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Precision medicine: parallels in education?

Image for Precision medicine blogWe were discussing a recent blog on Farnam Street titled 'Our Genes and Our Behavior'. The author, through an interview or discussion with renowned psychologist Robert Plomin, makes some interesting conjectures regarding educators and the use of genetics in education. It was suggested that it might be possible in the future to “sequence a baby’s genome and predict to a certain extent their reading level, facility with math, facility with social interaction”. He makes this assertion based on the “general recognition that genes do indeed influence behavior and do have predictive power as far as how children perform.” But he says “So far, the track record on getting educators to see that it’s all quite real is pretty bad.” He laments the fact that “teachers get no training in genetics” and he goes on to say “Education is the last backwater of anti-genetic thinking. I want to get people in education talking about genetics because the evidence for genetic influence is overwhelming. You go to educational conferences and it’s as if genetics does not exist.”

I had several reactions to this blog.

First, I could see apparent similarities to what has been said about personalized medicine [also known as precision medicine]. At Genome Alberta we have written about personalized medicine several times in the past. For example, here is a link to a Gerry’s Gene Scene video, a primer about personalized medicine. Even though a great deal of progress has been made in personalized medicine, there will continue to be issues. A recent article by Mike Orcutt points out several of the reasons that precision medicine won’t happen for years because “for starters, it’s too expensive and the science isn’t advanced enough.”

In medicine, there are research teams world-wide investigating genome-wide association, sequencing cancer cells and examining drug interactions. Can you imagine this level of research into an individual’s reading level, facility with math, or facility with social interaction?

My strongest reaction to this blog related to my own experience in the classroom. During my career working with secondary school students, I had access to thick files full of achievement and IQ test scores as well as a plethora of other information and anecdotal reports. Did I look at these? No, not very often and here is why: I learned early in my career that teachers’ assessments could be unduly influenced by their perception of an individual student’s IQ score. I always felt that I wanted to measure actual student achievement and help each student reach a level of success.

Lesson plans need to be open-ended to address individual learning styles, but if students are to become prepared for the real world, they need to be exposed and adapt to a variety of teaching styles as well. Although there is a similarity of using genetics to prescribe precise medications or precise lesson plans, another name will need to be used in the future since the terms ‘precision education’ and ‘personalized education’ have been already used for other educational designs. That may be a problem that does not need to be decided for a generation or two. As much as I read about science and education, I don’t think that I will be reading about teachers including students’ genome sequences in their lesson plans for some time to come whether they learn about genetics at teacher conferences or not.

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Precision medicine: parallels in education?

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