Precision education

What could the future of teaching and learning look like?
Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau
Illustration: Mrzyk & Moriceau for BOLD

The implementation of individualised educational practices will depend on discussions between policymakers, educational institutions, and society.

Investigating the role of genes in education is controversial. There is concern that this information will lead to testing children for genetic risk factors and grouping them according to their predetermined abilities, potentially restricting their development. For some children, could this mean an assumed limit to their level of attainment and a consequent reduction in the help provided?

Scientists who investigate the genetic, brain-based, psychological, or environmental components of learning do not do so to hold individuals back or to reduce the level of attention invested in them. Instead, the aim is to find out as much as possible about learning, in order to accommodate successful learning tailored to an individual’s needs. Accepting that children have different strengths and difficulties and uncovering their multi-faceted bases may lead to individualised educational provision in the future.

“The aim is to find out as much as possible about learning, in order to accommodate successful learning tailored to an individual’s needs.”

Such a tailored system of teaching and learning is termed ‘precision education’. This term follows the recent push for precision medicine, whereby medical treatments and preventions are based on a range of individual factors. The goal of precision medicine is to use all the available evidence to provide the best possible care for an individual. Knowing somebody’s risk of a certain disease would enable early prevention strategies and suitable treatments; there is no suggestion that those at risk of disease would be left to suffer without help.

Similarly, knowing potential genetic factors related to learning should not lead to denying a high standard of education to a child at high risk of a learning disorder. To ensure the appropriate use of this information, ongoing discussions between stakeholders will be essential.

“Knowing potential genetic factors related to learning should not lead to denying a high standard of education to a child at high risk of a learning disorder.”

We are currently a long way off from having the kinds of information needed to realise precision education. But the groundwork has started. Educational neuroscience is building an understanding of the science behind learning and teaching through the convergence of multiple disciplines and fruitful collaborations with educators. Evidence is being gathered from a diverse set of fields, which will eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the mechanisms involved in learning.

The study of genetics is part of this investigation. Rather than something to be feared, our understanding of genes is simply another part of the puzzle in the science of learning. Children are already often grouped according to their likely abilities – through selective schools or sets within year groups and classes. With greater knowledge, alternative groupings might become more accurate in determining a child’s likely level of scholastic abilities. Thus, the general aim of grouping would be to improve learning rather than to limit possibilities.

“The general aim of grouping would be to improve learning rather than to limit possibilities.”

However, it is important to note that precision education does not necessitate grouping in this manner. Children could remain in mixed ability classes but be provided materials that are suitable for their own needs. In this evidence-based individualised learning scenario, a child’s learning input would change as their aptitude changes, such that any grouping or materials would not be restrictive, but allow for growth.

Some scientists argue that there is a moral duty to find out as much as possible about learning in order to give everyone the best chance. How the education system moves forward with that information is part of a wider discussion involving policymakers, drawing on what is realistic given the school context, and what is desired by society.

As the appetite for evidence-based practice increases, the future of teaching and learning may well be personalised education that takes into account a host of factors about the individual, and this should not be seen as a negative progression: the potential benefits could be profound. These benefits will be expanded upon in a later post, but the most compelling may be early interventions for those with particular difficulties, such as a learning disorder.

“How the education system moves forward with that information is part of a wider discussion involving policymakers, drawing on what is realistic given the school context, and what is desired by society.”

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