Madeleine King, SBS News, March 15, 2016
Australian research into the academic performance of twins in NAPLAN tests has revealed that skills in maths, reading and spelling are up to 75 per cent genetic.
Genetics also had a 50 per cent impact on writing skills.
In stark contrast, the influence of teachers and schools on students was only found to be around 5 per cent, when looking at why children performed better or worse than their peers.
The research has been conducted by Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne and colleagues at the Centre of Excellence for Cognition and its Disorders, and the University of New England.
Byrne is a guest on this week’s episode of Insight, sharing his views on how research into twins can deepen our understanding of the general population.
The research will shortly be published in full, with much of the peer review process complete. Some parts of the study have already been published.
Byrne and his colleagues were allowed access to around 3000 sets of twins and were able to look at their academic performance in literacy and numeracy NAPLAN tests in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
The results were surprising.
Families, teachers and schools had a much more modest contribution when explaining the difference in academic performance of children in the same grade or class.
The majority of difference between students’ abilities in literacy and numeracy were instead attributable to their genetic make-up.
Writing skills were the least influenced by genetics–only about 50 per cent.
Genetic influences on reading, spelling and mathematics abilities were found to be between 50-75 per cent.
The findings back up earlier research done in the UK.
“Genes are the things that are, for the most part, driving differences among children, and not different teachers or even different schools,” Byrne told Insight’s Jenny Brockie, during filming of the show’s feature on twins.
Byrne says his findings “undermine the idea that a really, really big player in how well children are doing is teacher qualifications and a teacher’s education.”
He stresses that the research does not show teachers’ influence is negligible; rather, it shows they are uniformly well-trained and high-performing, keeping students’ academic performance at national standards regardless of which teacher children are given or which school they go to.
“Teachers really matter,” he reiterates.
“The reason why a child knows more at the end of a school day than they did at the beginning is because of the work the teachers do.”
“I think it’s good news for teachers that within this country the quality of training is similar enough and good enough to produce rather even-handed effects on the children who are your charges.”
Byrne says the findings are important “for the education system to understand that genes matter”, but cautions against being pessimistic about genetic predisposition.
Chris Watt, Federal Secretary of the Independent Teachers Union, says this kind of research confirms what teachers have known for a long time: that some children are born with advantages, when others are not, and there needs to be greater resources that allow them to factor those differences into their teaching.
“At the end of the day, a school can only do so much,” he says.
“There’s a whole of lot things that need to be right for kids to be learning properly. We have to pay attention to those issues before they step foot inside a school.”
He’s confident educators will be able to adapt their practice to these sorts of results, however.
“Teachers are always changing the way they go about teaching, picking up new skills and strategies,” he says.
“My guess is experienced teachers have developed good ways to adjust the curriculum for students who start out weaker in a subject.”
“But my guess, too, is that most feel that if they had more time and back-up they could accomplish this even more convincingly.”
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and the Australian Education Union (AEU) were also contacted for comment.
Byrne says the involvement of twins in his research has been incredibly important.
“They are the perfect natural experiment. We use their data to extrapolate across the wider population.”
Because twins almost always share the same environment going up, and a large portion of their genes, comparing their differences and similarities can tell us much about whether certain behaviours and abilities are the product of nature or nurture.
For example, he found that twins–whether identical or fraternal–performed equally as similar to one another even when they were in different classes and schools.
Insight guest and school principal Jennifer Lawrence–herself a twin–said she found this to be the case when looking at her twin daughters’ academic results.
“When Abbie and Emily were in Year 3 they were separated for the first time,” she says.
“I had this terrible feeling that I would be disadvantaging one over the other because maybe one would get a better teacher than the other, but their NAPLAN results were almost identical in that year.”