‘A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds’

This article originally appearing in TES, 26th November 2015.
 Genetics and Plomin
The recent TES interview with Robert Plomin raises an old educational chestnut about nature and nurture. The article speculates that genetics research might become an inevitable force in education: maybe one day teachers will have DNA data at their fingertips to tell them who might require extra maths support.

It is highly debatable whether we would want to take such a deterministic view of children’s intelligence, particularly given the multitude of genes in question, each of which bear such minute influence. A “fixed” view of intelligence certainly constrains the potential of educators to develop young minds.

But the idea that intelligence is learnable is not just wishful thinking. Genetics in intelligence research is, in many cases, a flawed science. Like any research it carries a risk of being misinterpreted, or used in unethical ways. But at its core is a narrow understanding of intelligence that is simply not in line with the growing consensus that intelligence is largely learnable. It is unhelpful for teachers and learners to think about genetic constraints, when even these are open to external influence.

Misuse of genetic research

While Plomin doesn’t like the idea that genetic data be used deterministically to “keep everyone in their place”, it isn’t hard to see how this would be unavoidable in an educational values system that glorifies the academic over the practical.

He argues that if test data were misused, we should blame the culture and the policy and not the science. His reference to Brave New World and genetic “castes” resonates because this sort of misuse is not unimaginable.

Is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where children and young people are assigned a figure representing their inherited intelligence? One that is required in college applications, let’s say. Those using the information might well be quick to forget how malleable even the inherited aspect of intelligence actually is.

Any requirement to make available our own unique genome might be seen as an invasion of privacy. One can imagine being refused life assurance because we may have a predisposition toward a certain life-limiting condition. Yet equally unsavoury is the idea of shoehorning children into a particular pathway because it allows them to “develop the way their genetic propensities are pushing them”.

What would be the result of a scenario where genetic propensity is given higher status than a child’s (perhaps unidentified as yet) interest or passion in life? This might push some down an academic route, and others down a vocational route, further reinforcing a false dichotomy between mind and matter, brain and hand, and their association with “smart” and less intelligent.

In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley concluded that the world was becoming like his dystopian vision much faster than he originally thought. We cannot so easily separate the science from the way it is used. A debate about the appropriateness of the study of intelligence carries on to this day.

Leaving values aside for the moment, I suspect such tests are an impossible dream (or nightmare) because the science itself is contestable.

Critiques of genetic research

One critique of heritability of intelligence research is the reliability and validity of the research, which typically relies on studies of identical twins reared apart. Looking at a number of such studies, Jay Joseph concluded that the evidence does not support the claims. Undermining studies, researchers falsely classified twins as “reared apart”, which is notoriously difficult to achieve. For example, some “separated” twins were actually placed with members of the extended family. Others were placed into families correlated for socio-economic status, perhaps after being raised together for a number of years.

The Council for Responsible Genetics states that, based on the “massively flawed and environmentally confounded” studies, their exaggerated claims, and lack of replicability, “the evidence suggests that genes for the major psychiatric disorders, as well as for IQ and personality, do not exist”. While intelligence, and proxies for intelligence (such as IQ test performance or educational attainment) are heritable in some part, there is no identifiable gene or set of genes that make labelling of individuals possible.

The Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) has also put to bed the idea that we are anywhere near finding genes for educational attainment. A ‘sobering’ editorial reports that “it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge“.

SSGAC’s initial “genome wide association study” looked at 126,599 individuals and found three genetic variants linked to educational attainment. It makes extremely modest claims for their effects, which, as Ewen Callaway reports in the journal Nature, “are maddeningly small”.

Genes are strongly mediated by environmental factors and even IQ is not fixed

Intelligence is controlled in only some part by many multiples of genes. It can only be quantified by proxy. IQ tests, for example, can be used to track some aspects of intelligence relatively reliably. IQ, however, is absolutely not fixed and so it is meaningless to judge a person for the fixedness of their intelligence.

Environmental factors have so great an impact that genetics cannot quantify even the so-called genetic portion of a person’s intelligence. Genes only affect propensity, not opportunity. Genetic factors may impact on intelligence indirectly through, say, their influence on preferences. For instance, a person might like reading but have access only to dull or limited reading material. Not only this, but the environment can modify or even cancel out the influence of genetic predispositions. What if policy dictates that the person’s access to reading material (or spectacles!) be restricted?

