Genes rather than (shared) environment contribute to family resemblance in academic motivation

A new study by Kovas et al. published in Personality and Individual Differences examined data from 13000 twins between 9 and 16 years old in 6 countries (UK, Canada, Russia, Japan, US and Germany). The study looked at the reasons why children differ in their motivation to learn, or to put it more correct, to examine “…the relative contribution of genetic and environmental factors to individual differences in enjoyment and self-perceived ability as a function of cultural and educational settings.”

The answers in short:

  • Genes rather than environment contribute to family resemblance in academic motivation.
  • Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation
  • Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.
  • Attending same versus different classes did not affect twin similarity in motivation.
  • Results are similar across ages, countries and academic subjects.

Actually, the conclusions are quite – what shall I say – devastating?

Considering the striking consistency of these results across different aspects of academic motivation, different subjects, different ages, and different cultures, we believe that it is time to move away from solely environmental explanations, such as “good” or “bad” home, teacher, and school, for differences in enjoyment and self-perceived ability. The results convincingly show that, contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence are no less heritable than cognitive ability. Surprisingly, unlike cognitive ability, for which shared environment makes a small to moderate contribution across the school years, no such contribution was found for these motivational constructs.

On the other hand, if I look at some research on wellbeing in school from Flanders, they also describe how the wellbeing is being inherited from outside school. I want to add this plea that concludes the article: “the present research suggests that many true effects may be masked within any class or home, and that individual-specific educational approaches are required.”

Abstract of the study:

Little is known about why people differ in their levels of academic motivation. This study explored the etiology of individual differences in enjoyment and self-perceived ability for several school subjects in nearly 13,000 twins aged 9–16 from 6 countries. The results showed a striking consistency across ages, school subjects, and cultures. Contrary to common belief, enjoyment of learning and children’s perceptions of their competence were no less heritable than cognitive ability. Genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation. Shared environmental factors, such as home or classroom, did not contribute to the twin’s similarity in academic motivation. Environmental influences stemmed entirely from individual specific experiences.

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