Schoolkids: prisoners of their genes?

Let’s bash the idea that some kids aren’t genetically cut out for learning.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

One of the dirty secrets of the modern British educational establishment is that it lacks faith in the ability of education to make a significant difference to people’s lives. This is the most interesting thing about the publication of a document attributed to Dominic Cummings, who until recently served as a special adviser to the Tory secretary of state for education Michael Gove: it lets this secret out; it openly acknowledges the low expectations that policymakers have of children and of schools.

Cummings is unequivocal on this point. He believes that what mainly determines pupils’ performance is not the quality of teaching, but their IQ levels and genetic inheritance. He claims that up to 70 per cent of a child’s performance levels are genetically derived. That’s another way of saying that teachers and schools can have at best a marginal impact on children, whose fate is apparently bestowed on them by their genes.

Many critics have tried to depict Cummings as a right-wing ideologue using genetic determinism to push elitist ideas. What they mostly object to is not his claim that nature trumps nurture, but the fact that he also dismisses today’s English education as mediocre. However, the differences between Cummings and his critics are not as deep as they might first appear. While there might be a fundamental difference in their assessments of the state of English education, both sides share a pessimistic view of the power, or rather lack of power, of education.

Cummings’ genetic determinism offers an insight into how cultural and social differences are naturalised these days, hardened into inalterable facts of life. In Cummings’ worldview, differences among children that are actually changeable and fluid are turned into given, immutable facts. But genetic determinism is only one of many forms of determinism that dominate the intellectually impoverished landscape of pedagogy in the twenty-first century. In recent years, policymakers looking for quick-fix technical solutions to educational problems have enthusiastically embraced the promise of neuroscience and behavioural psychology. Science can provide important insights into the workings of the children’s cognition, of course; but scientific advocates go way too far when they insist that neuroscience – not teaching – will revolutionise the classroom. They, too, embrace a socio-biological outlook that one-sidedly looks at the differences in children’s classroom achievements as something determined by nature.

One of the most depressing things about the current discussion on schooling is the education establishment’s lack of belief in the power of ideas. Instead of encouraging teachers to gain mastery of their subjects, so that they might inspire their students with the quality of their thinking, pedagogues prefer to put their faith in the latest gimmick or motivational techniques to try to manage classroom behaviour. So-called reforms and ‘pedagogic innovations’ now completely bypass the question of how best to cultivate the intellectual growth of the young. Instead, they draw upon market and psychological research to devise schemes that promise to motivate students.

Educationalists believe this new psycho-pedagogy – whether focused on learning styles, brain functioning, thinking skills, emotional intelligence or multiple intelligence – will help them to engage with students. Such pedagogy is obsessed with learning styles and is devoid of any interest in the content of the knowledge being taught. Policymakers have very little interest in the intellectual content of education; in fact, all too often their new policies implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, advocate the devaluation of the role of knowledge acquisition and intellectual development within educational institutions.

Saving children from elitist education

In the twenty-first century, low expectations about children’s intellectual capabilities come in many forms. Some claim young children are not school-ready because of their mothers’ and fathers’ alleged lack of ‘parenting skills’. Others blame the distractions of the media for children’s inability to think and learn. Many educators believe that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can only respond to education that relates directly to their experience, and therefore there is little point in teaching them more abstract academic subjects.

The implicit assumption is always that a significant section of working-class children cannot cope with exposure to a rigorous academic curriculum; so the way forward is to downsize education in order to make it relevant to those with limited intellectual abilities. Like Cummings, these educationalists and observers also have a low regard for the capacity of schools to make much of a difference to the lives of pupils.

Some educators believe that developing a less academic and more skills-focused form of education represents a progressive blow against older, elitist forms of schooling that are based on a knowledge-led curriculum.

These days, many professional educators condemn academic curriculums as ‘irrelevant’, as elitist nineteenth-century relics. Yet considering that intellectual and scientific development occurred, and continues to occur, through distinct academic subjects, it is far from evident why a curriculum based on literature, mathematics, history, biology and physics should be outdated. The knowledge that children gain through studying these subjects is no more outdated today than it was 100 or 200 years ago. The charge that an academic curriculum is outdated is rarely informed by any serious reflection on the content of subjects. Rather, such anti-academic criticisms are a product of the sensibility of low expectations in relation to the power of schooling. From this perspective, a subject-based curriculum is looked upon as being far too difficult for most children.

For Dominic Cummings, what a teacher can achieve in the classroom is fundamentally limited by pupils’ genetics and IQ. Paradoxically, many of his critics who dismiss his socio-biological approach actually agree that little can be done in the classroom to cultivate the intellectual and academic growth of children. They also think that many children’s lack of social or cultural capital prevents them from dealing with a serious, intellectually informed common curriculum. This point was forcefully argued by Professor John White, one of the leading critics of having a subject-based curriculum. He says subject-led education discriminates against children from poor homes because they are likely to struggle in a ‘highly academic school culture’.

