Is it your parents' fault you're failing? A new study shows how DNA affects success

Is it your parents' fault you're failing? A new study shows how DNA affects success

A new study shows that genetics play a big part in how we learn - not just how easy it is for us, but how much we enjoy doing it

The idea that you can inherit the ability to get good marks in school from your parents can spark heated debate. But, really, this just means that some children find learning easier and more enjoyable than others do, and these differences are partly caused by differences in their genes, rather than differences between schools or teachers.

We know from previous research that educational achievement in primary, middle school years and at the end of compulsory education is closely related to a person’s genetics. It’s hard to know how much each individual person is influenced by their genes, but we can get a good idea of how much the differences between children can be put down to DNA differences, on average, in a particular population at a particular time.


Twins’ exam results

A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on British standardised exam results for 16-year-olds, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). Researchers obtained exam grades from over 13,000 identical and non-identical twins from the Twins Early Development Study. The twins were also assessed on nine broad psychological areas, including intelligence, educational self-belief, personality, behaviour problems and well-being.

Identical twins share 100 per cent of their genes, whereas non-identical twins, just like any siblings, share on average only half of the genes that vary between people. So if overall, identical twins are more alike than non-identical twins on a particular trait, then this implies there is a genetic influence.

The study showed that genetics had a much higher influence in results for the GCSE core subjects of English, mathematics and science (62 per cent) than the nine other psychological areas (35-58 per cent).

This means that differences in how well children perform at exams are largely explained by the differences in their DNA. Importantly, it does not mean that genetics are responsible for 62 per cent of the average student’s school achievement.


Not just intelligence

Educational achievement depends on many different personal characteristics, not just intelligence. Findings indicate that these characteristics are largely decided by genetic factors, and using these, once can predict a child’s educational achievement.

Intelligence is influenced more strongly by genetics than any other single category on the GCSE results. But, genes have about the same effect on the joint contribution of children’s self-belief, behaviour problems, personality, well-being and their perceptions of school environment. Together with intelligence, these domains account for 75 per cent of the genetic influence of GCSE performance.


Indicator of equality

The children in this study were all taught the national curriculum, so they received more-or-less a similar education. As learning experiences become more similar, our genes become more influential on our success. So in a way, a rate of high genetic influence means there is a high level of equality in education and resources.

Hypothetically, if every single person got the exact same educational experience, then the influence our genes would have on educational achievement would be 100 per cent.


Personalised learning

So what to make of this? Genes are important in many things that contribute to how easy and enjoyable children find learning. Education is not something that just happens passively. People are active participants in selecting, modifying and creating experiences that match what their DNA dictates. In genetics, this is known as “gene-environment correlation.”

These findings add support for more personalised learning rather than a one-size fits all model of education. This means that schools, parents, and teachers are very important, and each has an important role in helping children achieve the best of their potential.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Does success depend on your genes?


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