The ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ debate holds in several areas of psychology and refers to the question of whether our genes (‘nature’) determine attributes such as intelligence or language aptitude or whether such attributes can be acquired and improved through experience (‘nurture’). The outcome is of great importance for educators since education – together with parental influence – is the main source of experiential learning (Bulmer 2003). In this essay, the concept will be explained based on my own experience and academic research.
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Historically, the nature vs. nurture debate began with the publication of Galton’s (1869) study in which he promoted inherited ability in the faculties of thinking and learning. On the same side of the argument, the more recent work by Herrnstein and Murray (1994) was significant in arguing that intelligence is, at least to some extent, inherited.
The theory is based on the assumption that aptitude is dominant in learning and that it is mainly hereditary. Therefore, the aim of education is to separate the naturally able from the less able and to provide each group of students with programs adapted to their talents. In other words, schools should function as if the ‘Bell Curve’ is a natural phenomenon that must be obtained in all learning results and that effort makes little difference (Resnick 1995: 55-62).
IQ tests are there to spread students out on a scale rather than to define what each one should actually work at learning. Teachers assign grades believing that – if everyone were to get an A or B – standards must be too low (and not that uniformly high grades mean everyone worked hard and managed to learn what was taught).
In my high school years, I certainly witnessed how belief in inherited aptitude was self-fulfilling. Students who were held to low expectations did not try to break through that barrier but often accepted the idea that aptitude is what matters and that they have not inherited enough of it – and their performance stayed low.
On the ‘nurture’ side of the argument is the theory of learning behind most educational practices today, based on the work of Thorndike (Faulkner 1998). Thorndike developed practical learning tools (textbooks, tests, curricula, and teacher training) in the belief that knowledge consists of a collection of bonds i.e. links between pairs of mental entities or between an external stimulus and an internal mental response. Learning is just trying to change the strengths of the bonds i.e. increasing the strength of ‘correct’ bonds and decreasing the strength of ‘incorrect’ ones.
In practice, correct bonds are strengthened by rewards, and incorrect ones are weakened through punishment or withholding rewards and create a system where the ‘stamping in’ of correct bonds and the ‘stamping out’ of incorrect ones is enhanced. In my experience, whenever teachers used positive feedback to create ‘enjoyment’ in the learning environment it certainly motivated me to work harder.
Recent evidence from developmental biology claims to have resolved the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ issue and what this might mean for education practice. According to the Education Commission of the States (1996), research on brain development provides insight for improving the education of young children. The Carnegie Corporation (1994) highlights the fact that the environment affects not only the number of brain cells and the number of connections between them but also the way they are ‘wired’ and evidence points to the negative impact of early stress (a ‘nurture’ factor) on brain function (Carnegie Corporation 1994: 2)
While the brain connections developed before birth are vital, their main purpose is biological and it is during the child’s first months and years of growth and development that nature and nurture combine until they become ‘intertwined and inseparable’ (Simmons & Sheehan 1997: 6).
At birth, the brain has around 100 billion neurons, which then link together in over 50 trillion synapses (Begley 1997). Afterward – especially in the first three years of life – the brain goes through a number of important changes. Over this period, many more connections among neurons are created than the brain can ever use. Over time, the connections that are rarely or never used disappear (Nash 1997). However, which connections are eliminated is not predetermined and the way in which a child is raised affects how the brain chooses to wire itself for life (Simmons & Sheehan 1997).
I have always believed that children should be encouraged to take advantage of the various windows of opportunity presented to them for healthy development. The research above shows that a child’s brain development suffers if the child is denied the opportunity to live in a stimulating environment. In other words, the research stresses the positive effects of active parenting – something I believe in very strongly – in order to provide children with stimulating experiences (Nash 1997).
In conclusion, this essay has explained the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ issue providing arguments and evidence for the primacy of both inheritance and environment in learning and thinking. Each side leads to a different approach to education. If we accept the primacy of inheritance, this gives rise to the streaming of students based on their ‘aptitudes’ as revealed by their scores in, for example, IQ tests. Each stream is then taught at a level suitable for their supposed inherited aptitude.
On the other hand, the primacy of the environment leads to education based on ‘associationist’ learning achieved through effort, motivation, and rewards. Recent evidence from developmental biology clearly points to the greater importance of ‘nurture’ in preparing children successfully for thinking and learning. The more stimulating, enjoyable, and interesting we can make their environment, the more they will learn.
Begley, S. “Your child’s brain.” Newsweek 127.8 (1996): 55-61.
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Begley, S. “How to build a baby’s brain.” Newsweek 129 (1997): 28-32.
Black, P. “Dreams, Strategies and Systems: portraits of assessment past, present and future.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 8.1 (2001): 65-85.
Bulmer, M. Francis Galton: Pioneer of Heredity and Biometry. John Hopkins University Press. 2003.
Carnegie Corporation. “Starting points: Meeting the needs of our youngest children.” Corporation of New York. 1994. Web.
Education Commission of the States. “Brain research and education: Bridging the gap between neuroscience & education.” 1996. Web.
Faulkner, D. Learning Relationships in the Classroom. London: Routledge. 1998.
Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius, Its Laws and Consequences. London: Macmillan. 1869.
Herrnstein, R. J., and Murray, C. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press. 1996.
Nash, J. M. “Fertile minds.” Time 149.5 (1997): 48-56.
Resnick, L. Education and Learning to Think Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 2009.
Simmons, T., & Sheehan, R. “Brain research manifests importance of first years” The News & Observer. 1997. Web.