How Genetic Differences Could Make Schools Better

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Educational paths are extremely varied, almost as unique as people themselves. They’re influenced by a complex slew of factors, and a recent study has introduced one more variable into the mix: genetics.

Last week, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium published a study identifying tiny differences between people’s DNA that are related to educational attainment, or number of years of completed schooling. Now, education researchers have to reconcile these new genetic findings with an already-complicated equation of educational success.

Any two individuals have millions of differences between their genetic codes, known as genetic variants, and genome-wide association studies have been used by biologists to relate DNA-level differences with other traits, like height or risk of developing a disease. This study looked at genomes from over 1.1 million people (all of European ancestry, to control the amount of diversity between people’s genomes). That makes it one of the largest data sets ever analyzed this way, and the authors were able to find over 1,200 individual genetic variants that appear to be associated with educational attainment.

What’s the significance of studies on the genetics of education?

These variants are tiny changes, like changing single letters in an instruction manual, and together they explained 11% of the variation across the whole group. That means that on average, a little over one-tenth of the differences among the study subjects’ educational attainment seems to be related to genetics. For context, studies of height have only been able to explain around 25% of the variation using genetics.

Daniel Benjamin, associate professor of economics at the University of Southern California and co-leader of this study, knows the public is wary of research mixing genetics with social science—and the concern isn’t unwarranted.

“It’s extremely important for those of us working at [this] intersection to always be cognizant of the terrible history of mixing genetics and social science,” he said, referencing eugenics as one example.

For him, it’s important to remember that genes are not your destiny. There are a lot of things that the study isn’t saying. It certainly doesn’t claim to find the genetic key to a PhD, or a combination of genes that will guarantee academic success. The authors aren’t even commenting on intelligence or capacity for learning. Instead they are making the limited claim that there are genetic variants that appear to be correlated with longer or shorter educational trajectories.

Educational attainment is a tricky trait to understand, Benjamin said. “It’s really far removed from what genes actually do,” he added. For example, the study found that many of the affected genes are predominantly expressed in the central nervous system, and are involved in brain development and signaling between neurons. On the surface, that sounds logical, and almost re-affirming—if there were a key to staying in school, it’s not surprising that it would be in the brain. But exactly how does it work? That remains to be seen in future studies.

In the education community, the response has been mixed. These genetic methods are relatively new to the field, and even researchers who think the study was well-done admit that the results aren’t yet actionable.

“[This study has] absolutely nothing to say about education in practice or in theory,” said Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In an FAQ published online, the study authors themselves acknowledge that it would be premature to make any changes to educational policy based on these results.

One major worry is that studies like this will be used to justify treating students unfairly based on their genes. For example, people might want to design a test to separate students based on whether they have the genetic variants. But a test like this would not be a good test, and would get it wrong most of the time, said Dan Belsky, assistant professor of population health sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and the Social Science Research Institute.

Rose agrees. He studies individualization in education, and says that thinking of these variants as the cause of academic success will do more harm than good. “Whenever we try to classify people, or predict, or find the cause, it’s used to discriminate and underestimate what people are capable of doing,” he said.

Instead, many education researchers agree that the most interesting results of the study are bigger than the subjects themselves.

“There’s as much to be learned about the nature of our educational system as about the nature of the individual in this data,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Specifically, if certain genetic variants are associated with better educational outcomes, then there might be something about the structure of our educational system that’s favoring people with these variants.

For example, if the variants were involved in language comprehension, that could tell educators that current teaching methods aren’t working for students who process language differently. That means they should be designing new interventions to accommodate that variation, Belsky said.

“We know there’s no direct link between DNA and education,” Belsky said, recommending that researchers “use the DNA to find the process, not the person.”

Belsky isn’t wasting any time in doing this work. Even before the educational attainment study was officially published, he did a follow-up study analyzing its data in the context of socioeconomic or family environment. He found that even between people raised in the same environment, genes seemed to play a role in differentiating not only their educational outcomes, but social mobility later in life, as well.

Environment was also a key part of the original association. While that study claims that the variants explain 11% of educational attainment (a significant chunk, especially for a genetic study), it still leaves a lot of room for environmental influence. And that’s important, Rose said, because it gives us the power to design educational environments that are responsive to the variation the study found, and that educators have known about for a long time.

To Immordino-Yang, who studies how people’s experience of their environments impacts learning, this study reinforces the importance of her ongoing work.

“The responsibility of society is not to triage people based on genetics; it’s to provide the best possible quality of experience for everyone so they can show their true potential,” said Immordino-Yang. “It’s not different than anything we’ve known before these studies came along.”