School & District Management

Educators Need to Stay Ahead of Curve on Emerging Genetics Research

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 20, 2019 2 min read
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There’s still no “smart gene,” but genetic research is uncovering unprecedented information about what affects students’ academic outcomes. The new research holds potential for new “precision” education—but also rising risk of ethical problems and quack interventions, argue researchers in a new article in the American Educational Research Association’s peer reviewed open journal.

In the article, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge suggest teachers and education researchers need to begin a more active discussion of how genetic research should be used in education.

“My general feeling is that [educators] are very unaware of what’s happened in genetics science in the last 10 years, and mostly pretty averse to thinking about things in that arena,” said Stanford University researcher Benjamin Domingue, who cowrote the article with Daphne Martschenko of the University of Cambridge and Stanford colleague Sam Trejo.

In the last year alone, an international study of more than 1.1 million people developed a model based on more than 1,200 tiny genetic differences that could explain about 10 percent of the gap in students’ cognitive performance and years of schooling. And Yale University’s Lexinome Project is working with New Haven public schools to develop a genetic screen that could predict a child’s risk of developing dyslexia at birth, years before current identification methods.

“I think there’s just a lot of downside risk to be managed. ... The problem comes when you are trying to take average behaviors in large samples and create applications for individuals,” Domingue said. “I have no doubt that we’re going to see people trying to do stuff there [commercially]. Whether any of it will be effective, I just don’t know—especially in the educational world.”

In fact, at least one company is already working to develop a commercial genetic screen to identify embryos with high risk of “mental disability” before IVF implantation, and the magazine New Scientist reports that similar technology could be used to identify embryos likely to have higher than average intelligence, too.

Educators have been going through a similar process as the field of educational neuroscience has matured. For example, while initial efforts to improve students’ working memory through app-based “brain games” proved promising, later studies suggested the benefits didn’t transfer to academic progress, and several high-profile companies like Lumosity got in regulatory trouble for overpromising their benefits to educators and others.

The researchers pointed to the damaging effects of old attempts at looking at biological underpinnings of intelligence, such as the racist eugenics movement. They called for education policymakers, teachers, and researchers to start laying a foundation to use the results of genetics research ethically.

“The floodgates of genetic data have opened,” the researchers concluded. “Collaboration between those in the social and biomedical sciences; open conversation among policy makers, educators, and researchers; and public engagement will all prove critical for enacting regulations and research designs that emphasize equity.”

Photo source: Getty


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.