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Monday, June 08 2020

Nature vs Nurture

Historically we have argued about the strongest influences on our levels of achievement as to whether it is our genetic make-up, (our nature) or our experiences (our nurture).  This has consistently shifted towards nurture as being the dominant feature.  What is important for us teachers to remember is that it is in this field we operate.

At the time of conception, a child is subject to a given genetic blue print that determines its physical self; their hair colour, how high they grow, etc.  I must point out that these pre-set specifications are not all definitive, for instance the height of a child will vary depending on their diet, etc., but in very recent times the discovery of the process of epigenetics shows that we continually alter our genes.  This is the gene’s response to their environment but of course that is part of their nurture!  For the sake of this essay the child’s genetics determines their capacity including their cognitive potential.

 As educators we are most interested in the brain and how best to interact with it to maximise the student’s learning.  Despite the Pollyanna view of many education leaders in that if we try hard enough for long enough we can all succeed, the myth of meritocracy prevails.  In reality children are born with a normal distribution of all features including their potential ‘learning achievement’.  This capacity to learn is reflected in the efficiency they can establish memories and their exposure to experiences!  That is, the child perceives a situation, tries an action and if that works ‘remember’ to do that next time the situation occurs.  When the child is motivated for whatever reason, the neurons in the brain try different combinations to generate the desired action that will result in satisfaction.  Eventually they come across one sequence that succeeds, this success motivates them to try again.  If this next attempt is also successful the pathway becomes stronger eventually being myalinated, coated with a sheath for efficiency and is stored as long-term memory – ‘neurons that fire together wire together’!   Nature is not a form of egalitarianism; some kids form these memories after a few exposures while others require a multitude of repetitions to make the connection! 

If you have taught mathematics you will have experienced this difference.  Some kids only have to be told once how to do a computation and they get it and remember it.  Sadly, I have experienced those beautiful kids who try, and try to learn for example, how to multiply fractions and by the end of the lesson they ‘get it’ but tomorrow, when they return to class ‘it’ has gone – much more work is needed for this to become a long-term memory.  This variation in the ability to form memories is expressed as a normal distribution when aggregated across the total population; most in the middle and fewer as we move away from the average.  Where any child finds themselves on this curve has nothing to do with their worth or character it is just their genetic inheritance.  So, if they are on the extreme they will have very different abilities through no fault of their own.  

But nurture is different in the sense that, unlike genetics the characteristics of the environment in which a child is raised is imposed on them.  They had no choice about who would be their primary ‘carer’.  Throughout these Newsletters we have discussed the importance of the developmental environment in the formation of behaviours (See Newsletters – ‘The Impact of Poverty and Neglect’ – 20th August, 2018 and ‘Poverty and Student Success’ - 19th November 2018).   We have focused on children who are raised in chaotic, unpredictable homes where the connection between what they try today that works will work when repeated because the parent’s response is different there is no consistent firing of networks to allow memories to develop. 

For this discussion we need to focus not on this deficit but describing the type of environment that will provide the best opportunity for the students to build a rich and varied neural architecture.  In the next few newsletters I will discuss these features in detail but for now they are:

  • Structure – all kids need to know what will happen when they act, this is how they construct their memories
  • Expectation – everyone needs to know what behaviours will create what outcomes.  This is like structure but is a shared quality between teacher and student.  We need to know what works to solve problems.
  • Lesson Content – I have proposed that in the first instance the ability to quickly create memories is a significant indicator of academic success.  The next characteristic is the assortment of those memories.  The richer and secure an environment is, the more memories are developed.  The more stored memories you have, the better equipped you are to solve new problems.

It is important to keep in mind student achievement is directly linked to:

  • Their genetic make-up
  • Their developmental environment

When considering issues around education I find a pictorial approach helps me think and draw conclusions, they are sort of thought experiments.  Below The following diagram I devised to illustrate the significance of these factors.  It is not critical to examine this for the points I want to make but I suspect some will find it helpful.

I have used an arbitrary measure for achievement (Units of Achievement) which allows for comparison.  I have chosen four students, S1, S2, S3 and S4 and they fall on either, extreme end of the curve.  In this set-up we have two born with very poor neural efficiency (S1 and S2) and they find memory formation extremely difficult.  S3 and S4 have been born with the natural ability to quickly form and retain memories.

We now take these students and raise them in environments that reflect the conditions at either end of the curve, one end extremely neglectful with no experiences that would at least stimulate the formation of memories.  At the other end these children are raised in a warm and secure family with a rich and varied set of experiences, they have plenty to form memories about.  To mix the starting points I have exposed S2 and S3 to the neglectful environment and S1 and S4 to the fertile environment.

Taking a scale of 100 Units of achievement for both nature and nurture in a perfect world a child could achieve 200 units.  For the illustration I have given them a position 5 Units inside the maximum, so for nature:

  • S1 and S2 get 5
  • S3 and S4 get 95
  • For nurture:
  • S2 and S3 get 5
  • S1 and S4 get 95

When you aggregate their scores:

  • S1, 5 + 95 = 100
  • S2, 5 + 5 = 10
  • S3, 95 + 5 = 10
  • S4, 95 + 95 = 180

It can be seen that there is a potential difference of 160 units of achievement for students, born with very poor cognitive abilities and raised in a very neglectful environment, to those who have been gifted with cognitive potential and raised in a highly supportive and fertile environment. 

The point we have to keep in mind is that no matter how a child is born it is their community, their family and school that makes a difference and it can be a big difference. None of these fictitious students had a choice in how they were born and what they were born into and their achievements at school are out of their control.  However, how the influence of the environment which impacts on the child’s achievements is the responsibility of our whole community.

It would be nice if governments recognised this reality and provided real support through pre-school, school and up to universities but we know how far this is from the reality schools face today.  So, again the task of helping those kids falls to the schools and for those with disabilities, linked to their nature it will be our public schools that bear the load.  I know we always rise to the occasion with the assets we have but just think how much more we could do if we were properly resourced?

Not doing so leads to a massive loss in human potential!

Posted by: AT 11:16 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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