This is to say nothing of the aspects of intelligence under the influence of the learner. We should note that Alfred Binet, father of the IQ concept, believed strongly in the plasticity of intelligence:

“Some recent philosophers have given their moral approval to the deplorable verdict that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity…We must protest and act against this brutal pessimism…it has no foundation whatsoever.”

Dr Ellen Spencer and Professor Bill Lucas work at the Expansive Education Network at the University of Winchester

Guest post: Dr Ellen Spencer – Towards a universal understanding of soft skills?

It’s so important: employers recognise it; educators recognise it; parents recognise it. Yet it is shrouded in jargon and cliché. We have so many overlapping words for ‘it’: employability skills; soft skills; wider skills for learning; non-cognitive skills; performance virtues. Yet we don’t really have a language that we can use to converse in a meaningful way where understanding is truly shared.

While few would deny the vital nature of ‘soft skills’ (a loaded term if ever there was one) to employment, the phrase itself – when translated to the classroom – tends to be associated with ‘fluffy’ teaching; seen as the poor cousin of academic knowledge. The teaching of ‘it’ brings less esteem than the teaching of subjects. Maybe it is seen as the agenda of those ‘progressive educators’ who, rumour has it, want to remove subject knowledge from the curriculum and instead replace it with well-being and all things pupil-led.

This said, the last six months in politics has begun to lead to a re-think in some attitudes towards what is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’ in learning. In a positive commentary on this movement of opinion, Fiona Millar in the Guardian notes Sir Anthony Seldon’s suggestion that we make a virtue out of ‘happiness’. This suggestion stems from serious issues like “unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among pupils” and, of course, the impacts such concerns have on the capabilities of those same pupils once they head out into the wider world.

Various organisations promote ‘character education’ as part of the solution; an increasingly popular move to develop ethical, engaged citizens (The Character Education Partnership) democratic citizenship and civil society (The Center for Character and Citizenship) or human flourishing (The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues). But what is it that character education teaches?

For Richard Sennett, ‘character’ is clear. It is outward looking; not inward, like personality, “which concerns desires and sentiments which may fester within, witnessed by no one else”. Character, in the ‘old-school’ sense is

“the ethical value we place on our own desires and on our relations to others”. It “concerns the personal traits which we value in ourselves and for which we seek to be valued by others”.

It cannot, therefore, be instrumental. We don’t have character just to achieve some goal; we have character to be valued for having character.

By unfortunate irony, the very reason that our young people need character more than ever is to succeed in a modern world that has eroded society’s ability to instil character into individuals through the natural progression of their lives. Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character is a remarkably insightful observation into this situation in which he states:

How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment? How can long-term goals be pursued in an economy devoted to the short term? How can mutual loyalties and commitments be sustained in institutions which are constantly breaking apart or continually being redesigned? These are the questions about character posed by the new, flexible capitalism. (p. 10)

To circumvent this issue, there is a growing trend to separate out character into ‘performance’ and ‘moral’. Sometimes the ‘moral’ is removed, lest it be seen to make value judgments of the religious kind, although studies across cultures reveal the universality of core ethical values (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). And also perhaps because, as Sennett observes: “the qualities of good work are not the qualities of good character” in the true sense of the word.

Thus, it is performance character – and there is a growing consensus on this – that is of particular interest to politicians, employers, and education researchers.

But just as non-cognitive and cognitive skills are hard to prize apart, judgement is required to sift through ‘performance’ and ‘moral’ personal characteristics. Integrity is an example. The following quote is attributed to businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett, perhaps the 20th century’s most successful inventor:

I look for three qualities in hiring people. Integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first then the last two will kill you, because if they don’t have integrity you want them dumb and lazy. 

Surely, if any characteristic would fit the label ‘moral’ or ‘virtue’, and yet also be of great significance for performance in the world of work, then integrity is it. It could be argued that it both “enables us to be our best ethical selves in relationships and in our roles as citizens” and also “to achieve… our highest potential in any performance context” to use the Character Education Partnership’s respective descriptions of ‘moral’ and ‘performance’ character.

In Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and integrity in business (1992), Robert Soloman argues that capitalism as an institution cannot ultimately tolerate a model of business that ignores the traditional virtues of responsibility, community, and integrity. CEO Amy Rees Anderson gives entrepreneurs pause for thought with her statement that “success will come and go, but integrity is forever” in an article of the same title. Amy similarly champions ‘respect’ as a value absolutely critical for success and, again, would we call this a moral virtue, or a performance virtue?

