as a skill in the presence of specific environmental conditions – such as the availability of musical instrument and hard practise.

And educational genomics aims to uncover this complex relationship – to look at how the genome works in different environments. This information will then help researchers to understand how this interplay affects brain and behaviour across the life of a person.

By considering DNA differences among people in the future, educational genomics could provide the basis for a more personalised approach to education. This would most likely be a much more effective way of educating pupils because educational genomics could enable schools to accommodate a variety of different learning styles – both well-worn and modern – suited to the individual needs of the learner.

And in time, this could help society to take a decisive step towards the creation of an education system that plays on the advantages of genetic background. Rather than the current system, that penalises those individuals who do not fit the educational mould.

This article first appeared on The Conversation ( Darya Gaysina is a lecturer in psychology, at the University of Sussex

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