An excited and caring Headteacher from the West Midlands was almost at the end of a training programme with the 21st Century Learning Initiative. She had listened to John Abbott, discussed the implication of the synthesis of what we now know about learning from diverse fields of research and begun to map out “next steps” with her colleagues. Then someone had asked the question “How can we have allowed English education to get so far away from what goes with the grain of the brain?” Her response was “We seem to be suffering from ‘Learned Helplessness’.” Can helpless become a part of us as surely as a genetic mutation, passed on from generation to generation? An Australian teacher working with children affected by trauma saw changes within the community which made her ask a different question. Can the rapidly expanding field of epigenetics, help us to understand these changes in mind? Can it tell us what to do?
Epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in genome function that occur without a change in DNA sequence, the field which bridges the gap between nature and nurture. Some 50 years since Watson and Crick published the three dimensional structure of the DNA double helix, the encoding of hereditary characteristics within DNA is popularly accepted and trusted well beyond the boundaries of science. Yet we seem to be more than the sum of our genes and gene-centric theories of evolution are limited in their scope. DNA, the genetic blueprint, is just the tape carrying a huge amount of information, like a musical score waiting to be interpreted and played.
The science of epigenetics is rapidly discovering what plays our genetic score and it seems that performances can change dramatically from generation to generation without any change in the DNA function. As the hundreds of different kinds of cells within our bodies develop, their fate is determined by the switching on or off of the 30,000 or so genes which make up the human genome. Epigenetic factors allow genetic material to respond to changing environmental conditions.
Thinking about the balance between nature and nurture has become popular with the current television series “The Making of Me” in which we have seen John Barrowman, Colin Jackson and Vanessa Mae examining the influences upon their lives. Each has concluded that it is “nature via nurture”, (as Matt Ridley would put it), that has made one gay, another a record-breaking athlete and the third a celebrated musician. A fascinated television audience has begun to wonder how each of us has developed.
Some 300 or more years BC intelligent Greeks were asking those same questions. Hippocrates thought we inherited parts from each of our parents. Aristotle believed that we developed from unformed blobs within our mothers. In the 17th century, inspired by Aristotle, William Harvey became convinced from his dissections of deer and chicks that embryos developed gradually from an egg. In 1865, somewhere on a quiet hillside in Austria a monk was planting peas and watching how characteristics were passed on from plant to plant. Gregor Mendel, laid down the rules of inheritance which are the basis of genetics today.
As early as 1942 Conrad Waddington coined the term epigenetics for the interplay between genetic information and the environment. Watson and Grick described the structure of DNA, hereditary genetic material, in 1953. The gene sequencing revolution began in earnest in the 1980s but in the 1990s we came to understand that we are more than the sum of our gene sequence. It is in the last 20 years that Epigenetics has been developed. An understanding of epimutations has opened up new fields of understanding of the consequences of genes switching on and off “from the splash of purple on a petunia petal to the growth of cancerous tumours.” Evolutionary and developmental biology are being revolutionized and the ripples felt from medicine to agriculture.
But what about the development of children and learning and the affects of trauma and the changing patterns of home life upon them? What about the results of years of top-down instruction to schools which has rendered many teachers unable to think creatively about other ways forward? Learned Helplessness.
It seems that nature provides the raw material, the musical score, while nurture provides the environment within which the genes are switched on or off, the players and instruments of the orchestra. A wealth of material is coming out of the subject of epigenetics but when those like the Australian teacher ask “What can you scientists tell us teachers to do?” there is complete silence. Are we passing on to other generations “Learned helplessness”? Epigenetics is “all the weird and wonderful things that cannot be explained by genetics” (Denise Barlow, Vienna), the field that bridges the gap between nature and nurture, so isn’t it time we began to widen its application? If scientists would consider its implications for Education and the preparation of young people for a stressful and rapidly changing world we might be ready to face the person who said “Knowing what we now know about the human brain and learning, we cannot do nothing about it.” Then learning, in school, home and community, balanced like the three legged stool, may begin to follow “the grain of the brain”.
Janet M. Lawley is a fellow of the 21st Century Initiative