Is It Nature or Nurture That Makes Kids Love School?

Adam Sandler sitting at a desk in a class for children in a scene from the film 'Billy Madison', 1995. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
Photo: Universal Pictures

What makes an individual kid like school and want to do well in the classroom? Is it the fact that their parents instilled in them a love of learning? A high-energy, engaging teacher? Or other, less easily observed factors? According to a new study in Personality and Individual Differences, genetics play a pretty large role — and environmental factors may matter less than people think.

For the study, the authors, led by Yulia Kovas of Goldsmiths, University of London, aggregated the results of a bunch of past research on both identical and nonidentical twins, with 13,000 twins in all, from six countries. Twin studies are a classic way for researchers to untangle “nature/nurture” questions. When two humans have the exact same genes, as identical twins do, then any differences that arise between them can be chalked up entirely to nongenetic factors like their home or school environment. (Including nonidentical twins, who only share as much DNA as normal siblings, is a useful way to further analyze the roles played by genetic and environmental influences.)

The studies in question had kids between 9 and 16 years of age fill out surveys that primarily gauged two things: how motivated they were in the classroom, and how much academic ability they thought they had. After analyzing the results, the researchers found that “genetic factors explained approximately 40% of the variance and all of the observed twins’ similarity in academic motivation.”

To the researchers, their results are a strong indication that some people are thinking about certain educational issues the wrong way:

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 (Olson et al., 2014). 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 (Greven et al., 2009). Surprisingly, unlike cognitive ability, for which shared environment makes a small to moderate contribution across the school years (Petrill et al., 2004), no such contribution was found for these motivational constructs.

In almost every instance of human beings doing human things, both nature and nurture play some role — it’s rarely an either/or thing. But while the authors urge caution in interpreting any study on the role of genetics — a fraught and complicated subject — they do think their research is a blow to the idea that shared environments, whether home or school, are going to have much of an effect in boosting kids’ academic motivation. Rather, they write, it may be the case that “individual-specific educational approaches are required.”

Does Nature or Nurture Make Kids Love School?