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Making the grade: Nature and nurture can both help and hurt
Learning environments would be more effective if they were tailored to students' genetic propensities, said behavioral geneticist Claire Haworth from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry. Gulnaz Saiyed/MEDILL

Some children learn more quickly in classrooms than others. But slow learners shouldn't give up hope - or options for learning tools such as computers that individualize education.

Genes impact how children react to education, according to a new study from King's College London Institute of Psychiatry, published this week in PLoS One, an online scientific journal.

However, how someone learns is "50 percent nature and 50 percent nurture," according to Claire Haworth, a behavioral geneticist at the institute and member of the research team.

"The thing about genetic influences is that they're not deterministic at all," she said, explaining that a genetic risk for something does not mean it will play out exactly that way in life.

The researchers studied 4,000 pairs of 12-year-olds over two years. Identical twins, one group in the research sample, share all of their genes. Fraternal twins, the other group, share half their genes.

Each pair of twins shared the same home and attended the same school, a control that allowed researchers to analyze the impact of what each child brought to the classroom and not how he or she was raised or taught, Haworth said.

The research followed the children's test scores and found that "genetic influences can be dynamic" and impact how a child learns over time, Haworth said.

Which genes and genetic attributes contributed to or inhibited learning were not pinpointed in the study. The genetic traits could involve anything from motivation to focus, Haworth said.

Regardless of natural ability, nurture can make a big difference. Education would be more effective if tailored to the learner, she said.

Good teachers already know this, and a strong learning environment allows flexibility for students, said Emma Adam, a stress expert and associate professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University.

She said it's not useful to think of some learners as better than others, since everyone is different.

Research has shown that people who are "very stress reactive" can have trouble succeeding in high-stress environments, but can flourish in nurturing environments, Adam said.

"A dandelion is going to do okay in any soil; the orchid will only survive in good soil," she said, explaining that a child's "optimal performance" is highly impacted by individual traits, such as stress reactions, temperament and attention span.

New technology could allow classrooms to be more customized to individual learning styles. Computers or learning devices allowing students to work at their own pace, Haworth said.

Adam agreed that individualization is possible, but said it's important that schools have resources in order to make it happen.

Haworth said it's also not only about the teacher. Students are not passive in the classroom; they can use their abilities in a way that would allow "them to create and modify their education based on their genetic propensities and their strengths and weaknesses," she said.

©2001 - 2010 Medill Reports - Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.