Blackboards without a Blank Slate

The most obvious thing in the world to educators is how different kids are from one another. Indeed, the beginning-of-the-year faculty meetings in practically any school in the country, even the most racially or economically homogenous, are more likely to focus on these differences than on practically any other aspect of education. “Personalized learning,” “differentiated instruction,” and “competency-based education” are malleable enough terms to stretch across the vast differences in abilities, interests, and personalities that are supposed to cram into the same classrooms, learn the same curriculum, and (apart from students with IEPs, and sometimes even then) take the same standardized tests.

Over the next few decades, the rapid progress in genetic research will probably and definitively make many of these differences among children attributable to genes in clear and unambiguous ways. What then?

Educators are, by their nature and by their choice of profession, committed to the prospect that individual opportunity and effort are the main determinants of success, and almost all teachers, even relatively cynical or pessimistic ones, would be loathe to attribute kids’ challenges or failures to genes. In ten years of teaching, I heard a lot from my colleagues about culture, poverty, uninvested parents, poor messages from the media, and self-defeating policies or curriculum. I don’t know that I heard genes as an explanation for anything but profound visible disability even once.

But it’s possible that will change, that eventually a core of scientific findings will make their way to educators and be accepted. My guess would be that the most likely avenue for this acceptance would be to highlight the possibility of making “genome-based learning” a reality: they’ll all learn Algebra II if we just know their As and Ts and Cs and Gs.

But I’m skeptical that such genetic personalization would, in general, lead to much improvement in educational practice or results, and not just because some curriculum may be a poor fit for some kids, regardless of how it is adapted to their learning style, and not just because almost anything dressed up in educational buzzwords is sure to fail.

Frank Smith, the journalist turned psycholinguist, wrote a short but quite profound book called The Book of Learning and Forgetting, where he contrasts what he calls the “classic view of learning” with “the official view.” The official view treats learning as work, the classic view says we learn “from the company we keep.” As Wikipedia puts it:

The classical view holds that people are constantly and effortlessly learning through immersion in a social community and its practices, and that this process of learning is universal. The official view suggests that learning requires effort, and that it only occurs when a student is being presented with the information. Standardized testing is closely associated with the official view.

Smith details the way in which the official view has gained acceptance despite its many negative results.

The fundamental challenge to any attempt at personalization within a classroom, genetically informed or otherwise, is that it makes more difficult the already extremely difficult challenge that all schools face: making the skills the school wants to impart (the readin’ and ‘ritin and ‘rithmetic, along with science and social studies and drivers’ ed) part of the school’s social community and its practices, the shared body of ritual and collective experiences that determine what kids actually learn.


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