Gene Genius

I’ve just been reading a new book about how genes influence children’s academic performance. G is for Genes (Wiley Blackwell) is written by Kathryn Asbury, a lecturer in educational psychology and Robert Plomin, a behavioural geneticist, and is based on a long-running study of both identical and non-identical twins. This controversial volume provides a lot of food for thought for anyone involved in any aspect of education.

Asbury and Plomin offer a very different view of human potential to that put forward by those who claim that anyone (barring physical limitations) can achieve mastery in a specific field with 10,000 hours deep practice.

Their view is that different people have different abilities based on their genetic makeup, and that those abilities follow the normal distribution, although what they achieve is based partly on external factors. The first half of the book outlines the results of their research, while the second half outlines their proposals for how the education system could be reformed.

Based on their researches, they believe that learning should be personalised. The national curriculum should only cover the basic skills of reading, writing, numeracy and ICT. Beyond that, children of secondary school age should be able to choose what they study. The larger schools are, the more choice their pupils will have. “For instance, a child with a developing talent or interest in music, game design, sport, history, astronomy, or art should be able to use some of the school day to develop their interest or talent further, and should be able to access resources and (ideally) a teacher who can help them to develop their particular interests and talents…” No doubt the authors would be happy to include chess in their list. Genetics could be used to identify children who might have a talent or interest in chess.

Asbury and Plomin also propose that extracurricular activities should take place on school sites so that all parents have easy access to high quality private lessons in music, sport, arts, and, we might add, chess. Vouchers would be available for less affluent families so that all children will have the opportunity to achieve their potential in these fields.

Another recommendation is that all schools should provide a weekly Thinking Skills session for every child designed to boost their IQ. This will involve Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning puzzles and philosophy exercises. No doubt you could also include some activities based on chess as well if you wanted to.

So there you have it. In Asbury and Plomin’s school of the future genetic profiling will be used to identify children’s strengths and weaknesses. Chess will be available as an on-site extracurricular activity and perhaps also on the curriculum for children who are interested, and schools will also be able to identify children who are likely to be good at the game. Chess could also be used in a non-competitive way as part of a Thinking Skills course in the classroom.

I like a lot of their ideas, but there are one or two things I’m slightly uneasy about. What do you think? Better still, go away and read the whole book for yourself first.

Next week I’ll look at another recent book on education which makes some very different proposals.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy ( or and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities ( as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.