A biosocial view on precision education

We need a conversation about genetics, neuroscience and precision education
Diego Fernandes, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Diego Fernandes, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

The idea of precision education based on students’ genetic and neural data is controversial. The biological and brain sciences have long troubled social scientists. Recent interest in the genetic factors involved in learning, and the growth of educational neuroscience, also concerns many education researchers and educators. For example, the potential for genetic data to reproduce ‘dangerous ideas about the genetic heritability of intelligence’ has generated heated debate.

For these reasons, ideas published on BOLD blog about the potential of precision education and the gathering of detailed learner data are likely to be of critical interest to social science researchers in education.

The premise of precision education is that the sciences of genes, neurology, behaviour and psychology, as well as environmental factors, can be combined in order to provide insights into learning processes.  It relies on complex computer programs to process these data and define how learning inputs and materials can be organized and personalized to suit each individual.

Precision education raises critical points from a social scientific perspective.

First, the sciences of genetics and neuroscience are the subject of detailed social scientific studies cautioning that contemporary science on epigenetics and neuroplasticity often appears to treat the brain and body as malleable and able to be ‘rewired’ and ‘recoded.’

“Contemporary science on epigenetics and neuroplasticity often appears to treat the brain and body as malleable and able to be ‘rewired’ and ‘recoded.’”

Second, the scientific view that biology is socially manipulable has led to political preoccupations with the idea that human life can be purposely directed for predefined political, economic or moral purposes. This raises questions about impressing political aspirations upon the genes and brains of human beings.

And third, precision education appears dependent on a vast technical machinery of data analysis. Efforts to build personalized learning platforms that process student data are already the subjects of detailed critical research, raising concerns about data privacy and protection. Add genetic and neural data to these systems, and the ethical stakes of personalizing learning becomes a matter of serious controversy.

“Add genetic and neural data to these systems, and the ethical stakes of personalizing learning becomes a matter of serious controversy.”

Precision education is also related to questionable ambitions to ‘quantify the human condition’ through database technology, which risks reducing human behaviours, emotions and thinking into patterns of information.

Some BOLD readers will respond that social science does not adequately understand the science or aims of genetics and neuroscience in education. This is probably true, though an increasing number of educational researchers are working to get beyond simplistic critical reactions to new biological thinking. Likewise, social scientific approaches in education research are unlikely to be familiar to those whose focus is on genetic factors or educational neuroscience.

“Rather than rehearsing old social/biological divisions, a more productive approach to the potential and consequences of precision education is to forge new disciplinary connections.”

Rather than rehearsing old social/biological divisions, a more productive approach to the potential and consequences of precision education is to forge new disciplinary connections. Such an approach would take both biological and social scientific ideas and concerns seriously, taking inspiration from emerging ‘biosocial’ research in educational sociology.

Developing genuine interdisciplinary links to do biosocial education studies will not be easy. However, if genes and brains are permeable to social and environmental influence, then issues raised by precision education and other pedagogies focused on genetic and neural data would be best addressed collectively across the social and biological sciences.

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