Previous studies have shown that innate intelligence plays a big role, but the researchers wanted to address the influence of other genetically influenced traits, such as personality, health, and behavior problems. They found that intelligence played the largest role, but the other eight categories of factors were important, too—in fact, much more important than previously anticipated. “The main finding is that, although intelligence accounts for more of the heritability of GCSE [test scores] than any other single domain, the other domains collectively account for about as much GCSE heritability as intelligence,” the study authors write.
But Judy Johnson, an educational psychologist based near Los Angeles, thinks that the authors’ conclusions are overstated. Most people in the field of educational psychology subscribe to the theory of multiple intelligences, which can be inherited, Johnson admits. However, she adds, “In terms of achievement, attachment theory has much more to do with a student’s engagement with teachers, school, and cognition.” Through studies that have looked at students in school and beyond, researchers have found that those children that form bonds to some sort of caregiver are more successful in their academics, behavior and careers.
“I think it’s a stretch to say these elements are genetically heritable,” Johnson said of the study. “I would have broken down the term ‘intelligence’—what do the authors mean by that, and what were their markers for that?” For this study the researchers used the Raven’s Progressive Matrices and Vocabulary test, a standardized measure for IQ, to represent intelligence. They categorized other intelligences, like emotional and social intelligence, as the other factors that could influence academic performance.
When it comes to learning about science and math, people with certain types of intelligence, such as Logical-Mathematical and Visual-Spatial, have more natural aptitude. “For students that are not ‘gifted’ or naturally strong in these cognitive styles, good teachers know how to use strategies to capitalize on the other areas if intelligence” to teach these topics, Johnson said.
But even the study authors admit that genetics aren’t everything when it comes to education. “Heritability describes what is; it does not predict what could be,” Krapohl said. Students are naturally inclined to seek out the types of experiences and education that works the best with their genetic propensities, Krapohl said, which is “known in genetics as genotype–environment correlation.” This implies that, should students be presented with information in a variety of ways, they would be naturally drawn to the presentation style that makes the most sense to them.
The study authors suggest that their conclusions support the idea of personalized learning, “which has become more practical with rapid advances in technology and educational software, rather than a one-size-fits-all traditional education,” Kaili Rimfeld, a doctorate student in psychiatry and psychology at King’s College London and another of the study’s authors, wrote in an email. Personalized learning is a flexibly structured teaching method that can take place in a regular school setting or at home, often using computer software. The advantage of personalized learning is that students can learn concepts in the way that makes the most sense to them without frustrating themselves by trying to learn in a way that feels more foreign.