Scientists Seek Genetic Data to Personalize Education

Researchers have begun to propose using genetic data from students to personalize education. Bringing genetics into education is highly controversial. It raises significant concerns about biological discrimination and rekindles long debates about eugenics and the genetic inheritance of intelligence.

Current proposals to personalize learning by enabling “educational organisations to create tailor-made curriculum programmes based on a pupil’s DNA profile” demand very close and critical attention. The potential of “the new geneism” to reproduce “dangerous ideas about the genetic heritability of intelligence” has already raised concerns. Scientists may be seeking new technologies to personalize teaching and learning according to students’ genetic data, but we need an informed debate about the implications for educational policy and practice of the emerging era of genetic forecasting.

Educational Genomics

Performing an adequate critique of genetics in education first requires a better engagement with its scientific basis. These ideas are only possible now owing to the sequencing of the human genome a decade ago. The human genome is the entire genetic structure of human DNA, and consequently studies in human genomics have flourished.

As a research field, educational genomics seeks to unpack the genetic factors involved in individual differences in learning ability, behavior, motivation, and achievement. A contentious aspect of educational genomics is identifying links between genetic factors and intelligence. Recent genomics advances have found statistically strong connections between intelligence test scores and specific genes, with over 500 genes identified as having clear-cut influence on intelligence test scores. Cheap DNA kits for IQ testing in schools may not be far away.

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Importantly, however, researchers of educational genomics do not assume either that there is any single genetic factor that determines learning ability, or that genetic factors entirely explain the complexity of learning. Identifying an individual’s genotype — the full heritable genetic identity of a person — and its relationship to learning, intelligence or educational outcomes remains complex. The concept of the phenotype captures how genotypes and environments jointly contribute to a person’s physical, behavioral and mental characteristics.

Instead, educational genomics looks for patterns in huge numbers of genetic factors that might explain behaviors and achievements in individuals. It also focuses on the ways that individuals’ genotypes and environments interact, or how other “epigenetic” factors impact on whether and how genes become active. Researchers of “behavioral genetics” study the interaction of genetic and environmental influences on phenotypical behaviours.

Precision Education

Bolstered by these scientific advances, supporters of educational genomics and behavioural genetics increasingly argue that genetic data should be used to individualize teaching and learning.

The concept of “precision education” has begun to circulate among scientists who engage with psychology, neuroscience and genomics to understand learning processes. Precision education is both an interdisciplinary “science of learning” and an idealized model of teaching and learning informed by the sciences of the human mind, brain and genome.

According to one advocate: “We are currently a long way off from having the kinds of information needed to realise precision” but “the groundwork has started” to build the knowledge required for “evidence-based individualized learning.” It would require extensive data gathering from learners and complex analysis to identify patterns across psychological, neural and genetic datasets.

The aspiration behind precision education is to build scientific consensus for an interdisciplinary science of learning that might contribute to new evidence-based policies and practices in education.

Predicting IQ from DNA

A key figure bringing genomics research into education is the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin. Plomin has extensively studied the links between genes and attainment. He has proposed that DNA analysis devices such as “learning chips” could make reliable genetic predictions of heritable differences in academic achievement.

A key scientific innovation in Plomin’s research is “genome-wide polygenic scoring” (GPS). A polygenic score is produced by analysing huge number of genetic markers, and their interactions with environmental factors, in order to predict a particular behavioral or psychological trait. As computer processing power, data storage capacity, and data analytics technologies have advanced in recent years, it has become possible to correlate genotypical data with a host of phenotypical traits.

Driven by the “new genetics of intelligence,” Plomin and colleagues foresee that “precision education” based on GPSs could be used to “customize education.” Using GPS methods, Plomin and colleagues have used polygenic scores to predict academic achievement in schools. The substantial increase in heritability they found “represents a turning point in the social and behavioral sciences because it makes it possible to predict educational achievement for individuals directly from their DNA,” thereby “moving us closer to the possibility of early intervention and personalized learning.”

Although educational genomics remains in its infancy, with very little known about how genetic variants actually work to produce different phenotypical traits or characteristics such as behavior and cognitive ability, it seems likely to advance considerably in coming years. Factoring in environmental and epigenetic influences on the human genome and phenotypical characteristics will be a key part of such research.

Other studies in educational genomics, for example, have highlighted how both social policies and socio-economic circumstances can expert “profound effects on the heritability of educational attainment and achievement” because they can either support or stifle “the expression of educationally relevant genetic propensities.”

As more findings emerge, further support will grow for evidence-based scientific perspectives on learning, and for new models of precision education using genetic data to personalize teaching and learning.

Genetic Risks

The rapid pace of development in genomic science and educational genomics has raised considerable alarm. A recent article drew attention to some of the dangers of widespread misunderstanding of the role of genetics in shaping human characteristics and traits. While “genetic data could allow us to more effectively personalize education,” alternatively, the “misplaced view that genetic influences are fixed could lead to a system in which children are permanently separated into grades based on their DNA and not given the right support for their actual abilities.” The article particularly pointed to the need for training for teachers to engage with genetic data in coming years.

Another risk is intelligence tests based on genetics may be meaningless because “the seeming precision is almost certainly wrong.” Although evidence of the links between genes and intelligence is growing, the predictive power of methods such as GPS remains weak. Commercial companies are already beginning to offer DNA tests for intelligence that are at best dubious and at worst completely misleading. Moreover, obsession with these “slippery genetic predictions could turn people’s attention away from other things that influence how children do in school and beyond — things like their family’s wealth, the stress in their neighborhoods, the quality of the schools themselves.”

A further risk is that as genetic predictions become accepted at face value as forecasts of a child’s future ability, new approaches may emerge to “artificially select future generations.” While there may be distinct reservations about selective embryo screening programs in the West, large-scale efforts are already underway elsewhere to find the genetic code for high IQ. This raises the possibility for selective-intelligence to become a geopolitical advantage, and attractive to wealthy parents seeking genetic advantage for their children — though we should be cautious about excessive science-fiction speculation.

Biosocial Entanglements

The reality of using genetic data to personalize education with precision is that the science remains in its relatively early stages. Some critics will see the dark history of eugenics reproduced in the return of behavioral genetics to mainstream science. There is clearly a serious need for up-close, critically-informed work on the scientific plausibility as well as risks and consequences of educational genomics, especially if teachers are likely to have to engage with genetic data in coming years. The sociologist Deborah Youdell is already developing a “biosocial education” agenda paying close critical attention to the “social and biological entanglements” of embodied genomes with social environments and power structures.

Future studies will also need to attend to the ways genetic data may be used as policy-relevant knowledge for evidence-based policymaking. We will need to grasp better how students’ behaviors in classrooms are translated into bio-informational flows of numbers and categories, and the consequences of this new form of genetic datafication for how students are treated and how they see themselves. What are the prospects for genetic data to be used in future learning analytics and adaptive learning platforms? Finally, we will need to trace the potential emergence of a new educational bio-economy of genetic data, as companies with the means to assess students’ genetic identities seek to create new marketplaces of products to sell to schools, educators and parents.

Banner image credit: Mark Vegas