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Genetics Affect Educational Achievement more than Environment

Update Date: Dec 11, 2013 05:03 PM EST

The phrase "nature versus nurture" addresses the debate of whether or not genetics or environment plays a larger part in development. Several studies that have followed separated identical twins report that the environment could play a huge factor in behavioral differences. However, these studies have also found that for some physical and mental diseases, genetics take on a larger role. In a new study, researchers from Kings College London were interested in seeing how genetics and environment affected learning. The researchers found that when they compared exam scores, genetics appeared to have a greater influence than the environment.

"Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Our research shows that differences in students' educational achievement owe more to nature than nurture," Nicholas Shakeshaft, PhD student at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and lead author of the paper said.

For this study, Shakeshaft and colleagues looked at adolescents' General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examination scores. This exam tested students at the end of compulsory education, which is usually around the age of 16. The researchers analyzed the data on over 11,000 identical and non-identical twins from the Medical Research Council (MRC). The MRC is funded by the Twins Early Developmental Study (TEDS).

When the researchers compared the scores of the twins, they found that on average, genetics could explain 58 percent of the differences in the scores. The environment, which encompasses teachers, schools and family, only accounted for 29 percent of the score differences. The researchers also found that sciences grades, such as biology, chemistry and physics were more "heritable" than humanities grades, such as media studies, art and music.

"Since we are studying whole populations, this does not mean that genetics explains 60% of an individual's performance, but rather that genetics explains 60% of the differences between individuals, in the population as it exists at the moment. This means that heritability is not fixed - if environmental influences change, then the influence of genetics on educational achievement may change too," Shakeshaft said.

Professor Robert Plomin, senior author at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London and Director of the TEDS study, added, "Whilst these findings have no necessary or specific implications for educational policies, it's important to recognize the major role that genetics plays in children's educational achievement. It means that educational systems which are sensitive to children's individual abilities and needs, which are derived in part from their genetic predispositions, might improve educational achievement."

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

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