Julie Schmidt
1531026
EdHD 5003
Summer 2005
Individual Differences: genes and the environment
For a long time, the “nature/nurture” debate has been predicated on the belief that
nature and nurture were diametrically opposed explanations for a child’s developmental
outcome.1 Nature refers to the genetic contribution to a child’s phenotype, and nurture refers to
an experiential or environmental contribution. One feature of this debate had been the
underlying assumption that children were passive recipients of care and culture. As researchers
began to consider new situations, the divisions in this debate began to blur. For example, while
language may be a human universal encoded into our genome, children do not learn language
until they hear it spoken in their environment.2 Additionally, behavioral biology shows us that
environment and genetics are closely intertwined. Thus, while some researchers still contend
that developmental outcomes are the result of either genetics or environment, the modern
“nature/nurture” debate is just as much about how they impact one another to produce
outcomes.
One aspect of this debate which impacts teachers is that, regardless of genetic
inheritance, children require a “sufficiently supportive environment” to develop normally.3 While
this situation is most frequently discussed in terms of children raised in Eastern European
orphanages, children who come from troubled and unsupportive environments will have
difficulties in the classroom. Research done by the International Adoption Clinic at the University
of Minnesota has shown that, for a large range of children from various genetic backgrounds, all
experience a developmental delay of approximately one month for every three to four months
1
Rodgerson R. Development and Individual Differences in Educational Contexts. College of Education and Human Development.
Class notes, 25 July 2005.
2
Ibid
3
Scarr S. “Developmental theories for the 1990s.” Child Development. 1992; 63: p.3.
they spend in an orphanage.4 This knowledge is also important because it instructs the teacher
in an appropriate response, to provide a stimulating, supportive, and structured classroom to the
greatest degree possible. This will in turn foster resilience, an adaptation to and ability to
overcome environmental challenges, in those children with the innate capability to do so.5
Another important aspect to this debate is the question over the contribution of genetics
and environment to learning disabilities. Plomin and DeFries give the example of dyslexia,
which has a genetic component demonstrated by a higher correlation of identical twins both
having the disorder compared to fraternal twins.6 There is also an environmental component
demonstrated by the higher frequency of dyslexia observed in English-speaking countries and
Italy, for example, where written words more consistently resemble the sound of those words.7
The classroom significance is that, for something which has long been considered a cognitive
problem, and may contribute to frustration and poor self-esteem in a student, can be positively
addressed by altering the environment. Enrolling these students in a foreign language, for
example, where words match their sounds, may greatly enhance the student’s learning
experience.
In conclusion, it will be important in my classroom to remember that while developmental
outcomes for children in sufficiently supportive environments are predictable, there are social
and cognitive ways children can live outside of that range, and that there are ways that I, as a
teacher, can structure my classroom and support that student to maximize their developmental
outcomes.
Bibliography
Lofy L, & Dole K. “Internationally Adopted Children: Information for Parents and Educators.” Helping Children at Home and School
II: Handouts for Families and Educators. S7-44
5
Masten AS, & Coatsworth JD. “The Development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments.” American
Psychologist. 1998; 53: 206, 212-3.
6
Plomin R, & DeFries JC. “The genetics of cognitive abilities and disabilities.” Scientific American. 1998; 278(5): 62-9.
7 Rodgerson R. Development and Individual Differences in Educational Contexts. College of Education and Human Development.
Class notes, 25 July 2005.
4
Lofy L, & Dole K. “Internationally Adopted Children: Information for Parents and
Educators.” Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators.
Obtained from < http://www.peds.umn.edu/iac/pdf/IAC%20for%20Parents%20and%20Educators.pdf >
7/27/05. S7-43 – S7-47
Masten AS, & Coatsworth JD. “The Development of competence in favorable and
unfavorable environments.” American Psychologist. 1998; 53: 205-220.
Plomin R, & DeFries JC. “The genetics of cognitive abilities and disabilities.” Scientific
American. 1998; 278(5): 62-9.
Rodgerson R. Development and Individual Differences in Educational Contexts. College
of Education and Human Development. Class notes, July 2005.
Scarr S. “Developmental theories for the 1990s.” Child Development. 1992; 63: 1-19.
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Nature-Nurture - University of Minnesota Twin Cities