The Character Education Partnership published a position paper laying out its view of education that recognises the importance of performance character (needed for best work) as well as moral character (needed for ethical behaviour) stating that:

While core ethical values remain foundational in a life of character, character education must also develop students’ performance values such as effort, diligence, and perseverance in order to promote academic learning, foster an ethic of excellence, and develop the skills needed to act upon ethical values.

The position paper acknowledges that the two elements are ‘aspects’ rather than distinct ‘parts’ of character. And because they form a conceptual framework they are, by nature, open to interpretation.

So what terminology should we use when debating the non-cognitive skills for employment? Is ‘values’ helpful? Character ‘virtues’ may be a useful phrase, for example, while ‘trait’ is perhaps too ‘fixed’ a characteristic. ‘Employability skills’ has a certain ring to it, although may easily be used to describe things that are not the things we are talking about.

Do we even need a shared language? The Confederation of British Industry, a big player in this debate would say Yes. Arguing that the new national curriculum’s focus on promoting spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils is not enough, their end of year report proposed that

We need a clear statement of outcomes which incorporates the behaviours and attitudes that the school system should develop in young people. We also need an accountability framework and inspection regime which incentivises schools to deliver these agreed outcomes. (p. 3)

The CBI uses language like ‘determined’, ‘optimistic’, and ’emotionally intelligent’ to describe the young people it wants our education system to cultivate. Are these universally desirable, or do different categories of user identify different non-cognitive skills? For example, could it be argued that private, public, and ‘third’ sector hold broadly different values, such that a common core of ‘skills’ does not exist? In Wider Skills for Learning Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argued that the plethora of approaches to wider skills are frequently ‘wish lists’, betraying the underlying aspirations of their authors. Not only this; they are generally incoherent such that they would not stand up to psychometric scrutiny.

Needless to say, there is a whole array of classifications for soft-skills with complementary and overlapping labels. While we might concede that different groups of users may have varying rationale for using different labels, or for having different lists within those same labels, it is true that we can’t compare, or measure, if we don’t even try to find common ground.

In the realm of social science, are there any certainties? Well, soft skills are said to predict success (and to be in part responsible for it) later in life (Heckman and Kautz, 2012). Most notably, ‘conscientiousness’, which is tendency to be persevering and hardworking, stands out as the most predictive of the Big Five across many outcomes. These Five are a taxonomy of personality traits relatively well-accepted by psychologists: emotional stability, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness.

As a trait, conscientiousness encompasses a number of factors: grit and self-control included. These two are the focus of Angela Duckworth, eminent psychologist, whose work examines these two traits that predict achievement. But the Education Endowment Foundation reportThe Impact of Non-Cognitive Skills on Outcomes for Young People’ concludes that although these both correlate strongly with outcomes, they may be more alike to stable personality traits than to malleable skills.

Ultimately, that report finds that there is no single non-cognitive skill that predicts long-term outcomes. Rather key skills are inter-related and need to be developed in combination with one another. Here, we return full circle to character. As Richard Sennett wrote:

Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals, or by the practice of delayed gratification for the sake of a future end. (p. 10)

When mere creation of wish lists of desirable qualities leaves much to be desired perhaps it is, ultimately, character that we need. Or ‘excellence’; the approach Ron Berger takes to developing learners’ inner compass for success.

Lucas and Claxton end Wider Skills for Learning with the recommendation that

we are convinced that real progress in developing ways of cultivating the wider skills of learning and creativity will be hampered unless we insist on speaking and thinking in terms of dispositions and habits of mind, rather than merely of skills. (p. 31)

We, as a society must work out what dispositions, or ‘habits’, we value. And, maybe more importantly, work out why we value them. After all, is the term ‘performance virtue’ not rather a cynical one if we aim to develop it for instrumental means (how it can benefit me) rather than for its own sake (how I can benefit others)?  What we need are ‘employability habits’ that take character as their starting point.

The Centre for Real-World Learning’s research into character and employability for the City & Guilds Alliance – Learning to be employable – will be published later this year.

Additional references:

Sennett, R. (1998) The Corrosion of Character: The personal consequences of work in the new capitalism New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A handbook and classification New York: American Psychological Association and Oxford University Press