White is probably right when he says poorer children are likely to face difficulties when they engage with a ‘highly academic school culture’. Indeed, most children – including those from the middle classes – are likely to be stretched by an academic school culture. But the role of educators is to establish an environment in which children are helped to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of their attaining a good academic education. Decrying the value of such an education avoids confronting the real challenge: how to provide such a high-quality education to everyone, regardless of their social circumstances.

It also significantly underestimates the human capacity for learning. Sadly, today’s fashionable pedagogy of limits distracts society’s attentions from the fact that education has a formidable potential to help people more fully realise their humanity and their powers.

The weight attached to the significance of individual differences between children obscures what is common about their development. There is a body of educational theory which argues, in the words of one author, that ‘in general terms, the process of learning among human beings is similar across the human species as a whole’. Indeed, no system of education can work effectively unless it is based on general principles that can speak to the needs of a cohort of children. An effective pedagogy must involve starting ‘from what children have in common as members of the human species’, says one study, in order to ‘establish general principles of teaching and, in the light of these, to determine what modifications of practice are necessary to meet specific individual needs’.

Yet as late as the 1940s, official reports argued that there were three types of children – ‘those that are good with abstract ideas, those that are good with their hands, and those who are simply good’. The UK education system was organised in such a way that children with ‘innate’ academic qualities were segregated from those who needed to be trained for a manual occupation. This hierarchy of educational opportunities reflecting people’s different social circumstances was justified on the basis that some children were cut out for specific roles in society. One argument used was that since children had different innate capacities, as measured by IQ, academic learning was only suitable for a small minority. In the twenty-first century, the dominant etiquette of social inclusion means old-fashioned talk about a hierarchy of abilities is out of favour – which is why the education establishment is likely to be critical of Cummings’ explicit endorsement of any such hierarchy.

However, many educators who are hostile to traditional ideas about a hierarchy based on ability have little reservation about adopting other, usually psychologically informed ways of differentiating pupils. Through the use of psychological research and diagnostic instruments, a new ‘psycho-pedagogy’ has emerged that labels and categorises children according to the ‘learning styles’ or ‘intelligences’ they allegedly possess.

Indeed, psycho-pedagogy has invented a veritable dictionary of labels that can be used to diagnose children’s ‘learning styles’, ‘aptitudes’ and ‘intelligences’. Some pupils have visual skills, while others have auditory skills, and others still apparently have kinaesthetic learning styles. Learners are categorised as innovators, adaptors, reflective, pragmatic, etc. Policymakers have invented the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ to categorise able students. Such terms are meant to convey a sense of scientific precision. So gifted students are the top five to 10 per cent of pupils ‘as measured by actual or potential achievement in the main curriculum subjects’, says the British government’s Excellence in Cities programme. Today’s curriculum engineers have turned stereotyping into an artform. They helpfully provide a glossary of terms that can be used to describe ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ children. The glossary includes terms like ‘able pupils’, ‘more able pupils’, ‘the very able’, ‘exceptionally able’, ‘gifted children’, ‘talented pupils’, ‘those with exceptional talent’, ‘pupils with marked aptitude’.

The belief that many children are not likely to be motivated by an intellectually based curriculum is given legitimacy by theories claiming that there are different types of children with different profiles of intelligence. In previous times, those who were pessimistic about child development argued that children’s futures were determined by their innate intelligence levels. In the first half of the twentieth century, the claim that children’s intelligence was genetically inherited and fixed served as an explanation for differential rates of achievement. From this perspective it could be argued that a significant percentage of children would not benefit from an academic education. In more recent times, this pessimistic view of children’s potential has been discredited, which is why Cummings seems out of touch – but unfortunately, some of the current theories of child development also convey an element of fatalism about the potential of children to benefit from an academic education

Many of Cummings’ critics are exercising double standards when they accuse him of elitism. They are no less elitist in their approach, since they also assume that a significant number of children are unlikely to thrive in a rigorous intellectual climate. Both sides of this discussion subscribe to a form of determinism that assigns an undistinguished role to the school.

Yet schools really matter. They particularly matter for children from a disadvantaged background. Schools can provide such children with the kind of knowledge that can, to a degree, compensate for their relative lack of access to cultural capital in their home lives. All children, regardless of their social background and ability, can benefit from a good education. What they achieve is not pre-determined by genes any more than it is by their social background. Fatalistic pedagogy in all its different guises is a copout. A humanist and future-oriented pedagogy should take as its starting point what all children have in common – a capacity to learn and to develop through a shared cultural interaction and shared experiences.

Many practitioners of the pedagogy of difference are well-meaning individuals, believing that their differentiated approach represents a sensitive response to the reality of children’s lives. But fatalistic pedagogy undermines the very purpose of education. Whether it points the finger at children’s genes or their learning styles, fatalistic pedagogy refuses to assume full responsibility for the education of young people. It is modern educationalists’ attitude of low expectations that ensures that so much of schooling is about going through the motions rather than really educating. If English education is really mediocre, as Cummings contends, is it not because we now have an educational establishment that doesn’t believe in education?

Frank Furedi’s new book, Authority: A Sociological History, is published by Cambridge University Press. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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