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Sunday, 22 February 2009

Gattaca Calling

Imagine the scene. It is the future, and scientists have learned how to 'read' human DNA with such accuracy that they are able to predict our future health, as well as the careers that will be most suited to our abilities. The genetically elite are identified early and groomed for lives of leadership and brilliance. The biologically impoverished are relegated to the performance of the most menial

This was the premise of a Hollywood movie, Gattaca, released in 1997. The film's name comes from the initials of the four DNA bases of our genetic code: guanine, adenine, cytosine and thymine. Despite the remarkable advances made by genetics, we are still a long way from realising the power of Gattaca's science. Indeed, there are strong reasons to suspect that we will never be in such a position. Nevertheless, Gattaca's fiction has a certain potency because its core assumption, that we can know an individual's 'true nature' and potential, is implicitly held by many people and exhibited in many settings, most frequently and clearly in education.

I used to work in Kent where we had our very own version of Gattaca - the 11 Plus, which consisted (and still consists) of a series of examinations capable, apparently, of not just measuring a student's academic ability, but also predicting their likely career trajectory. IQ testing is another example, as are certain forms of education geared towards the 'gifted and talented'. So prevalent is the Gattaca myth that it seems to underpin most educational theories and practices, from Plato's desire to use his academy to separate the elite from the rest, to educational theorist Howard Gardner's portrayal of multiple intelligences, and the fashionable nonsense of personalised learning styles. The UK government's recent five-year plan for education had an emphasis on 'personalised learning', and aimed to offer specialist school provision to all students, whether they be, in the words of one minister, 'sporty', 'artistic' or 'academic'. (Presumably, through some feat of genetic or social engineering, the government will arrange for all sporty children to live near a sports college and all arty children to live next to an arts college.)

These ideas are presented in attractive and palatable ways that suggest warm feelings of inclusion and the celebration of diversity. But ultimately, they divide the world up into different 'types' of people, whose abilities are 'given', and simply mature over the lifespan. Are you a visual thinker, or auditory? Do you have musical or existential intelligence? Are you 'sporty' or 'academic'? Although the Gattaca myth has a certain appeal, it is also nonsense. We cannot see the future. We cannot measure a child and predict, with any degree of accuracy, what they will achieve or become.

The basic fact of human development is that we are outcomes of interactions between biology and environment, or nature and nurture. We are all products of an evolutionary history of biological descent. Yet we are what we are because of our genes interacting with our ever-changing, unpredictable environment. Dogs are generally friendly; beat them, and they will become vicious.
Children are smart; deprive them of stimulus and they will become dumb. Behavioural geneticists use the concept of 'genetic reaction range', meaning the biological parameters within which environmental conditions may take effect. I have a biological limit, for example, for how effectively my body can take up and process oxygen, and this will condition my ability to run a marathon. There is a range that establishes the parameters of my performance.

Biology will mean that individuals have differing genetic reaction ranges - but this difference will not determine my performance. The more complex the activity in question, the greater the range of possibilities. Inheritability of 'gifts' does not mean inevitability of success: potentials need to be realised, through investment of time, energy and support.

Research that has focused on very successful performers in a wide range of domains - from mathematics to football, chess to music - gives some revealing findings regarding how potential is realised.

First, early success in a domain isn't a very good indicator of later achievement. Some prodigies go on to great things, others do not. Some slow starters fail, others achieve remarkable success in later life.

Secondly, chance is an unavoidable factor. If you are lucky enough to be born in a family that supports your activity; if they are willing and able to invest the necessary time and money; if your preferred activity is socially acceptable and valued; if you attend a school that supports your engagement, and if you have teachers who have the knowledge and skills to contribute to your developing expertise; and a hundred other 'ifs', the likelihood of you reaching your potential is significantly increased (but still not guaranteed). If chance is unfavourable, the odds stack up against you.

Finally, countless studies from across the range of domains show that the strongest predictor of later success is the amount of time invested in the activity - practice. Some studies cite the figure of 10,000 hours of deliberate, focused practice as the foundation of expertise in an activity.

In this regard, it is interesting to note a recent Canadian study that examined parents', teachers' and high performing students' views of high ability. Both parents and teachers attributed children's abilities to biology - some students are just 'gifted'. But the students themselves gave a quite different answer - it is down to hard work and practice!

My own research with so-called 'gifted and talented' students reached a similar conclusion. None of those interviewed identified unusually high intelligence as the main source of their ability. Indeed, many felt distinctly uncomfortable with the label 'gifted and talented'. Some said that it overlooked the time and effort they had invested by implying that they were simply born differently. And this points to the issue that underlies so much discussion in this area, and that generates the Gattaca myth. There is a magic associated with notions such as IQ and giftedness. Ignorance of the effort necessary to achieve expertise in any area generates a sense of wonder, and also a sense of division - you are seen as either bright or not, born to succeed or born to fail.

Myths offer an inadequate foundation for educational practice. As we learn more about the cognitive and social characteristics of developing ability and intelligence, we should change from marvelling at the abilities of extraordinary individuals to wondering at the amazing achievements of otherwise ordinary people. And then, perhaps, we will be in a position to discuss sensibly the best ways to help all students to begin to realise their potentials.

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