Many of us had certain subjects that we excelled at in high school, and others that we just scraped by in. English and the humanities can feel so at odds with science and maths in terms of how we respond to them in school, and it’s easy to assume you’re a natural at languages and were never meant to be a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) genius, or vice versa. But new research into the genetics of academic ability suggests that the same genes are responsible for a range of subjects, from mathematics to art.
"We found that academic achievement in English, mathematics, science, humanities, second languages, and art were all affected by the same genes," lead researcher and geneticist Robert Plomin from King’s College London told Hannah Devlin at The Guardian. "People may think that they’re good at one subject and bad at another, but in reality most people are strikingly consistent."
Plomin and his team analysed genetic data from 12,500 twins in the UK and compared this with their final GCSE scores - like the HSC in Australia, or the SAT exams in the US. Half the twins were identical, which means they share 100 percent of their DNA, and half were fraternal, sharing only 50 percent of their genes. This allowed the researchers to figure out to what extent a person’s genes affected certain aspects of their life - in this case, their academic performance.
Performance in all subjects, including English, art, the humanities, science, and maths, were assessed, and the team found that they were all highly heritable, and differences between the children could be explained far more by their genes - 54 to 65 percent - than environmental factors, such as the home and school environment, which accounted for 14 to 21 percent of the differences.
The scientists expected to see greater differences in academic achievement across all subjects in the fraternal twins than in the identical twins, and the data bore this out. They also found that natural intelligence isn’t enough for some people to excel, as Hannah Devlin explains at The Guardian: "When the scientists factored in IQ scores, they found that intelligence appeared to account for slightly less than half of the genetic component, suggesting that other heritable traits - curiosity, determination, and memory, perhaps - play a significant role."
The scientists are yet to figure out which genes are involved, but what would be more valuable in terms of giving students the best education would be to figure out which environmental factors have the most significant effects on academic achievement, and which traits in particular should be fostered. The results have been published in journal Scientific Reports.
"For the first time, we found that these general genetic effects on academic achievement remained even when the effects of general intelligence were removed," one of the team, Kaili Rimfeld from the King’s College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, said in a press release. "We also found that over half of the differences between children's educational achievement for all of these disciplines was explained by inherited differences in their DNA, rather than school, family, and other environmental influences."
As we gain better insight into what makes a student excel where others fail, hopefully we can apply this learning to our education systems. As Fiona MacDonald reported for us earlier this year, research into how children learn has seen schools in Finland embark on one of the most radical overhauls in modern education - ditching individual subjects for overall topics:
"Instead of having an hour of geography followed by an hour of history, students will now spend, say, two hours learning about the European Union, which covers languages, economics, history and geography. Or students who are taking a vocational course might study 'cafeteria services', which would involve learning maths, languages and communication skills."
We can't wait to see how this goes. Being a teenager is hard enough without having to suffer through the challenges of an education system that doesn't suit everyone. We'd love to see more research-backed innovations like this.